Mary Virginia Gonzaga was a woman with compassion, responsibility and a sense of mission.
Orphaned early, she had to be responsible for her brothers and sister. She graduated from college with a degree in commerce (1967) and then became an organizer for the Young Christian Workers in her birthplace of Negros Occidental. This was before she entered the religious life as a novice of the Religious of the Good Shepherd (RGS), where she took her final vows in 1979.
Among Gonzaga’s assignments were with slum dwellers in Cebu and then with migrant workers in Agusan. The social and economic realities that revealed themselves to her made her critical of development plans that sacrificed the well- being of poor people. In response, the sisters gave seminars that made the people aware of their rights and the various means they could use to address their problems. Local community leaders were identified and given training so that they themselves could teach and organize the others.
But “Sister Gin” contracted malaria and typhoid in Agusan; when she had recovered, she was sent back to Mindanao – as superior of the small RGS community in Sapad, Lanao del Norte, where there was some tension between Muslims and Christians.
Muslims made up almost half of the students in the diocesan school where Gonzaga taught. The school made it a point not to force or encourage them to join Catholic services, but instead tried to merely be accepted in their “apostolate of presence.” After school hours the sisters would visit the students in their homes.
Mary Virginia Gonzaga died in 1983 when an overloaded, dilapidated interisland vessel, the MV Cassandra, sank in the sea four hours after leaving Nasipit, Agusan del Norte bound for Cebu. She and three other RGS sisters were among the more than 600 passengers of the boat, of whom only 184 survived.
Other justice and peace workers who also perished in that tragedy included Inocencio Ipong of the Rural Missionaries of the Philippines (RMP), Sr. Amparo Gilbuena, MSM; Sena Canabria and Evelyn Hong of Task Force Detainees of the Philippines (TFDP), Sr. Josephine Medrano, FMA; Rev. Ben Bunio, United Church of Christ in the Philippines (UCCP); and Fr. Simon Westendorp, O.Carm. They did all they could to help others put on their life vests and evacuate the sinking ship.