Sister Leonila Bermisa, MM

Born: April 11, 1948
Entered: August 21, 1982
Died: February 28, 2013

We gather this morning to celebrate Sr. Nila Bermisa’s life, a strong, creative, courageous woman who was tireless in her fight for justice, especially for abused women.

Sister Leonila Bermisa, passed on to eternal life at 3:45 AM on February 28, 2013 at St. Luke’s Hospital, Quezon City, Philippines. She was surrounded by her family and her faithful friend, Fr. Fred Bugarin.

She was born on April 11, 1948 in San Manuel, Pangasinan, Philippines, to Silvino and Teodora (Villanueva) Bermisa. She had two brothers and two sisters. She attended the University of Santo Tomas, Manila, earning a Bachelor’s degree in Economics, and the University of the East, Manila, earning a degree in Law (LL.B.). In 1974, she joined her family who had migrated in Hawaii. She worked as a paralegal in Hawaii and in New York.

Sister Nila entered Maryknoll in Ossining, NY on August 21, 1982 from Our Lady of the Mount Parish, Honolulu, Hawaii. She made her first Profession of Vows on June 10, 1984 at Maryknoll, NY, and her Final Commitment to Maryknoll on April 11, 1992 in Baguio City, Philippines.

Sister Nila was assigned to Indonesia in 1984. She helped faculty members at Parahyangan University improve their skills in English. In Jakarta, she accompanied prostituted women as they tried to get out of prostitution. She worked in Magdalena House, a transition house for prostituted women and stayed in the house during weekends. Assigned to the Philippines 1989, she worked in the Ecumenical Movement for Justice and Peace, documenting human rights violations in Zamboanga del Sur, and was coordinator of the Justice and Peace Program for the Prelature of Ipil, Zamboanga del Sur.

Sister Nila also coordinated the work of the Rural Missionaries of the Philippines (RMP), Western Mindanao. RMP is an organization of Sisters and priests from various congregations and dioceses missioned to work with the rural poor. With the RMP, she created the SABAKAN, a women’s program that provided skills training, and justice and peace education to rural and indigenous women, as well as paralegal assistance to women, victims of rape and other forms of violence. In Calapagan, Lupon, Davao Oriental, she supervised a program for out-of-school youth named BANWAG.

When Sister Nila moved to Luzon, she worked with the RMP National Office in the research and documentation of human rights violations, particularly against the peasant sector.

Sister Nila received an MA in Religious Studies from the Institute of Formation and Religious Studies (IFRS), Quezon City in 1996. She served on the faculty of the IFRS and was appointed Academic Dean from 2001 to 2005. She also served on the Women and Gender Commission and was a member of the executive board of the Association of Major Religious Superiors of the Philippines.

From 2002 to 2005, Sister Nila did Research and Documentation of Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church in the Philippines. She was resident administrator for Talitha Cum, a temporary home for women victims/survivors of sexual violence. At the Immaculate Conception Center for Child Development in Malabon, Manila, she supervised projects in identified depressed areas.

In 2007, Sister Nila received a degree of Doctor of Ministry from San Francisco Theological Seminary, San Francisco, CA. She was a member of the Ecumenical Association of Third World Theologians. Sister Nila was a delegate to the General Assembly in 1997 and 2008. She was Congregational Director of Vocation Ministry from 2005 to 2009.

From 2010-2011, Sr. Nila was a faculty member of the Theology Department of Miriam College. In 2011, she published her book, That She May Dance Again: Rising From Pain of Violence Against Women in the Philippine Catholic Church. In this book, says a colleague, Fr. Percy Bacani, MJ, “Sr. Nila unlocks the web of sexual violence in the Church and allows women-in-pain to become women subjects of their lives and destiny.”

Her longtime friend, Fr. Fred Bugarin of Alaska, was watching her pray the rosary one week before her untimely death and shared his reflection of Sister Nila with her colleagues and mission partners. This reflection captures an intimate side of Nila’s spirituality perhaps only a few have seen.

I know you have all been witness to the strength of Nila’s will, but these days I am simply amazed at the strength of her spirit. A simple rosary, never leaving her side, has been her connection to the bigger reality few of us can fathom. This reality into which she chooses to be baptized without counting the cost has given her strength and unswerving determination as she has time and time again stood side by side with those who struggle for what is right and just. Her published book, That She May Dance Again, is a testimony to her solidarity with women especially those who are victimized daily.

Perhaps it is because of her sometimes high profile as she immerses herself in rallies and symposiums and retreats that the casual acquaintance would not suspect quite a simple and traditional piety. Just the other day, no longer able to readily travel, Nila was issuing an order to prepare the Apo Nazarenno for Holy Week which the parish church of her childhood in San Manuel, Pangasinan carries in solemn procession through the neighborhood. Her un-doubting conviction that the Anitos still care for her beloved land and still communes with her and those who would remove their veil of sophistication and arrogance from their eyes all give evidence to her ties with popular religion which flows from a deep and profound spirituality. This I believe is the reason why the Bantay, a small hill on their property in San Manuel, has remained sacred to her, and has become a powerful symbol of her ties to the land of her birth and connection to the Caretakers, the ancient ones who smile at her from all corners of that piece of ground, that slab of the universe.

This is the simple, beautiful, raw and pure Nila that I have come to know. Away from the limelight, she taps into waters of a deep, vast, and sacred space especially reserved for her and the compassionate Goddess that they may drink — beer has been her preference — and celebrate in song and dance together with the other women who have gone before to prepare the great liturgy of life. She, indeed, has always been a faithful follower of the Way, the Truth and the Life. I would like to think that the simple beads interconnected by flimsy wires are her magic wand to some may call fantasy, but for her — and she probably would frown at these terms — it is her entry into a mystical communion with the divine, the mystery and the One. She is near. So near. We are certain that our dear Sister Nila is finally home.