Fr. Leo James English, CSsR developed the Tagalog-English and English Tagalog dictionaries; Fr. Frank Connon, CSsR, a steadfast human rights defender
By Marivir R. Montebon
New York – For quite some time, I have been thinking of gathering my documentary projects in the Philippines in order to archive my work. I have been introduced into documentary filmmaking by the late Fr. Frank Connon, CSsR in Cebu, which was an honor considering that I had very little experience at video filming.
Fr. Frank, a well-loved eccentric priest in the Cebu community, introduced me to the world of his colleagues, stalwarts Fr. Louie Hechanova and Fr. Leo James English for the documentary projects.
In February this year, I got hold of my first documentary film about Fr. Louie Hechanova, thanks to digital editor Renato Regis who searched thoroughly where that film was. The Hechanova film was finished in 2003.
Among many things, Fr. Louie was an activist priest who headed the Redemptorist Church in Cebu and helped found the Goodwill Industries in Cebu which hired people with special abilities as industrial workers. He passed away due to a massive heart attack just when he accepted the job as spiritual adviser to then President Gloria M. Arroyo. I was glad to have secured the raw film from digital editor Renato Regis and I uploaded it on YouTube. https://youtu.be/p63T1vS7-dA
I believe Fr. Louie’s life of 61 years continues to be an inspiration for the clergy to take the side of the poor. He was brilliant as he was fearless.
My work on the life of Fr. James Leo English, again a project with Fr. Frank, had been left out missing. I finished this project in 2005-2006. Fr. English is also a Redemptorist priest who was mainly responsible for the creation of the English-Tagalog and Tagalog-English dictionaries for 18 years. He also institutionalized the Wednesday novenas for the Mother of Perpetual Help in Lipa and Baclaran where he served for 51 years. https://youtu.be/5XGd3Nmr4aQ
I realized why Redemptorist priests were so fluent in speaking Tagalog and Cebuano, the dictionaries of Fr. Leo English was a valuable contribution. The late Ricardo Cardinal Vidal took part in the documentary and described Fr. Leo as a gentle white priest who made his first confession joyous.
On the week of February 15, 2021, I got a message from digital editor Renato Regis who worked with me on the Connon documentary films. He wrote on Facebook messenger saying that he has retrieved the English file from his old office! I was ecstatic!
These two projects were my baptismal in documentary filming. I am forever grateful to Fr. Frank for the career break and for keeping my soul whole in his most wonderfully weird way of guidance.
Fr. Frank, who was himself a passionate photographer and filmmaker, did all of the interview and filming with the two priests. They were his friends I have not met Fr. Leo and Fr. Louie in person as they all died when these projects were made.
Fr. Frank had a heart of honoring his fellow priests through film and writing. He was instrumental in the publishing of the book Romano of the Philippines – about Fr. Rudy Romano who was abducted by the military during the time of Pres. Marcos (and still currently missing). The Romano book was written by my good friend Lilette Santos.
He served as the director for the Redemptorist Justice and Peace desk, taking after Fr. Louie. Fr. Frank was a fearless priest who spoke gently (in Cebuano language) before the military and police at the time when his office would lead the team of fact-finding missions in search of missing individuals.
Quiet loved and respected in Cebu, I have known Fr. Frank from a distance. The documentary projects he commissioned to me paved the way to our upbeat and lasting friendship.
In the summer of 2003, Fr. Frank turned over to me a giant bag-full of DVD films and photos that contained his raw work at the lobby of the Redemptorist Seminary. I asked him if he was certain to give me the projects, as it was previously offered to a much senior film and arts personality.
I want things done, so I am asking you to do it, he said to this effect in his usually staccato voice. I gladly took over the project.
My job was to sort Fr. Frank’s work all out, watch all the raw footage, and organize the pictures to be able to write a story and a script. I finished the Hechanova film first and then after several months, Fr. Leo English.
It was a joy working with Fr. Frank. He was fun and everyone knew he was eccentric. But his heart was generous, always doing things for others – especially farmers and the urban poor. He was my listening ear who spoke little but on point all the time.
He would listen all right and would say to me to not dwell so much on anger or hurt. Just shake it off and live life fully, as you are a child of God, just go on and on and on. Go your merry way. Our conversations always ended up in laughter because of his wit.
I bade Fr. Frank goodbye when I flew to the US in 2007. I did not know it was going to be the last time I’d share lunch with him. I will miss you Fr. Frank, I told him. I need to take a break (my husband was murdered in June 2007 and he immediately said mass inside the Redemptorist Church albeit unscheduled in his memory when I broke to him the news).
Once again, Fr. Frank was in his element, stretching his arm and said, go your merry way, my love. If you miss me, you just look at the stars above and see that we are all journeying on and on and on towards God, towards light.
Fr. Frank always cracked me up each time he ended our conversation in that manner (he always did that to everyone he spoke with). I took his message lightly and I always leave with a smile in my heart.
As years passed, I realized Fr. Frank was correct and that he wasn’t joking. We should not burden ourselves with the sorrows and fears of today. We should not be crippled by it – and instead just go on and go on with life, remembering that we are children of God and that we are journeying towards him.
Fr. Frank died in Cebu in 2011. Somehow I felt sorry that I never had the chance to talk to him in his last years. But I remember again what he told me, look up at the sky and keep on journeying towards God, towards light. Go your merry way. His Irish English accent still lingers in my ears, and yes, I do laugh. Thank you, Fr. Frank. You have immortalized yourself through your work. #