Life expectancy for Filipinos is around 72 years, with women averaging 73.9, four years more than men. So when a Lipa-born mother of two, grandmother of five, and great-grandmother of one (so far) turned octogenarian yesterday, there was much gratitude for God’s gift of four score, fond memories, family and friendship bonds.
This writer’s mother, Noemi Kasilag Lirag-Saludo, a business leader, church-builder and, recently, organic farmer, turned 80 yesterday, May 8,
with no sign of slowing down in her endeavors. And her tale shows how one soul lives the Lord’s call for total love and devotion to God’s Kingdom and His children.
One would think after rising to the top of Philippine business as the only woman president of the Philippine Chamber of Commerce and Industry in 2004, when she hosted no less than former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad as PCCI keynote speaker, Saludo would be content with retirement at 70 the following year.
After all, by the mid-2000s, the current chairperson emeritus of the Port Users Confederation had garnered her share of stature and recognition, especially for her pioneering work in organizing and providing warehousing and trade services to small exporters. In 2008, New Jersey’s Georgian Court University named her among distinguished alumnae during its centenary, the only Asian so honored.
But no: After the painful loss of a loved one in the year of her PCCI triumph, the third-eldest daughter of the late Litex textile tycoon Basilio Lirag, called on God to give her life new meaning — or call her back to His bosom. “I cannot continue like this,” she recalls pleading. “Either you give me a new mission, or take me now.”
‘Build this church, help my priest’
The Lord gave instead of taking. In 2005, while visiting the woefully dilapidated St. Bartholomew’s Church in San Manuel, Pangasinan, with its broken windows, leak-damaged ceiling, and termite-infested choir loft, Saludo heard a voice: “Build this church. Help my priest.”
She promptly spent P3 million of her own money, plus donations, repairing and refurbishing the centuries-old church, starting with a new tabernacle to replace the antique one already falling apart.
Other requests for help from other parishes in need soon followed, as usually happens when word gets around about a generous soul. That prompted Saludo to establish Bahay ng Diyos Foundation nine years ago for funding church repair, with an advisory council of cardinals and other bishops designating which poor parishes to assist.
Guided by Cardinals Gaudencio Rosales, Ricardo Vidal, and Luis Antonio Tagle, and other leading prelates, BDF has helped nearly 80 parishes since its founding, including emergency aid for churches unroofed by typhoons. To ensure that every peso donated goes to church building, Saludo covers all administrative expenses of the foundation out of her own pocket.
Now, Saludo, BDF and its US chapter have taken on the challenge of raising funds for churches to replace two of several destroyed by the 2013 Bohol earthquake. One is in Clarin parish, whose patron, St. Michael the Archangel, had its May 8 feast yesterday. The other is in Maribojoc, where only the Sacred Heart statue fronting the rubbled church remained standing after the calamity.
To raise funds, BDF is publishing “Icons: Windows to the Soul,” a book about 33 paintings of popular religious figures, written and designed by the painter Gerard Sison. The 164-page, 12-inches-square coffee table volume will be launched on May 30, for sale to the public as well as companies seeking Christmas gifts different from the usual holiday food baskets.
In addition, Saludo is building a church and a garden of prayer on her 4.5-hectare organic farm in San Benito, near Lipa, which borders the exclusive The Farm At San Benito resort. Lipa Archbishop Ramon Arguelles says the place of worship can be designated a diocesan shrine for the Divine Mercy devotion.
Feeding the body and saving souls
If that to-do list seems excessive at 80 years of age, there’s more. Saludo has been hosting and leading catechism classes for children and youth in San Benito. She found out that dozens of catechists, including some in their late teens, had not been baptized. Nor have some of the children’s parents been married in church.
She then organized mass baptisms in San Benito for those under 9, and at the Lipa Cathedral for older youths, who were also given the Sacrament of Confirmation. Plus: mass weddings are planned.
More than church repair and construction, Saludo sees the baptism, confirmation, and marriage of Christians long unable to partake of these graces, often in the mistaken idea that they cost a lot, as her greatest accomplishment in religious work.
Indeed: While a refurbished or new church certainly brings God’s grace and wisdom to communities, baptizing souls lifts them into the Lord’s saving embrace, and confirmation strengthens them for the lifelong journey to heaven.
Thus, from dancing for customers after Sunday Mass, Noemi Lirag Saludo climbed the ladder of commercial pursuits to the pinnacle of Philippine business, helping countless small exporters get together and become bigger.
Then, in retirement, she is back at church, repairing and building places of worship, and now, leading indigents to the Kingdom of God through baptism and confirmation.
After decades of feeding the body, she is now saving souls. That seems like a worthwhile way to spend four score of a human life, exceeding not just life expectancy, but life’s expectations even more.
May she win God’s favor to give many more years for His Kingdom and His flock.
(Ricardo Saludo serves Bahay ng Diyos Foundation. Readers interested in the book “Icons” and in BDF’s mission may request information at email@example.com.)