It comes as a surprise to many that Felicidad Tan Sy of the SM empire knows how to peel a santol so that its skin forms one long, winding strip. It’s a skill borne of her humble past when she used to sell the fruit along the sidewalks of Quiapo as a teen. Another thing that might surprise people is that this devout and pious woman was not baptized a Catholic in infancy, and only converted when she was older and very much aware of the choice she was making.
“Siya ang bahala sa akin.”
As the story goes, she would visit Quiapo Church to pray. But as she lacked the formal religious education that is usually instilled in very young children, she did not know how to say the full rosary because she was never taught the Our Father, Hail Mary, and Glory Be. Instead, she would hold on to each bead and fervently recite the name of each corresponding prayer, repeating the words “Hail Mary” ten times in quick succession, followed by saying “Glory Be” before moving on to saying “Our Father” to start the next mystery of the rosary. This is an amusing anecdote, to be sure. But more importantly, this story points to the purity of her intentions, the sincerity of her faith, and her trust in her connection with the Lord. In fact, as one of the wealthiest women in the Philippines, and wife to Henry Sy Sr., Mrs. Sy—or Nanang as she is fondly referred to by her SM family—stays detached from the material trappings of this world, and has been known to point skyward saying, “Siya ang bahala sa akin.”
Nanang’s life of faith reached a turning point in the 1980s. The SM Department Store had already become a household name when Father Sonny Ramirez pulled her aside after speaking with some of its employees. He mentioned that many of them could not attend mass on Sundays due to their work schedules. This was during Pope John Paul II’s call for New Evangelization, when the Church made a more conscious effort to reach out to be a part of the lives of the faithful. Upon hearing this, and with the urging of a longtime friend, Father Montecarlo Viloria, Nanang eventually decided to hold a Sunday morning mass for employees in the SM Makati branch before it opened its doors to the Sunday crowd.
What happened next has forever changed the mass-going landscape in the Philippines. Because many customers would wait in line outside the still-closed department store, they could see that a mass was being held inside—and they asked if they could attend as well. Realizing that this would be an opportunity to be of help to her fellow Catholics, Nanang agreed to open the mass to the public. From here, Nanang resolved to have masses held in SM branches all over the country, and to build beautiful chapels in some of these locations—all so that both employees and customers could continue to cultivate their faith regularly.
Spiritual and Social Support
The growing demands that came with hosting all the masses eventually led to the founding of the Felicidad T. Sy Foundation, Inc., which became fully operational in 2009. With a mission of enabling the practical work of the Catholic Church, the foundation helps churches all over the Philippines by providing them assistance, while internally supporting the spiritual lives of SM staff members. The foundation does not only hold masses in most of the SM malls—it also holds mass weddings for its employees, as well as confirmations, recollections, and seminars.
A Faith Family
Through the years, the response to the foundation’s spiritual support has been positive, and Mel Elido, CEO of the Felicidad T. Sy Foundation, proudly tells stories of employees who have attributed their work ethic and promotions to the formation provided by the foundation’s masses and recollections. Mel also shares how their mass weddings include not just the sacramental ceremony but a reception—and maybe even a wedding gown! “Sometimes we lend them because we have gowns here in our office—items from SM that we got on sale,” she says. “We have about six pieces in different sizes. So when a bride-to-be says, ‘Can I just wear a dress, kasi wala po pambili ng gown?’ I’ll answer, ‘Meron kami dito!’ and they can just borrow.”
But beyond the thrills and frills of a beautiful wedding, Rushiel and Juvanne Villarosa, who participated in the foundation’s mass wedding, sum it up best. “Masaya po kami, Nanang, salamat po sa blessing na shinare niyo po sa amin. Sa bumubuo po ng staff ng Felicidad T. Sy Foundation, sa nakaisip ng napakaganda ng pag-sponsor sa aming kasal, maraming salamat po from the bottom of our hearts… Sana po ‘yung gawain na ‘to ay mapagpatuloy pa po at saka bibigyan kayo ng marami pa ‘pong ikakasal at marami pa ‘pong mabubuting tao na tutulong sa foundation ninyo.” Indeed, it’s a fast-paced and increasingly secular world that we live in. But as the Felicidad T. Sy Foundation has shown us, we can all do our part to keep the faith relevant, accessible, and alive.