This good-fellowship —  camaraderie —  usually occurring through the similarity of pursuits is unfortunately seldom superadded to love between the sexes, because men and women  associate not in their labours, but in their pleasures merely. Where, however, happy circumstance permits its development, the compounded feeling proves itself to be the only love which is strong as death — that love which many waters cannot quench, nor the floods drown, beside which the passion usually called by the name is evanescent as steam.

–Thomas Hardy, from “Far From the Madding Crowd”

They met at a time when the Philippines was awakening to a revolution that sought to empower the poor against their exploiters. He was a priest, she was a nun, and the time was 1971, one year before the dictator Ferdinand E. Marcos declared martial law.

Luis “Louie” Jalandoni hailed from a family of landowners in Silay, Negros Occidental. He grew up rich, but it was a fact that never really sunk in until he noticed the differences between himself and the children of his family’s land tenants and farmers. The words “gentle” and “amiable” were always applied to him as he grew up and until he entered the priesthood; but when he became aware of the life-and-death struggles of the poor, his will and commitment to their cause became hard as steel. To look at him even then, in his early years as an activist priest, one wouldn’t have been able to tell that here was a man able to stand up against fully armed hacienda guards with nothing but the strength of his convictions.

Louie and Coni, shown here in a recent picture, both came from landed families in Negros. (Photo from ndfwaikato.blogspot.com)

Maria  Consuelo “Coni” Kalaw Ledesma also came from Silay, and her background was as affluent as Louie’s. Her upbringing gave her physical grace; but in her diminutive frame came a soul eager to offer itself for the betterment of others.  In those days, it was believed that taking religious vows was the best way to serve — in promising to love and to serve God, one also sought to serve others. Coni believed this, and hence she became a nun.  Nothing remains static, however; as she became more exposed to the lives and experiences of people who lived way beneath the radar of the moneyed and supposedly more educated, she felt in her very core that there was more that could be done — that serving the people took meant more than praying for them.

It was a quirk of circumstance that two such people should meet under conditions very far from those they were born to. Both came from wealthy families, but they chose to live with the poor. They both chose to take religious vows, but in the end committed themselves to something beyond faith and religion.

In 1971, church groups began to support workers’ unions and their priests and nuns as well as students began to integrate with rural communities, helping peasants and farm workers by giving seminars on health and education. In the cities, organizing work in the urban-poor communities began in 1970 such as those in Tondo.

Over time, church organizing work began to include discussions on politics and the state of human rights in the country, and these were connected to why there was such widespread poverty. By 1971, there was more emphasis on organizing farmers, workers and the urban poor, and less focus on cooperatives and economic projects.

Louie and Coni in 1986, at the start of the peace process with the Corazon Aquino administration. (Photo from NDFP)

By then, Louie had become more than a priest — he was now an activist and the head of the Social Action Center of the Bacolod diocese. In the last few years, he had gained a reputation for espousing increasingly radical beliefs, bravely calling on younger seminarians and fellow priests to take a more active role in society and in the lives of the poor.

Coni, who once was a principal for an all-girls’ school in Cebu, had heard of Father Louie and about his work in the SAC.  She gained permission from her religious superiors and went to Bacolod. When she arrived at the SAC, everyone was busy helping sugar farm workers in their strike: at the time, more than 170 hacienda laborers of Victorias Milling Corporation were forced to launch a strike against the company’s unfair labor practices.

“He was wearing a polo barong when I first met him, and I remember being struck by how gentle he looked and sounded as he gave me a briefing on the situation the workers were facing,” Coni recalled. She was assigned as the press relations officer, and he was mainly in charge of the rest of the staff who included various students and out-of-school youth who helped the SAC in its advocacies. Louie made the rounds of the picket lines and led support actions for the workers. Coni took on other tasks  in the SAC that needed to be completed. The leaflets, press releases and statements Louie wrote Coni would disseminate to members of the media and the rest of the Bacolod and Negros community. They were together frequently and Coni’s esteem for Louie grew.

“I saw how committed he was to helping the workers, and I wanted to be the same. For all his gentleness, he was very firm when it came to defending the rights of the poor and it didn’t matter if he was talking to a landowner, a government official or armed soldiers. He seemed tireless and he literarily gave everything to help the workers,” she said.

Coni had, by then, heard how Louie had used his inheritance to build houses and a school for the hundreds of tenants in his family’s hacienda, and how the SAC was also largely dependent on him for its finances. “His wallet was always open when it came to the workers,” she said. “It really felt like he would do anything for them.”

Louie had a car then, a Volkswagen Beetle, and more often than not it was used to run errands for the strikers and their families. Louie frequently acted as chauffer to the students who visited the picket lines and to the strikers whenever they needed to get anything from the town.

As for Louie, he also noticed how Coni took to her work in the SAC like a fish to water.

“She was always in high spirits as she did the work. She talked to the workers and helped give them hope as she assured them of our full support. She didn’t mind staying up late to write or to get up very early. She didn’t mind cleaning the office or arranging the files or going out on errands. What needed to be done, she did and she did so cheerfully,” Louie said.

He also remembers her righteous anger and indignation after the student volunteers came back from delivering rice and groceries to the picket line and narrowly escaped death when they were shot at by the hacienda’s security men. “She was very angry, and she kept saying that we should all get guns and weapons to protect ourselves and defend the workers.  There was no fear in her, only outrage and determination.”

Needless to say, they became good friends, and their friendship was based on mutual respect strengthened by the shared commitment to help workers and their families.

Neither would admit as to when exactly one began to feel differently about the other. Perhaps it was because they were still ordained members of the religious at the time, but more likely because neither knew what they were feeling.

“All I can say is that I was comfortable with him, and it felt happy to work with him, beside him. Aba’y malay ko ba kung ano yang romantic love na yan!” Coni said, laughing.

Louie, for his part, said that he had begun feeling happy whenever he saw Coni, and he knew instinctively that it was a different sort of feeling from the kind he experienced whenever he was with other friends.

“Coni had a strong personality, and she carried it with grace and warmth that people around her never failed to be gravitate toward her. I think that was what first attracted me to her — she was always full of energy and kindness toward everyone around her,” he said.

In any case, everything became more or less apparent during a short break the SAC staff had. Louie, Coni and the students went to Alcala beach in Punta Taytay, a village in Bacolod, for a swim and a small picnic. Coni already had permission to wear civilian clothes and not just her usual habit, and she walked barefoot in the sand. She didn’t think there was anything remiss when casually Louie asked her to take a walk with him. She agreed and together, they left behind the students.

Louie and Coni during a visit to Manila.( Photo by Rudy Santos/Philippine Star)

“We didn’t talk about anything unusual or particularly new. He was also barefoot and I saw that he was flat-footed, so I teased him about that,” Coni said.

After a short while, however, both of them became quiet. Coni wondered about the sudden silence, and though she still felt comfortable even in the absence of words, she became curious why Louie stopped talking. Then Louie said that they should go back. Coni turned to go, but Louie stood there, unmoving. Then he closed the short gap between them and kissed her gently on the forehead and smiled. Neither said anything.

As they returned to the others, Coni was thrown into sudden turmoil. “I didn’t know what happened, I didn’t know what I was feeling.  I also became very worried if what I was feeling and what happened was right,” she said.

There was really no time to discuss with Louie what transpired between them. There was always work to be done and what little free time they had they spent with other priests and nuns in their respective quarters. But even if there had been time, Coni would not have known what to say.

“I had heard of other nuns saying that they had crushes on Louie. One of them even said that she was certain that Louie felt the same way about her and that when the time was right, they would hold hands. I didn’t say anything because at the time I really didn’t understand anything,” she said. All she was certain of, she added, was that she was happy.

Neither talked about their feelings for the other, but continued to work side by side in the SAC. Sometimes, however, Louie would touch Coni’s head as if giving her a blessing, but his hand would linger longer than it would on the usual congregant.

Because of her involvement in Victoria plantation strikes and her participation in political rallies and discussions, Coni began to outgrow her religious vows. She had seen first hand the terrible poverty that the ordinary folk of Negros experienced day in day out, and she grew to abhor what seemed like the complete lack of conscience that the landowning families had as they threw lavish parties. She herself came from the same class, but she willingly, even willfully, began to remove herself from it. Her political awareness had also begun to grow, and her eyes had been opened to the true reasons behind the worsening social conflict in the country.

As for her faith, it was still strong, but convent life was no longer for her.

“I didn’t know that Louie himself accepted that his priesthood  also ended when he became a member of the revolutionary movement. He told me later on when we had both gone underground that he had previously remained a priest because it gave him a measure of freedom to help organize more people and encourage them to join and support the revolution. When he told me that, I was a little annoyed because he didn’t tell me sooner,” she said.

Her annoyance, she went on to explain, was because she had to go through a period of self-questioning, trying to reconcile her religious vows with her rapidly increasing political and ideological growth. “I would’ve been able to come to terms with myself sooner, and I could’ve done more to help the movement.”

Louie was forced to go underground two days after martial law was declared. He eluded arrest during the initial crackdown simply because the arresting unit of soldiers were easily fooled by denials that Louie was at the seminary when they arrived to take him. Coni was able to see him only after she, too, went underground, and again they worked together in the same group gathering support against the dictatorship. They were captured in September 1973 and released in 1974; Coni was freed in July and Louie the following month.

It was during their time underground that Louie and Coni finally confessed their mutual affection. By then they were both revolutionaries, comrades in the struggle, and the love they felt for each other was as strong as their desire for the Filipino people to gain true freedom and democracy.

Louie was formally released from the priesthood in 1974, while Coni got her dispensation in December 1972, two months after she applied for it.  On December 19, 1974, she married Louie in simple rites at the Archbishop’s Residence in Mandaluyong. Then newly designated Jaime Cardinal Sin officiated the wedding.

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Coni Ledesma and Luis Jalandoni during the book launch of Louie Jalandoni: Revolutionary, an illustrated biography, on April 25, 2015 in University of the Philippines Diliman.

This article was originally posted in Bulatlat.com. The story is an excerpt from Louie Jalandoni: Revolutionary, an illustrated biography of NDFP Senior Adviser Luis Jalandoni published in 2015. Both are still participating in the ongoing peace negotiations between the NDFP and Government of the Republic of the Philippines (GRP).

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