Political Tidbits is the prestigious column of Belinda Olivares-Cunanan that ran for 25 continuous years in the op-ed page of the Philippine Daily Inquirer, the newspaper that she helped put up with its multi-awarded founder, the legendary Eugenia Duran-Apostol, in December 1985, just two months before the EDSA Revolution.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

This article, which appears today in Manila Times' front-page, is my tribute to Fr. Pierre Tritz, S.J., whose Erda Foundation is a model of real and meaningful NGO---as opposed to bogus Napoles-type. On his 100th birthday (per Chinese calendar) today, this French-born, Chinese-educated naturalized Pinoy can look back on a life fully lived for marginalized Filipino children. Let's hope all senators and representatives draw inspiration from this genuine model of “a man for others.”

Fr. Pierre Tritz, S.J. 

From the Manila Times:

"100-year-old Fr. Pierre T. Tritz, SJ shows our politicos how to be truly a "man for others' "

By Belinda Olivares Cunanan

Too often these days we Filipinos find ourselves asking, in the light of the hideously indecent pork barrel scams, the same question the late Cerge Remonde asked his guest nearly ten years ago on his TV show: "Is there hope for this country?"

Fr. Pierre Tritz, a French-born naturalized Filipino Jesuit, who was once called by Cory Aquino the "Mother Teresa of the Philippines," answered Cerge without hesitation: "Sure, there is hope." “But,” he also stressed, "we have to develop cooperation among the many people who can afford, so that they can give more attention to those in our midst who are in extreme poverty."

A controversial reality in our present-day society has been the existence of bogus NGOs to which many politicians have channeled billions of pesos in public funds, which ultimately went into their own pockets. But as Tritz argued nearly four decades ago – real and meaningful NGOs can change the lives of people and combat grinding poverty.

And he proved it. As the citation for the St. Ignatius Award by the Ateneo University in 2000 said, “Pierre Tritz just went on and on, and the world has to make way for this man who knew where he was going.”

Fr. Tritz turns 99 years old today, but as folks in China, where he served for 12 years, hold, a human is one-year old at birth; hence Tritz is 100 years old today per the Chinese calendar. It’s a life studded with achievements aimed at breaking the cycle of poverty for the poorest of Filipinos.

In the mid-60’s, Tritz became very disturbed upon reading a published Department of Education study on the alarming rate of school dropouts. It said that of those who started in first grade, 12-15% dropped out in second grade and the dropout rate got bigger in the higher grades (something that persists in our day).

With first volunteer

With his first volunteer, Betty Reyes of the Aristocrat Restaurant family, Tritz began in the late ’60s to persuade families in the Juan Luna Elementary School area in Sampaloc to send their children back to school, offering to shoulder their schooling expenses himself.

In 1974 he organized a “Balik-Paaralan” program with 200 beneficiaries from Tondo. Then, forsaking his teaching activities at the Ateneo de Manila, Araneta University and FEU, he formally organized the Educational Research and Development Assistance (ERDA) Foundation-–an NGO that provides poor preschool and elementary schoolchildren with school uniforms and supplies, as well as social services to their families. 

Tritz clearly saw that while public schools offer free elementary and high school education, the lack of school requisites has caused children from poor families to drop out. He also maintained that if a child is not developed in its early years, “it would be too late.” Thus, long before the law enforcing preschool was passed by Congress, he already set up preschools in poor communities across the country. 

As Dolora Cardeño, ERDA Foundation's executive director, said, it has assisted over half a million students with their schooling.

ERDA Tech a response to industrialization

Fr. Tritz also firmly espoused that the best way to break the cycle of poverty is to provide poor young people with adequate skills, which echoes the consistent thinking of Sen. Ralph Recto. In the early ’90s Tritz began to lament that so many able-bodied youths were idle and out of school, and he wanted them to ride on the country’s growing need for industrial skills.

Fr. Johnny C. Go, SJ.                    Fr. Aristotle C. Dy, S.J. 
Past ERDA President                  Current ERDA President 
In 1992, he established the ERDA Technical and Vocational Secondary School (ERDA Tech) in a depressed area of Pandacan in Manila. Students from poor families, through sponsorships, obtain a free five-year high school education-–as well as special training in a technical skill that would enable them to find gainful employment upon graduation.

ERDA Tech’s current technical courses for its 450 scholars include automotive servicing, machining, electrical installation/maintenance and food technology. On their 5th year they spend 680 hours of in-plant training with private partner companies.

So poor are some of ERDA Tech’s students (too poor to be able to take breakfast everyday) that the school deemed it necessary to undertake a feeding program to help them stay in school. This school year 105 students are on this program.

Partnership between ERDA and Xavier School

Perhaps the best thing that happened to ERDA Tech was the formal adoption of the school, at the Jesuit Provincial’s request, by the Jesuit-run Xavier School in San Juan, following the deceleration of the aging Fr. Tritz from active involvement (he now holds the title of President Emeritus).

Atty. Anthony Charlemagne Yu,
ERDA Chair

Assuming the presidency of ERDA in 2007 was Xavier’s president for 12 years, Fr. Johnny C. Go, SJ, who left earlier this year on a much deserved sabbatical and to complete his doctoral studies. Xavier’s new president, Fr. Aristotle C. Dy, SJ, was also elected president by ERDA, with Atty. Anthony Charlemagne C. Yu as ERDA Chair. 

The partnership between ERDA Tech and Xavier has resulted in the upgrading of facilities and curriculum of the Pandacan school, as well as the injection of new blood into the faculty, led by its first two Xavier-“borrowed” principals, Jane Natividad and currently Peter Marc Magsalin, and a vigorous faculty development program.

Fr. Tritz handing a diploma to an Erda youngster
The synergy between ERDA and Xavier has begun to bear fruit. As Natividad had pointed out, ERDA Tech improved its school standing in the National Achievement Tests where it once ranked 36th, then 23rd and eventually 12th place among the high schools of DepEd’s Manila Division. The school also had its fifth-year (graduating) students in selected specializations undergo TESDA Competency Assessments for two years now, each time with close to 100% passing rates.

But more important, doubtless, is the increasing concern for the poor that the Pandacan school has stirred in the minds and hearts of Xavier parents. Many of them have generously responded in various ways, e.g., scholarships for ERDA Tech students (P32,000 per year), support for its feeding program, donations of basic school equipment as well as out-of-their-closet items. With the Xavier community, its parents brought about a successful fund-raising concert for ERDA Tech students last year. To say farewell to Fr. Johnny Go, they helped raise generous donations to ERDA Tech’s endowment fund.

The school was pleased to note that the topnotcher in the 2012 mechanical engineering board exams, Kenneth del Rosario, began at ERDA Tech. On the other hand, an ERDA-supported child from Iloilo, John Paul Claudio, was appointed by then President Macapagal Arroyo as Child Commissioner of the Children Basic Section of NAPC (National Anti-Poverty Commission), and he was succeeded by an ERDA youth from Tondo, Bernardo Sumaya.

An all-inclusive heart

But so inclusive has been Fr. Tritz’s love for the underprivileged that in past decades he also organized the Albert Schweitzer Association Philippines (ASAP), which assisted poor orphaned and abandoned youths who ran into conflict with the law.

In 1978 he established the Foundation for the Assistance to Hansenites (FAHAN) which helped those afflicted with leprosy to seek treatment and cope with its stigma in society, and provided educational assistance for their children.

ERDA Foundation and ERDA Tech thrive principally on the element of hope – “l'espoir," as Tritz terms it in his native French. Hope – that the children of our streets would one day walk out of the darkness of poverty, despair, ignorance and lack of opportunity, and into the bright light of prosperity, justice and basic human rights – in other words, a fighting chance at survival.

As we in the ERDA family celebrate today the centenary of this wonderful educator and defender of marginalized Filipino children, we are proud to hold him up as a model of a selfless and compassionate human being – amid our terrible breed of politicians who have all but forgotten their oath of public service.

How this French-born Jesuit priest found himself in the Philippines is as interesting as what he has done here since.

Lifelong dream to be a missionary in China

Born in the French region close to the German border, Tritz entered the Jesuit Society at age 19 and in 1936, he began his lifelong dream of becoming a missionary in China, where he was ordained priest in Shanghai in 1947 (his 80th year as a Jesuit will be this Oct 3).

Young Jesuits in the 1930s such as Tritz were inspired by older missionaries like the famed Fr. Matteo Ricci, SJ, who blazed a trail in China. Tritz insisted on being sent there, where he spent most of his Jesuit formation and taught in various schools for 12 years during a most turbulent era for China.

The fall of China to the communists in 1949 caught him while on his tertianship in Europe, and at his superiors’ orders, he arrived in Manila in October 1950 to await – or so he thought – reassignment to China. But he got stuck here. China's loss was the Philippines' gain.

Until advanced age grounded him, Fr. Tritz used to set off on his yearly “begging” trips abroad for ERDA kids. The joke among his staff was that it was hazardous for anyone to sit next to Tritz in a speeding train in Europe – as his compartment-mates usually ended up forking over sums of money or later sending him checks after hearing his story about Filipino children.

French government puzzled about Tritz

To work more effectively, Tritz in 1974 joined 11 foreign-born Jesuits in taking the oath of allegiance as Filipino citizens before President Marcos in Malacañang. As he recounted to this writer with a laugh, the French government couldn't understand why he chose to become a Filipino citizen ---when thousands of Filipinos were renouncing their citizenship abroad!

But years later, the French government apparently forgave him as it twice gave him awards, including the prestigious Officier de la Legion d’ Honneur (2007) for his humanitarian work with Filipino children.

Tritz's inspiring work among the poor has not gone unnoticed, especially abroad. European TV has produced many documentaries on him and various books have been written about him in France.

He has received many awards here, such as the Golden Heart Presidential Award (1993) from President Fidel Ramos, the Aurora Aragon-Quezon Peace Award for Education (1993), the Mother Teresa Award (1998) from the Jaycees and AY Foundation the Congressional Medal of Merit from the Philippine House of Representatives (2004) and a formal Commendation by the Senate of the Philippines (2011). Foreign awards include the highest decoration from the German government, the Bundesverdienstkreuz Award (2004) and the Raoul Follereau Prize (1983) from the French Academy.

After decades of fulfilling his self-appointed mission of rescuing impoverished Pinoy children from the pit of hopelessness, white-haired Fr. Tritz still maintains a ramrod-straight bearing, still enjoys reading newspapers everyday, without need for eyeglasses (!) and yes, he still loves to eat chocolates. He no longer celebrates Mass as he suffers bouts of forgetfulness and at times has to hold on to the altar, but attends mass daily. Fr. Tritz, however, still serves as night chaplain in the Hospital of the Infant Jesus in Sampaloc, Manila, where he remains on call to perform an emergency baptism or bless a critically ill child-patient. 

Truly a man for others to the end.

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