Dr Abe V Rotor
Museum Faculty Curator
At a corner inside the St Paul University Museum in Quezon City, where once stood an altar many years ago when the Japanese invaders converted the campus into a concentration camp, a small group of visitors bowed in deep thoughts and prayers. For a moment these pilgrims transformed the museum into a holy place.
It was like turning back the hands of time into the Second World War. Now there is peace. There was hatred, but that too, has given way to forgiveness. Despair, and now hope, pride into humility. These contrasting scenarios provide very valuable lessons of man. For man is tempered by war and mellowed by the peace that follows afterward. All these took place in half a century or so.
The SPUQ museum stands as a witness of the history that shaped the school. The events are the lifeblood of the museum - its walls originally the immaculate walls once stained with blood speak of peace, its pillars the original pillars that withstood the atrocities of war and the tests of the elements and time attest to endurance and posterity.
The museum is not only a repository of history; it is the abode of history. It is like Fort Santiago or the Paco Cemetery. Or the great Pyramids of Egypt, the City of the Dead of the Aztecs, walled city of Jerusalem and St Peter’s in Rome. These museums have one thing in common: they are part of history. They are living relics that chronicle past events, stirring nationalism while promoting brotherhood in men. They strengthen universal values and rekindle the spirit. They bring the relationship of man with his Creator closer and harmonious.
Since its opening in late 1994, many pilgrims, old and young, parents and students, city and rural folk, have brought significance to the museum. Other than being an educational institution, it has somehow earned respect for pilgrimage.
The building is a early American architecture bearing the basic designs of Greco-Roman style – high ceiling, prominent, bare and square pillars, solid walls with small grilled windows. The entrance is unassuming, yet there is an aura of dignity that engulfs one on opening the door. For a panoramic view meets the eye, with virtually all four corners optically converging. The scene is accentuated by the massive murals depicting some chapters of the life of St. Paul, and widened by the transparency of the glass cabinets allowing the eye to roam freely.
All these no doubt contribute to the pilgrimage atmosphere. But what is revealing is the gathered information of the place coming from no less than the sisters, many of them in their seniors and living at the nearby Vigil House then. Some of the informants have already died, but the memory of the place lives on.
The senior sisters recall the place as a prayer house. “There was an altar which was located towards the left corner of the room adjacent to the backdoor.” And they would point out the place in the museum. The backdoor leads to the basement used as clinic during the Japanese occupation. The wounded and the sick were led to the prayer house and to spend time meditating, praying, or just to let time pass by. On several occasions the dead were brought in for the wake.
Imagine that for a period of four years, SPUQ then a novitiate and a school for elementary and high school, was made into a garrison and concentration camp, the same way the Japanese did to UST during the same period. And also to De La Salle University in Pasay. We do not know how many died but many Filipino, American and Japanese soldiers died here. There were local residents, foreigners, women and children who also died.
My students would ask me whenever I tell them the story if there are ghosts on the campus – or spirits of the dead. “Have you seen or felt their presence?” I would counter. And the conversation lengthens, creating a world of the supernatural in the process.
Anyone would believe in spirits that may make their presence felt in one way too many, depending on who is telling the story and who are listening. I for one sensed their presence on a number of occasions. The question with believing in the supernatural though is that the mind cannot decipher reality from imagination. But it is this aspect from which we build our stories and beliefs. Take this experience as an example.
In 1995 I was painting Saul on Damascus Road into the night alone. The museum was dead silent. What a ideal time to paint! Then suddenly the arm of Saul “moved” an inch downward. My brush missed the outline. I made the necessary correction but this time the arm had moved upward and now I have two errors to correct. I told myself I was too tired, and left the museum for home. That night I dreamt of Saul holding a red robe, which he was to use to clothe the dying Christ. Early that morning I went to the museum and continued painting the arm. I fixed Saul’s right hand and put on the red robe on it. Where did the idea of the red robe come? Was it a dream or a message I got? What made his arm move? Or was it a way of getting a message across?
I remember at one time in the early part of the painting I received visitors while I was painting the sky on makeshift scaffolding. Causally they would come and take a look at my work. Sometimes they would ask me a question or two and I would obligingly give an answer without breaking my concentration. One evening a kind sister visited the museum. She stood for sometime looking at what I was doing on the scaffolding. Anyone at the top could not see well the person below. And not know when she came and had gone. What I remember was her large hat, but that crossed my mind only days later. Who was she? Where did she come from at 9 in the evening?
At one time I was painting Paradise after Rome. This time I did it at home at our front yard. It took me until dusk. A silhouette figure kept passing at the corner of my eye. I would have dismissed it but it came twice, thrice, not saying a word and not pausing. But there is semblance of the figure I was painting with the silhouette – a bearded man and heavily built, clothed in flowing robes. The big difference though is that the man I was painting was about to be beheaded while the silhouette was roaming free, with an air of dignity and command.
The following day I changed the man on my painting. Yes, death, I realized is resurrection. So I painted Paul, the resurrected, on the day of his execution when Rome was razed by Nero’s torch.
Spirits to me are guiding signals that sometimes take the form of humans. They carry messages that lead us to the theme of our art such as in these particular cases. The denominator is goodness – they help us seek goodness, and goodness leads us to truth – truth that is built by strong faith other than reason.
Can we decipher messages the same way we receive communications in daily life? I say no, not always. For the message with deep meaning are not readily evident. One has to labor in order to understand it, and capture the essence of that message.
For example on the painting, School in Ruins, which I entitled in an accompanying verse, Grow and Bloom, Grow and Bloom, an outline of a young devil cast a shadow on the burnt building. This was discovered while I was working on the dying smoke emanating from the fresh ruins. Someone almost shouted at me, “Stop, stop!” Then he explained. He was seeing a devil in outstretched hand hovering over the ruins. I preserved the outline. Anyone who comes to the museum today experiences the same thing the discoverer made 15 years ago. Yes, the war, the killing, the burning, the looting are works of the devil. His imprint makes us aware not to submit ourselves to evil, but rather fight it at all cost.
A pilgrim took notice of Saul talking with Christ on Damascus road. Did Christ really appear to him? But look again at the painting. That is why those who come to the museum stay longer than just to visit. They pray. They wish.
Students facing the trials of defending their thesis come to the museum. They come from UST, Pamantasan ng Maynila and other schools. Students seeking entry in medicine proper, reviewers in bar and board exams – they come and wish. There are those who came back, others have not. Well, in the story of the ten lepers, not all came back to thank. There are many ways to thank, of course, such as doing good for others.
The community takes pride in having a museum accredited by the National Commission for the Culture and the Arts (NCCA), and the museum curator sits in one of the Commission’s sub-committees. The SPUQ Museum is also a member of the Association of Museums in the Philippines. Because of these, the school has the opportunity to take part in various national programs in health, environment, historical events, food and nutrition, and community development, to name the major events. In return, the museum is recognized for its effort. It is one of the very few school museums given such distinction.
Face of Christ in the Woods (AVR)
Our own students, faculty and the whole community recognize that here in a not far away land is a little Smithsonian, a little Gethsemane, a little Lourdes, and a little Sistine Chapel. And the same grace we find in those places is also found here – here at the Saint Paul University Museum. ~
Author’s Note: Prominent pilgrims to the SPCQ Museum include high government officials, leaders in the business, university professors, journalists, personalities in the entertainment world, Filipino balikbayan and their families. Their identities are kept to give due respect to their person and privacy. The museum celebrates its 15th year in June 2010.
A Walk with Nature, AVR