Sr Stella Matutina has been detained by the military and threatened in the course of her work. CNS photo
DAVAO, PHILIPPINES – Environmental activism is a dangerous vocation in the Philippines, but a Catholic nun in Mindanao is defying those who want her to return to her convent and stop raising her voice in defence of creation.
Benedictine Sr Stella Matutina works in Mindanao, the most conflictive island in the southern Philippines. Now 44, she spent 18 years studying and doing pastoral work in Europe before returning to Mindanao in 2007, when she says she quickly realised an environmental crisis was at hand.
“In the landslides and flooding and deaths, I could hear the cry of the poor and the groaning of creation, but our government was deaf.
“Thousands of people were dying every year, but our government was doing nothing to protect the environment,” she told Catholic News Service.
Several people were killed and thousands of families displaced by flooding in Mindanao in June.
Sr Stella said a 2008 phone call to her convent near Mati beckoned her to get involved.
“A woman from San Isidro called and pleaded for help. She said the bulldozers were in her community and were going to destroy the mountains. I couldn’t understand why the people hadn’t been consulted, why they couldn’t say no to this big mining company. I felt the people needed me. It was my baptismal moment. We got involved and were able to send away the mining company and its equipment,” she said.
“After that, more people started calling. We started leading courses on the stewardship of creation, resisting the cutting of ironwood forests by the Chinese and speaking out against the destruction wrought by large-scale mining.”
Sr Stella started getting death threats in 2009 after she helped a community block the entry of heavy mining equipment. That confrontation led to the cancellation of the company’s mining permit.
Sr Stella was detained by members of the Philippine army’s 67th Infantry Brigade during a night time raid on Feb 16, 2009, in the remote village of Taytayan, in eastern Mindanao.
Along with three companions, including one novice from her congregation, she had gone to the village at the invitation of community leaders to lead a discussion about local environmental concerns.
The four were sleeping in the municipal office when the soldiers, wearing ski masks and missing the name tags on their uniforms, burst into the building in the middle of the night.
The nun said the soldiers kept insisting the four were members of the New People’s Army, a rebel group. She said the squad’s leader, Lieutenant Ron Soria, announced they were waiting for an order over the radio to execute the detainees.
The soldiers interrogated the four for most of the next day before turning them over to the head of a local Catholic school, who in turn escorted them to the local parish priest.
When the news broke that the military had detained a nun, the army claimed it did not know Sr Stella was a nun since she was not wearing a habit.
“I don’t know any congregations where the Sisters sleep in the habit and veil,” she said. - CNS