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How I returned to New York — on a spiritual journey |

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How I returned to New York — on a spiritual journey

The Philippine Star
How I returned to New York â on a spiritual journey

Ribbon-cutting ceremonies to open the exhibit: Consul General Tess Dizon De Vega, author Dom Martin, guest of honor Loida Nicolas Lewis and Erlie Gomez Manaloto

MANILA, Philippines — Almost 40 years ago, as the fashion designer Gang Gomez, I presented two fashion shows at the Philippine Center on Fifth Avenue in New York, one in 1979 and another in 1981. It was considered a very big honor then — and a sign one had finally arrived — when a designer was invited to present his fashion creations at the Philippine Center. I have such wonderful memories of those highlights of my fashion career. So when my cousin Reggie Liwag, who had just finished a painting exhibit at the Philippine Center, asked me two years ago why I hadn’t yet brought the Vestment Collection of Transfiguration Abbey to the Center, I also started to ask: why not?

And so in early 2016, I approached our Superior, Fr. Prior Savio Ma. Siccuan, OSB, with the idea to exhibit our Filipino Vestments Collection in New York. He has been most supportive of my artistic projects in the monastery, and in fact, has also approved our comeback  exhibit, “Filipino Vestments For Worship,” at the Ayala Museum from June-July 2017.

People sometimes wonder why I still have these “artistic activities,” even having been inside the monastery since 1990. Not too many people know that in The Rule of St. Benedict for Monks written in the sixth century, our father St. Benedict wrote in Chapter 57 that an artisan who enters the monastery may still be allowed to practice his craft, as long as he remains humble, and it is made clear that all his work is done for the glory of God.

I soon found myself corresponding with Victor Cruz, the Philippine Center officer assigned to coordinate exhibits. He had seen my portfolio and immediately scheduled our exhibit, “Filipino Vestments For Worship,” for Nov. 20 to Dec. 1, 2017.

The exhibit was all about inculturation, a movement in the Catholic Church since the Second Vatican Council, wherein the Church encourages more respect for the culture of peoples wherever it expands. This is especially visible in the liturgy, where Church music, architecture and vestments are created in such a way as to highlight each people’s culture.

As the exhibit drew closer, I chose 25 vestments from what was to be a 65-piece collection for the New York exhibit. Since it was not only a liturgical project but also a venue to show off the beauty of our Filipino indigenous textiles, I made sure the collection would include weaves of the Itneg, Ifugao, Mandaya, Tausug, T’boli, Yakan and Maranao tribes, among others. A lot of hand-embroidery of piña, abaca and Mindanao silk was also used for the exhibit. But even the embroidery designs have been inculturated, with designs borrowed from or inspired by the designs found in Filipino indigenous textiles.




Thanks to my sister, Erlie Gomez Manaloto, our hotel was a short walking distance — just three blocks away — to the Philippine Center on Fifth Ave. As we approached the iconic façade on our first day, with “PHILIPPINES” in bold letters and its heavily-carved unpainted wood window accents, I recalled the many times I had passed by this building on Fifth Avenue: as a fashion design student in 1969, I walked by every afternoon after school, enjoying also the display windows of Sak’s Fifth Ave., B. Altman and Bergdorf Goodman, on my way home.

Little did I know that, 10 years later, I would be returning to New York to present my fashion collection as Gang Gomez at the Philippine Center in 1979. Nor did it enter my mind that, 40 years later, I would return to the Philippine Center as Dom Martin Gomez, OSB, as a Benedictine monk!

The very efficient Victor Cruz was there to meet us at the center the day after we arrived and faciliate things. Many friends helped us in so many ways. Cousins of my brother-in-law, Jason, were there to help us in mounting the exhibit (two of them even flew from Manila for the occasion). Former Benedictine novice, my batchmate Danny Canonigo, was there; Chris Fallarme and Edwin Josue coordinated invites to the opening reception. Tammy Manaloto helped prepare and cater the food for the opening reception.

Our guest of honor, Loida Nicolas Lewis, came early enough so I could give her a guided tour of the exhibit before most of the guests arrived. Consul General Tess de Vega led the ceremonial ribbon cutting, together with Loida, and assisted by my sister, Erlie Gomez Manaloto.

Consul General de Vega welcomed the guests in her speech, expressing support for the use of our Filipino indigenous textiles, not only for the liturgy but also in everyday things. Loida, for her part, said that every Filipino community abroad should have at least one  Filipino liturgical vestment from Transfiguration Abbey, to loud applause.

I had to clarify in my speech that the vestments on exhibit were not for sale; they belong to the permanent collection of the monastery and are part of the permanent exhibit of Filipino Liturgical Vestments at the Museum of Transfiguration Abbey (MTA) in Malaybalay City.

But what I found more exciting than the exhibit opening was the lecture I gave a week later. In the curatorial talk I shared my personal experiences working with the many ethno-linguistic groups all over the country who wove the beautiful textiles used for the exhibit. The enthusiastic audience included Philippine Ambassador to the United Nations Teddy Boy Locsin and his gracious wife, Louie. We were also honored by the presence of the curator of the Hispanic Society Museum, Constancio del Alamo, who, after the lecture, invited me to visit their museum so he could show me their 17th century collection of Philippine treasures. It was a most beautiful evening and I especially enjoyed the questions, revealing a genuine interest in inculturation.

By pure and pleasant coincidence, Filipino fashion designer Renee Salud presented his Philippine Tourism-sponsored fashion collection that same weekend at the Philippine Center’s Kalayaan Hall, the very same venue where I had my Gang Gomez fashion shows almost 40 years ago. As a special guest of  Consul General de Vega, I was seated in the front row, two seats away from Ambassador Locsin, and right across me on the other side of the fashion show aisle was the Consul General herself, who fetched me to occupy a very choice seat.

That night as I was in bed doing my examen, a nightly monastic practice of reviewing the day to find out if it was a day well spent, it brought back beautiful memories of my fashion shows there 40 years ago. The late Ronnie Alejandro organized both projects. He was a dear friend from my school days in New York. Ronnie was the artistic director of Bruna Seril’s Philippine Dance Company of New York, and I was one of his dancers. I remembered that the beautiful former PETA actress, Lily Gamboa O’Boyle, even bought one of my little black dresses from the show. That is why it was so wonderful that Lily also attended the opening of our vestments exhibit, recalling our wonderful get-togethers when we were all younger.

Creative work is endless! As a fashion designer for almost 20 years before I entered the monastery, I concentrated on Philippine haute couture, using a lot of indigenous materials like abaca, piña and indigenous textiles in my creations. But that evening, Renee Salud showed there are still so many things one can do creatively in fashion.

When I was a designer, it was always my wish to meet the famous designers I admired. But during this latest trip, what I really looked forward to was the courtesy call to the Permanent Representative of the Holy See to the United Nations. Our very own Ambassador Locsin arranged a meeting, and even personally fetched me and my sister Erlie, accompanying us to the office of Archbishop Auza, a very kind and humble person. And to my surprise, a Filipino. Thank you, Lord! It was truly an amazing encounter, by the grace of God.

My visit to the Hispanic Society Museum was also memorable. In spite of the fact that the museum was closed for renovations, the very amiable curator, Constancio del Alamo, gave me a private viewing of the museum collections. His kind wife, Elizabeth, who is herself a scholar of Spanish Medieval Art, accompanied our private viewing of 17th century treasures from the Philippines, which included magnificent ivory santos, superior hand-embroidered piña blouses, veils and handkerchieves. As I kept admiring the excellent collection, I couldn’t help but think how Ambeth Ocampo would have enjoyed such an experience. I was later told that I was the only Filipino to be given a private viewing of the museum’s treasures in the last 30 years.

No trip to New York is complete without a visit to The Cloisters, my favorite New York destination. The Cloisters is part of the Metropolitan Museum of New York, located on four acres in Manhattan’s Fort Tyron Park, and specializing in European monastic (Benedictine and Cistercian) medieval architecture, sculpture and decorative arts. As a student in New York, I loved to visit this place, sit on one of the stone benches along the corridors or in the gardens, and listen to the faint Gregorian music. Little did I know that one day, I would be living in among cloisters myself, at the Abbey of the Transfiguration.

When we were younger, we just went through life, not really noticing the many messages God was sending us. But now that I am 69, I have learned to take a long, loving look at everything around me and within me.

A lot of my friends say they are amazed at how I have reinvented myself. I always tell them it is rather a matter of taking a long, loving look at one’s whole life, from the beginning, up to the present. Then we realize that everything is really part of God’s plan. My being born to a loving family with parents who loved me dearly. My going to a Benedictine school. My studies in fashion and my fashion career for almost 20 years. Giving up a successful career to enter the monastery in Malaybalay. Being able to again use my designing gift to create vestments for the Church I love so much. My continuing dedication to the promotion of inculturation of the Church’s liturgy.  All these are part of God’s plan for me. By the grace of God, I have allowed God’s plan to be revealed in me. Each day. Each moment.

Many will only see the externals of this recent project. An exhibit of liturgical vestments. Beautiful indigenous textiles. The Philippine Center in New York. Good work of inculturation. Media coverage.

But more than that, this monastery project is really important to me because it has even made more clear who I am today. I thank God for giving me the chance to return to the Philippine Center in New York as a Benedictine monk. God’s plan for me continues to be revealed each day. I only hope and pray that people will recognize this for what it truly is: a spiritual journey for me.

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