Holy Cross Sisters minister in World War II internment camp
By Madisen Toth, archivist
As the sun rose in the Philippines on February 23, 1945, Sister M. Olivette (Whalen), CSC, prepared for the daily roll call at Los Baños internment camp. Her stomach ached with hunger. The Imperial Japanese Army guards had recently reduced rations to one cup of rice a day. But reduced privileges had started several months earlier, when World War II began changing in favor of the Allied Forces. And just the day prior, internees had been denied all food. Since then, Sister Olivette, Sister M. Caecilius (Roth), CSC, and 300 other religious in the camp had been praying for liberation and continuously reciting the rosary.
“We had called to Heaven for help, and it was from Heaven that help came.”
—Sister M. Olivette (Whalen), CSC
Suddenly, Sister Olivette saw a lone parachute falling from a plane. Before she knew it, 150 paratroopers of the United States Army’s 11th Airborne Division descended from the sky. American infantry and Filipino guerrillas appeared from their hiding places in the underbrush surrounding the camp and stormed the entrance. The Holy Cross sisters almost did not believe what was happening in front of them. “You can imagine seeing those paratroops drop out of those planes — 150 of them — not realizing we were the object of their jump until the bullets started whizzing,” Sister Caecilius later recalled. “And we saw our boys, American soldiers! Breaking through the fences, running across the fields and down the hills.”
Within an hour, Sister Olivette and Sister Caecilius were transported to safety as free women. After more than three years, their internment was finally over. Sister Olivette would later say, “We had called to Heaven for help, and it was from Heaven that help came.”
Stranded in the Philippines
On November 9, 1941, Sisters Olivette and Caecilius set sail from San Francisco, California. The two young religious sisters were part of a group of 19 Holy Cross priests, brothers and sisters headed for Dacca, India, now known as Bangladesh. They planned to arrive at the Holy Cross mission by Christmas. The sisters first stopped in Honolulu, Hawaii, on November 17, and then in Manila on December 4. Only a few days later, the Imperial Japanese Army bombed Pearl Harbor. In the days following the attack, the Japanese began their assault on the Philippines. The sisters’ ship left without any warning, leaving them and many other passengers stranded in Manila.
In the invasion, soldiers and civilians suffered severe injuries. Sisters Caecilius and Olivette responded by serving as nurses. Both sisters were previously nurses at Mount Carmel Hospital, Columbus, Ohio, from 1937 to 1940. In the Philippines, they cared for the injured at St. Paul’s Hospital. The U.S. Army then asked them to set up a makeshift hospital at the Philippine Women’s University. To prevent any further destruction and deaths, the United States declared Manila an open city on December 26, 1941. In a matter of days, the Japanese Army took custody of the sisters. For two and a half years they lived as internees in Manila. A small radio, left behind by an Army nurse, provided their sole contact with the outside world.
A New Mission Field
The Japanese troops were eager to establish friendly relations with Filipino citizens. They wanted to be seen as liberators rather than invaders and knew the Filipinos’ devotion to their religious teachers. In turn, the Japanese military purposefully treated Sisters Caecilius and Olivette, and other religious groups, with tolerance and humanitarianism. As a result, the sisters periodically served as nurses in the small hospital near their convent, which they shared with the Maryknoll Sisters of St. Dominic. Whenever they left their convent, they wore red armbands to identify themselves as the enemy.
But throughout their years-long ordeal, Sisters Caecilius and Olivette never lost sight of who they were. The camp and hospital were merely extensions of their mission field, the next step of their ministry. Each day they waited on the providence of God. And in caring for the sick and wounded, and compassionately accompanying other internees, they created community, modeled faith, and dispensed hope.
Keeping the Faith
In July 1944, the sisters were moved 25 miles southeast of Manila to Los Baños. At the camp, tall, barbed wire fences bordered clusters of thatched huts that housed more than 2,000 internees, forced to live with a dwindling food supply, limited clothing, and abysmal sanitation. Working with the few medical supplies on hand, Sisters Olivette and Caecilius treated the various illnesses that broke out among the prisoners, such as dysentery and beriberi. Still, several people died every day of malnutrition.
Despite the poor conditions in the camp, the religious did whatever they could to carry on in the faith and comfort the sick and despondent. The priests rationed the communion wine with eye droppers, and sisters spent days picking worms out of flour used to make the hosts. They even organized entertainment to help keep spirits up. Eventually, the encampment of Catholic faithful, through the intervention of the apostolic delegate in Manila, became a diocese. A bishop was appointed, and more than 600 Catholics in the camp attended daily Mass in the camp chapel, known as the “Cathedral.”
From Heaven help came
The raid on Los Baños is known today as one of the most successful rescue operations in modern military history. In a letter to Mother M. Rose Elizabeth (Havican), CSC, Sister Caecilius wrote, “The delight and joy that fill my heart at even the thought of being able to write a few lines to you and to our dear community so overwhelm me that I scarcely know what to say.” Upon their return to the motherhouse on May 22, 1945, a grand procession of Saint Mary’s College students and Holy Cross sisters greeted Sisters Caecilius and Olivette. They had all been fervently praying for the sisters’ safe return home for three and a half years.
As disciples of Jesus, the sisters’ experience in the Philippines did not stop them from responding to the continuing needs of their times. After a period of recovery, both sisters ministered in São Paulo, Brazil, for more than 15 years. Sister Olivette served as the Superior General from 1967 to 1973 and helped usher in a time of renewal within the Congregation after Vatican II. Sister Caecilius continued to minister as a nurse for more than 20 years, until her death on December 4, 1990. Almost 11 years later, Sister Olivette died on May 16, 2001. Their story of survival and perseverance is just one example of how the Sisters of the Holy Cross have faithfully responded to the needs of God’s people, a calling they will carry out for years to come.
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