Edna Lhuillier and Mariquita Yeung who play significant roles in the fundraising campaign for the canonization of Blessed Pedro Calungsod need no introductions. But few know the inner workings of the minds and hearts of these two ladies, so alike in circumstance and yet so different in temperament and discipline.
How can I refuse Pedro? He was my room mate in Rome!” Thus began a most candid interview with Edna Diago Lhuillier, the wife of former ambassador to the Vatican, Philippe E. Lhuillier.
It was, for me, a distinct pleasure to be given this assignment to meet and interview two of Cebu’s prominent personalities. For the Zee Lifestyle shoot on a warm summer Tuesday, Edna Lhuillier and Mariquita Salimbangon-Yeung were dutifully enduring the instructions of the photographer even up to two hours beyond lunchtime. Mariquita looked svelte in her black linen Gianfranco Ferre gown and Edna was queenly in her black Cary Santiago ensemble. They must be used to this kind of activity as no one heard them complain, ask for a break, or saw them get uncomfortable the whole time they were being photographed.
The residence of Ambassador and Mrs. Lhuillier in the mountains of Cebu, resplendent with European ecclesiastical artworks, was the perfect backdrop for the two ladies. Befitting too for Ricardo Cardinal Vidal and Monsignor Roberto Alesna, the two members of the Cebu Church hierarchy who were assigned by Archbishop Jose Palma to lead the fundraising campaign for the canonization expenses for Blessed Pedro Calungsod. Pedro is the endearing name Cebuanos call the soon to be declared saint from the Visayas. The Cebuanos relate very intimately to Blessed Pedro Calungsod, a layman; he is somehow regarded as one that they call on to. The Cebuanos cannot call him San Pedro, as that pertains to St. Peter the apostle, so Pedro it is.
Msgr. Alesna first asked Mariquita Yeung to co-chair the fundraising drive that, so typical of her, she accepted without any qualms. Two weeks later, she helped Msgr. Alesna in asking Edna Lhuillier to join the project, who couldn’t refuse Pedro and consented to Msgr. Alesna’s request. For indeed she kept the image of Blessed Pedro Calungsod in their bedroom in Rome when the Cebu delegation to Pedro’s beatification asked the then Philippine Ambassador’s wife if she can take care of it so they won’t have to pay extra freight on their way home to Cebu. “Besides, Msgr. Alesna told me that the canonization of Pedro will be on October 21; why, that’s my birthday!” So the die was cast for Edna Lhuillier, the quiet and retiring mother and wife.
Talking to Edna Lhuillier, I found that behind the soft voice is a steely resolve to do the right thing. She is known to personally deliver aid to victims of calamities and will not back down on her resolve to keep politicians out of her way when she does it. This lady has a heart but will not be taken advantage of by people who think they know better.
Her well-ordered world shows in the impeccable service and attention a guest is given in her home. She gaily admits to her love for cooking and entertaining in her homes, no wonder the generous food served that day was beyond reproach. These traits are perfect for an ambassador’s wife who has to entertain a lot and well.
I sensed that Edna Lhuillier would do the right thing even if it exacts a toll on her. She knows her place is beside her husband, and that being an ambassador’s wife takes leaving her comfortable homes in the Philippines. Because of her stringent requirements, it took them two years to find a place befitting an ambassador’s residence in Rome. She talked about how lonely the first two years were in Rome. She missed her children, her grandchildren and her friends in the Philippines. It took some time for her to develop friendships among the other diplomatic wives. But she soldiered on, staying by her husband’s side. Later, both she and the Ambassador found solace in the special friendship they had with the late Cardinal Sanchez.
The Ambassador’s stint in the Vatican lasted eleven years. Edna Lhuillier recounts that for her, the most unforgettable events during those eleven years were the two instances when she met Pope John Paul II. The first one was when they were presented to the Pope as the new ambassador to the Holy See. She remembers that she wanted to cry in the presence of the Pope and reminisces, “He had this aura of goodness and holiness. He was already bent from his affliction but he made sure he would make eye contact. His gaze seemed to bore through you in intensity. I felt so blessed to be near him.” The second time was when the Pope said Mass in St. Peter’s Square, and there were many Filipinos present. All of a sudden, Cardinal Sanchez called them to come to the front and they received Holy Communion from the Pope himself.
Her life after Rome is filled with familial duties, the family business, and the numerous charitable foundations she is actively involved in. She supports seminarians and deserving college scholars. She never forgets Bais, her hometown in Negros Oriental, and extends help to people in need there.
Needless to say, the fundraising for the canonization of Blessed Pedro Calungsod will surely have her zealous attention. This lady will do the right thing for Blessed Pedro.
The afternoon was coming to an end but graciously, Mariquita told me that we could schedule her interview later in the week at her home. The interview with Mariquita on a Friday afternoon was revealing. I saw Mariquita wave from her front door who was a refreshing sight in her tan jeans tied with a sash below the waist showing off her reed-thin figure. She told me that she exercises, plays golf and tennis, and goes horseback riding. She adds that lately, her grandson also takes up a lot of her time and energy.
“Do we really have to make it an interview? Let’s just have a nice chat!” That statement set the tone for that afternoon. She was relaxed and in her element in her lovely home, and what a place it was; comfortable chintz-covered settees in the living room, a grand piano lined with beloved family pictures, and a marvelous view of the flamboyant bougainvilleas tumbling all over the walls of the house from the open French doors. Mariquita brought us to the cool comfort of the kitchen cum family room where she talked about her charities, her civic involvements and her children.
A strong presence in her family, she makes sure that everyone is taken care of and happy. Although generous of her time to other causes, Mariquita makes sure that family comes first.
This lady is the force behind the eponymous MSY (Mariquita S. Yeung) Foundation that takes care of indigent children, as well as a special project called “Operation Smile” that gives free operations for cleft-lipped children. For her extensive contribution to society and those in need, the Pope raised her to the Order of St. Sylvester.
Last year, she was tapped by Cebu City Mayor Michael Rama to head the Beautiful Cebu Movement. Since then she has not stopped asking, cajoling and charming others to help with the rejuvenation of Osmeña Boulevard, the only ceremonial street in Cebu City. The Masquerade Ball, which Mariquita conceptualized to raise funds for the Beautiful Cebu Movement, was a great success. She was able to gather so many people from society and the business world, who generously pledged financial support for the project.
Immediately after consenting to be the co-chair of the fund drive for the canonization expenses of Blessed Pedro Calungsod, Mariquita got Brian To on board, a noted strategist from Hongkong. To’s credentials include having graduated from Harvard, Stanford, Oxford, Carnegie Mellon, and some other business schools; being a Senior Fellow of the Wharton School, and being a strategist for more than twenty years to some of the Fortune 500 corporations, among others. With his expert guidance, the fund drive should be a successful endeavor.
Only a few privileged women would go out of their way to lend their names to such a massive undertaking; it would have been so much easier to donate a certain amount and be done with it. But these two ladies should be commended for taking on this project, for it is one that intends to raise an amount that runs in the millions, which also raises the question in a lot of people’s minds about the expense for canonizing a saint.
Be that as it may, the fundraising group has embarked on a massive campaign. To whom much is given, much is required, and consciously or not, Edna Lhuillier and Mariquita Yeung live by this principle.
I asked Mariquita if she regretted accepting the gargantuan task. She was sitting languidly in a sofa sipping a cold glass of orange juice.
She softly patted a loose lock of hair back in place and said ever so softly said, “I’ll do it again if I have to.”
by Louella Eslao-Alix sittings editor Katsy Borromeo photography Jan Gonzales hair and make-up Romero Vergara hair and make-up assistant Jessi Egos and Jay Failanga