Starweek Magazine

GAWAD CCP AWARDEE Fr. Bernardo Ma. Perez, OSB: ‘What I Did For Love Of Country’

- Michele T. Logarta -

Talking with Rodrigo D. Perez III, better known as Rev. Fr. Bernardo Ma. Perez, osb or Fr. Bob, is like reading a fascinating history book or going on an exciting historical tour. He has a memory so sharp it could cut through the thickest, densest plank of a mind. While telling stories about his childhood, his parents Enriqueta David and Rodrigo Perez Jr., life during the Japanese occupation, the tumult of the 70s, or the coups d’etat of the 80s, names, dates and the littlest of details roll off his tongue with amazing ease. “I am just an old man,” he says with a laugh, “with a lot of memories.”

There is nothing ancient or rickety about this priest, even if he uses a cane and sometimes a wheelchair to get around nowadays. In retirement since 2001, Fr. Bob remains a highly respected figure in education and culture. He is a writer, educator and an authority on architecture, philosophy and theology.

“No, I am not an authority on architecture!” he protests. But no one who knows the man and his work – and even the uninitiate who all but throws a cursory glance at his curriculum vitae – will believe that.

Fr. Bob has always had a passion for architecture. As a little boy, he remembers having watched an uncle draw plans for a house. “Because of that, I knew I wanted to become an architect.” he recalls. “It was the planning and the imagining that fascinated me, more than the building.”

Fr. Bob took up architecture at the University of Santo Tomas. “A professor examining my work told me, ‘Rod, you may make a good architectural critic but you are a damn lousy draftsman!’” Fr. Bob went on to finish the course only to fail the board examinations. It was a terrible blow but it made him all the more determined to start reviewing again and re-take the exam. 

“My mother said that maybe God wanted me for something else. I said, ‘No, I am going to take the board again!’”

Fr. Bob began writing articles for the newspapers when his mother, a leading journalist of the time, offered his services to the Herald, which needed someone to write a review of Helen Traubel, the first American Wagnerian soprano of the Metropolitan Opera of New York, who was in Manila. That review started what was to become an eminent journalistic career, writing on art, culture, history and architecture.  

He first wrote on architecture in 1953, an article called Nipa Hut and Modern Architecture. Another of his early pieces on architecture was a series on Pablo Antonio, Angel Nakpil, Cesar Concio and Carlos Arguelles entitled Architects of a Generation in the Sunday Times Magazine in 1956. He has since co-authored several major publications and books and singles out his experience co-writing Folk Architecture with Julian Dacanay and Ning Encarnacion as one he enjoyed very much. The book was published by Gilda Cordero Fernando, who had long been trying to get Fr. Bob to write something for her. He had suggested that a book be written to promote ethnic architecture. 

“I have always believed that Philippine architecture, starting from the ethnic to the present, is something unique. That has been my obsession…that there is such a thing as Filipino architecture and we have to recognize it,” he says. “I am saddened that even architects still don’t accept it, perhaps because they don’t see it.  I am saddened when I see all these developments like subdivisions with foreign names…Why don’t they look at our native architecture and for sure they will find something there.”

Fr. Bob makes his point: “Space in Filipino architecture is unique. There is this idea of space surrounded by space. You have a principal room and then you have auxiliary spaces around it. It could be a platform, shelf, another room, or a corridor. I have seen this in Ifugao houses, Itneg houses, the torogan, drawings of T’boli houses and the Bahay na Bato especially.  In Filipino architecture, ornament is integrated with structure and texture is part of the design. Filipino architecture is characterized by simplicity and transparency and an air of festivity.”

Fr. Bob is well known for being a champion of old churches and their preservation. This advocacy began when he heard that the Santuario de la Sta. Cruz in San Juan was going to be renovated by the Dominican priests. Fr. Bob wrote letters to literally every one to protest the plan. “I don’t know what weight my letter had but they ended up preserving the façade. That was the first project that I got so emotionally involved with, to the point of daring to write a letter to the Pope.” Later, Fr. Bob was invited to the join the Historical Conservation Society which undertook the restoration of the Church of Morong in 1960, the first restoration of Las Piñas Church in 1961-62, and the Majayjay Church. It was Fr. Bob who supervised the Morong church project when the architect who started the project, Carlos Da Silva, died midway through the restoration. He also drew up the general plans for the Majayjay church, but by then he had become a Benedictine monk.

Fr. Bob entered the monastery at the age of 30. Trappist monk Thomas Merton’s autobiography Seven Storey Mountain, the influential book that sent a flurry of young men in the 1950s and 60s into monasteries, a visit to a kibbutz in Israel and traveling with the Bayanihan Folk Dance Company all set Fr. Bob on the path up his mountain that was the Abbey of Our Lady of Montserrat. 

Before entering the monastery, Fr. Bob worked for the government’s Board of Travel and Tourist Industry from 1956 to 1963. He joined the Bayanihan tour of Europe and the US in 1958 and the group’s international tour in 1959-1960 as set and lighting designer, technical director and stage manager.

“Religious consciousness was building up in me at the time,” Fr. Bob remembers. “In early 1963, I began seriously thinking of entering the monastery.”

On June 29, 1963, Fr. Bob became a monk, “a man alone with God.”  How can this worldly, erudite, influential man ever be alone? Fr. Bob says being a man alone with God is the source of his strength.

“I may sound preachy, but when you are alone with God, you feel that you are at the very source of all strength and, at the same time, being alone with God you are detached from the rest of the world. It’s a paradox. It is easier to be involved because you can get into something with complete freedom and then withdraw with complete freedom. Being detached, in the sense that spiritual writers use the term, is a way of being more involved.”

Fr. Bob has the distinction of being the longest-serving rector-president of San Beda College. He served three terms, from 1971-74, 1977-1983 and 1986-2001, a total of 24 years. “It was not the best time to be rector,” he says. “When I started it was martial law, then after that it was one financial crisis after the other. I was very lucky to have had fellow administrators who were very supportive and knew what they were doing.” 

A Benedictine priest for the past 45 years, Fr. Bob lives in the beautiful Abbey of Our Lady of Montserrat inside the San Beda compound. As a long time resident of Mendiola Street and neighbor to Malacañang, he has been witness to the march of our nation’s history and even played an important role in the December 1989 coup drama. Fr. Bob remembers that early December day, starting with the drone of planes overhead and gunfire in the air as they celebrated mass. “We didn’t know whether to run away from the church…we didn’t know what was going on.”

At noon, Margie Juico, President Cory’s secretary, came knocking at the Abbey. The President wanted him to come to her Arlegui residence and bless the family. “Mendiola was full of press people, sitting on the sidewalks, and I must have been very conspicuous in my habit, obviously going towards the President’s Arlegui residence. Cory came out with her two daughters, Viel and Kris. ‘We don’t know what’s going to happen to us, could you pray with us and give us a blessing?’ she said. I thought these people were in danger of death. I gave them a blessing and general absolution. And then she handed me a big bag. She said, ‘I want to give this to you for safekeeping. You see, we don’t know what is going to happen to us. I want to make sure that these things will be safe. These are the diaries of Ninoy.’”

Fr. Bob took the diaries back to San Beda and hid them in his cabinet. “I did not open it at all. I felt like I was carrying something so sacred that to look at it would be like desecrating it. I didn’t tell anyone…no one in the house knew I was keeping those things.” 

Later, on Dec. 21, Fr. Bob was asked to officiate at a mass for employees in Malacañang, with Pres. Cory attending. After the mass, the President addressed the audience and then thanked Fr. Bob and told everyone the story of how she had entrusted Ninoy’s diaries to him.

“This deep dark secret I was keeping…she was telling everybody!” Fr. Bob recounts. The next day, the story was on the front pages. People kept asking him if he had taken a peek at the diaries.”

Later, a friend teased him,  “Mahina ka pala. Kung Jesuit yan, pina-xerox na yan!”

Nowadays, Fr. Bob teaches psalms to a class of four young men preparing to enter the monastic life and is the senior cantor of the Abbey’s Schola Cantorum, a small group of monks who lead in the singing, alternating with the choir, at prayer time. He reads voraciously and has all the time in the world to read all the newspapers everyday.

“I never could do that before. Now I know what is going on in Darfur, in Tibet, Iraq and Iran and care about what’s going on. I find myself moved by what’s going on and I see this as something to pray about,” he says. “Karl Barth said, ‘The Christian must read with a Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.’”

This September, Fr. Bob will receive the Gawad CCP Para sa Sining for cultural work, an award given to outstanding cultural workers who, through their works in research, curatorship or administration, have helped to develop or enrich particular art forms or Philippine culture in general. The Gawad CCP Para sa Sining, CCP president Nestor Jardin explains, is the highest award that the CCP gives to artists and cultural workers. It is a recognition of their lifetime work and accomplishments. The CCP gives these awards in order to promote excellence among artists and cultural workers.

This year, the Gawad CCP Para Sa Sining will also be given to seven other individuals and an organization – Felicitas L. Radaic for dance: Gilopez Kabayao for music; Monino S. Duque for theater; the late Francisco V. Coching for visual arts; Malou L. Jacob for literature; the late Manuel Conde for film; Pitoy R. Moreno for fashion design. The Philippine Folk Dance Society will receive the Tanging Parangal.

Of Fr. Bob, who once served as trustee on the CCP Board, Jardin has this to say: “He is a man of many talents and interests. As a person, he is kind, simple, humble and quite jolly. I love listening to his funny stories and anecdotes about his past involvement in artistic projects.”

With characteristic acuity and humility, Fr. Bob says: “What I have done is mainly to research about Philippine architecture…but I don’t think I’ve done anything that deserves an award. It’s not really because of what I did but because of my love for our country. It has to begin there.”

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