A SOJOURNER’S VIEW: Book Review: “Grace Upon Grace”

A Book Review:
Title of coffee table book: GRACE UPON GRACE: The Story of the Missionary Sisters of Mary
Edited by Sr. Evelia A Lunio, MSM and Ms. Pamela R. Castrillo
Layout design: Igy Castrillo for Blue Iguana Computer Consultancy Services
2021

There are coffee table books and coffee table books, but only a few deserve to be reviewed as a book. One undeniable fact is that most coffee table books are only a matter of interest to the group or institution sponsoring its publication, mostly to serve as souvenirs to keep the memories intact.

Thus, only those belonging to such a group or institution – whose photos naturally appear on the pages of the souvenir publication – are interested to scan through the pages. Mostly, these thick books just occupy a space in the shelves and are referred to only in rare occasions. These have very little value to add to local history and neither do they pretend to contribute to the advancement of literary literature.

Now comes “Grace Upon Grace: The Story of the Missionary Sisters of Mary,” the coffee table book published by the MSM, a congregation with its headquarters based in Butuan City. It is the sisters’ collective work with Srs. Emelienne Acosta MSM, Angelita Bacleon MSM, Estelita Bongcaras MSM, Magdalena Calang MSM, Estrellita Edioma MSM, Evelia Lunio MSM, Anecita Oser MSM, Rosemary Plaza MSM, Genara Sarigumba MSM and Sr. Famita Somogod MSM. Sr. Lunio serves as editor, with Ms. Pamela R. Castrillo as co-editor.

In the foreword that I wrote for this coffee table book, I traced the first time the idea of this book arose, which was way back in 2006. Two years later, the MSM Sisters were going to celebrate their golden jubilee. All kinds of ideas arose in a meeting I had with them as to how to come up with a meaningful celebration, and one idea proposed was not just a souvenir program but a coffee table book that would trace the congregation’s roots, to its birthing and growth through the five decades.

I encouraged them to aim at doing this collectively and not rely on an outsider to do research and write the text that would constitute the content of the book. They were open to the idea although they had reservations considering a few constraints, namely, very few of them felt confident to be able to write and do the design, even as they wondered if they had time to do all that was required considering their heavy congregational responsibilities. Even then they knew the two-year timeframe was too short. When we checked their archives, it was already clear that there were many gaps in the records. Also there were limited photos that could be used. For a while there was a bit of hesitation to push through with this project. The year 2008 came and went and the jubilee year got celebrated. So, I thought they already gave up pursuing this project.

But to my surprise, a few of the sisters were persistent in pursuing this project. Those earlier assigned to do write-ups continued to do their research and some of them were beginning to come up with drafts of their output. Another decade would unfold until they felt better able to pursue this project head-on.

In 2016, Pamela and Igy Castrillo of the Blue Iguana Computer Consultancy Services came on board as it was clear that the sisters needed outside support for editing the manuscripts, assess their photo collection and add new ones as well as come up with the book’s design all the way to its layout.

Visiting the sisters in their missionary locations across the archipelago took a lot of time, editing the texts, choosing the photos and making sure to have accurate captions and finally layouting the book demanded a big chunk of time. What also did not quicken the pace of publication was that this was the MSM sisters’ work and each member of the team had to give approval to every page. As they are spread across the islands, communication was not all that easy. On top of that, the pandemic took place, further slowing the process of finishing the project.

But finally after 15 years – the equivalent of finishing basic education (Grace I to X) all the way to graduating in senior year – the coffee table book is out. Is it worth the wait and all the work that went into producing this document? Yes! Indeed, Grace Upon Grace is not your usual coffee table book; it occupies a special place in a shelf full of coffee table books. For it is not just a souvenir book.

Without pretending to be a book of history, nonetheless, this coffee table book presents a form of local history. Not just the history of the MSM Sisters, but the life of women religious in Mindanao (and across the Philippines). Clearly, the women religious in this country have played a most important role in touching hearts and shaping minds and have contributed immensely to nation-building.

And the MSM Sisters’ story is a microcosm of the story of the local Church of Mindanao-Sulu for their missionary endeavors have helped to share this Church’s mission in the past 50 years. Further narratives of Philippine/Mindanao Church history can benefit through the data provided by this coffee table book. In the identity and life of the MSM congregation, we can find a model of a homegrown missionary congregation that truly is genealogically linked to the memory of the first community of disciples.

Beyond offering such modest contributions, this book is a delight for the reader who may not even have any link at all to the MSM Sisters. The texts are written in popular style and expertly edited. The book’s design is a delight to the eyes. Igy Castrillo’s artistic talent is quite evident and – considering his output in coming out with book designs – with this book, he has outdone himself.

One is delighted that there are black-and-white photos of yesteryears which were retrieved as these photos bring a nostalgic perspective in terms of remembering peoples, places and a time that have since vanished in our midst. The photos taken recently as both Igy and Pam visited the sisters helped to expand the book’s visual appeal.

If there is one critique one can make is that too many of the photos are not “action shots” but “posed” which cut down on dramatic appeal. But that was the reality of the days prior to the inventions of cell phones. In those days it was a luxury to own a camera and developing the film was quite expensive. So we couldn’t afford to have too many photos.

As with other coffee table books, Grace Upon Grace is only available to the sponsors and benefactors who contributed to this book’s publication, the MSMs and their families, associates and friends. If it were for sale, the cost would be prohibitive. So the public may not find it easy to have access to this book. Hopefully, somewhere down the road, you’ll find yourself in a place where a copy is available. I assure you if you find time to go through the pages, you, too, will be graced!

[MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Redemptorist Brother Karl Gaspar is a professor at St. Alphonsus Theological and Mission Institute (SATMI) in Davao City and until recently, a professor of Anthropology at the Ateneo de Davao University. Gaspar is author of several books, including “Manobo Dreams in Arakan: A People’s Struggle to Keep Their Homeland,” which won the National Book Award for social science category in 2012, “Desperately Seeking God’s Saving Action: Yolanda Survivors’ Hope Beyond Heartbreaking Lamentations,” and his latest, “Handumanan (Remembrance): Digging for the Indigenous Wellspring.”. He writes two columns for MindaNews, one in English (A Sojourner’s Views) and the other in Binisaya (Panaw-Lantaw). Gaspar is a Datu Bago 2018 awardee, the highest honor the Davao City government bestows on its constituents.]

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