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 18, 2014

100-year-old Fr. Pierre T. Tritz, S.J. shows our politicos how to be truly a "man for others"

In September 1914, the world was in turmoil as Europe was caught in the grip of the First World War, termed the last "Trench Warfare,” and pretty soon the US declared war against Germany. The world order was changing and so did traditional values and mores, and lifestyles. Dancing was very much a craze in a world worried sick about the war; cars and the radio were very popular.

In September 1914 our part of the world, the Philippine Islands, under US colonial rule, was coming to grips with a new representative system of governance in the emergent Philippine Assembly, while the educational system was being cobbled together from the pioneering days of the Thomasites.

On September 19, 1914, Pierre Tritz was born in the Alsace-Lorraine region of France near the German border. As the oldest living Jesuit today in the Philippines at 100 years of age and doubtless among the longest-surviving of some 22,000 Jesuits around the world, Fr. Tritz, still ramrod-straight, still reports to  his office at the Erda Foundation in Quezon City three times a week, with a much-reduced load. He’s also on call once in a while to bless the sick at the Infant Jesus Hospital in Sampaloc, Manila, which is his residence.

With eyes twinkling he used to brag to this writer some years back about being a member of the most exclusive club of Jesuits over 90 years of age in Manila, who were still alive and kicking;  but over the years he began to be the third oldest, then the second and now finally the oldest.


Fr. Tritz was to make his mark on education here, with his advocacy for the training of impoverished Filipino youths as the best way to prepare them for the future. As he likes to tirelessly say: “To allow a child to go to school is to give him HOPE (l’espoir, as he’d say in his native French). As he views it, education is the best way to break the cycle of poverty gripping Filipino families.

With this firm belief, Fr. Tritz founded the Educational Research and Development Assistance (ERDA) Foundation over 40 years ago, that has enabled tens of thousands of young people across the country to continue in school---thus allowing them to crash through the barrier of poverty.


Over ten years ago in a TV program, the late Press Secretary Cerge Remonde asked Fr. Tritz, "Is there hope for this country?"  The 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 that "we have to develop cooperation among the many people who can afford, so that they could 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 many billions in public funds, which ultimately disappeared into their own pockets. But as Tritz argued nearly four decades ago, real and meaningful NGOs such as the Erda Foundation can change the lives of people and combat grinding poverty. And he proved it.

As the citation for the St. Ignatius Award given 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.”


Pierre 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 81st 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 to that country, where he spent most of his Jesuit formation and taught in various schools for 12 years during a most turbulent political era.

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


                             Playing chess with Erda boys in Tondo

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

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. He offered 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 ERDA Foundation--- an NGO that provides poor pre-school 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 caused children from poor families to drop out---mostly out of shame.

He maintained that if a child is not developed in its early years, “it would be too late.”

Thus, long before the law enforcing pre-school education was passed, he already set up such schools in poor communities across the country. To date ERDA Foundation has assisted well over half a million students. 


Firmly espousing that the best way to break the cycle of poverty is to provide poor young people with adequate skills, he began to lament in the early ‘90s that so many able-bodied youths were idle and out of school; he wanted them to ride on the country’s growing need for industrial skills.

In 1993, Tritz established the ERDA Technical and Vocational Secondary School (ERDA Tech) in a depressed area of Pandacan in Manila, where students from poor families, through sponsorships, would 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 partner companies. Studies are underway to perhaps shorten while intensifying Erda Tech's students' training to two years only, in conformity with the K-12 program of the government. 

So poor are some of ERDA Tech’s students  that they come to school without breakfast  every day---and fainting spells by mid-morning became apparent. Thus the school set up a feeding program to help these needy kids stay in school and this year it counts some 105 students. 


Perhaps the best thing that happened to ERDA Tech and the Foundation 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 Tritz from active involvement (he now holds the title of President Emeritus).

Assuming the presidency of ERDA in 2012 was Xavier’s president for 12 years, Fr. Johnny C. Go, SJ, who had been ERDA’s chair since 2007. Fr. Go left earlier last year on a much deserved sabbatical to complete his doctoral studies. Xavier’s new president, Fr. Aristotle C. Dy, SJ, was elected ERDA President, with Atty. Anthony Charlemagne C. Yu as Chairman of the Board.


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

The synergy between ERDA and Xavier has begun to bear fruit. As Jane Natividad pointed out last year, ERDA Tech improved its school standing in the National Achievement Tests where it once ranked 36th, then 23rd and eventually 12th place among high schools of DepEd’s Manila Division. The school also had its 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 well-off 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. Xavier parents organized a successful fund-raising concert for ERDA Tech students last year and also raised generous donations during the farewell concert for Fr. Go. 

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


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: 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 the selfless and compassionate human being---especially in contrast to the terrible breed of Filipino politicians who have all but forgotten their oath of public service.

Until advance 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 seatmates invariably ended up forking over sums of money or later sending him checks after hearing his story about impoverished Filipino children.

This writer innocently attended an Agape fund-raising dinner for ERDA in the early '80s--- and got hooked to serve ERDA in perpetuity as its PRO.


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

But years later, the French government forgave him for quitting on his native land and honored him with awards, including the prestigious Officier de la Legion d’ Honneur (2007) for his humanitarian work with Filipino children.

Tritz's inspiring work 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 too, 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’ 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 and despair, Fr. Tritz still enjoys reading newspapers everyday without need for eyeglasses (!) and yes, he still loves to eat his favorite chocolates. He no longer celebrates Mass as he suffers bouts of forgetfulness and at times has to hold on to the altar; but he attends mass daily. 

Fr. Tritz had served for a long time as Night Chaplain in the Hospital of the Infant Jesus in Sampaloc, Manila, and to this day  he remains on call---from his wheelchair---for an emergency baptism or to bless a critically ill child-patient. 

Truly a man for others in his 100 years.

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