The Strange Case of the Ecleos and the Philippine Benevolent Missionaries Association
When Ruben Ecleo Jr. died while under the custody of the Bureau of Corrections earlier this month, it was significant in more ways than one. Ecleo was a former representative of the Dinagat Islands and a former mayor of the municipality of San Jose in the same province.
But Ecleo was also the leader of the Philippine Benevolent Missionaries Association Inc. (PBMA), a religious organization founded by his father in the 1960s. Some people see it as a harmless non-profit with followers not just from the Dinagat Islands but from all over the Visayas and Mindanao and beyond. But many also see it as a cult that exploits people from impoverished communities.
What is it exactly? And who are the people behind it?
The origins of Ruben Ecleo Sr.
The PBMA was founded by Ruben Ecleo Sr., who was born on December 9, 1934 in the island of Cabilan in the Dinagat Islands. An extensive biography claims Ecleo Sr. was an “active, industrious and obedient” child. He had reportedly started ministering to his young friends at the age of eight and “attained the state of oneness with his higher or spiritual self” when he spent days and nights alone in the mountains at the age of 12.
Ecleo spent several months in the United States in 1952, when he joined a “survey study tour,” returning to the Philippines in 1953. Two years later, he married Glenda Buray, and the couple soon had a total of eight children: Ruben Jr., Glorigen, Gracelyn, Benglen, Allan I, Allan II, Geraldine and Gwendolyn.
Ecleo continued his missionary work throughout the rest of the 1950s and early 1960s, traveling to places like Davao, Bukidnon, Leyte, and Samar. It was during these visits when reports of his “healing powers” surfaced. Through a “divine presence,” Ecleo was supposedly able to cure illnesses and even raise people back from the dead.
In the early 1960s, the young “healer-missionary” was able to recruit his first followers, who has since come to be known as the First Thirteen. It was also during this time when he took on the title of “Divine Master.”
What is PBMA
With his rising popularity, it was only a matter of time before Ecleo entered politics. In 1963, he was elected mayor of San Jose, a position he would hold for 24 years until his death in 1987.
Two years after winning the local executive post, Ecleo established the PBMA in 1965, when it was officially registered with the Securities and Exchange Commission. Among other goals, the organization was formed “to promote national and international peace and unity; preach and practice the virtue of benevolence by being charitable, giving voluntarily, helping generously, serving faithfully, without discrimination or distinction as to race, religion or nationality.”
Based in Ecleo’s hometown of Dinagat Islands, the PBMA quickly attracted members within and outside the province. His charisma and ability to “heal” drew followers from far and wide.
At its peak, the PBMA counted anywhere from one to three million members nationwide, based on the count of the Philippine National Police.
Not much is known about the activities of PBMA members as the organization keeps out non-members. But according to a story in the Philippine Daily Inquirer in 2012, a member of the PBMA in Talisay City in Cebu said they would gather to perform songs and rituals before a picture of the organization’s leaders every first Saturday of the month. The member said her life had turned “from bad to good” after accepting Ecleo as her “supreme master.”
The Divine Master's Mansion in Dinagat Islands
“All members have to give up smoking, gambling, and drinking of any kind of liquor,” the PDI article, which was originally published in PDI affiliate Cebu Daily News, said. “Violation of this rule is a ground for getting cut off from the group. Every member should observe the highest level of morality and discipline.”
Another PBMA official said PBMA is not a cult and should not be identified as such. He said its teachings “are a mixture of Christian, Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism and Akashic doctrines.”
Passing the torch
But the numbers of PBMA members dwindled following two major events in the organization’s history. First, the death of Ecleo Sr. in December 1987. Afterwards, the leadership of PBMA transferred to his firstborn son, Ruben Ecleo Jr., a onetime musician and recording artist. Ecleo Jr. also eventually ran for public office, succeeding his father as mayor of San Jose and eventually winning a post as representative of the lone district of Dinagat Islands.
(Many other members of the Ecleo family sought an elective government position in their home turf. According to a report by the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism, after the Dinagat Islands separated from Surigao Del Norte and became its own province in 2006, at least 13 officials bearing the surname Ecleo won their respective races, including matriarch Glenda Ecleo, who ran unopposed as representative of the province’s lone congressional seat. Also victorious were five of the couple’s eight children: daughter Geraldine as governor, daughter Gwendolyn as mayor of Dinagat, son Benglen as mayor of San Jose, Allan II, as member of the town’s Sangguniang Bayan, and Gracelyn as member of the Sangguniang Panglalawigan. Only son Allan I lost in his bid for Vice Governor of Surigao del Norte).
The second event that led to PBMA reportedly losing believers was the infamous murder case involving Ecleo Jr. In January 2002, the body of Ecleo Jr’s wife, 27-year-old Alona Bacolod, was found dumped inside a garbage bag at the bottom of a ravine in Cebu.
Shootout in Dinagat Islands
After a warrant of arrest was issued against him, Ecleo Jr. retreated to the PBMA stronghold of the Dinagat Islands. There was a tense standoff between police officials and loyal members of the PBMA who prevented the officials from serving the arrest warrant.
A few weeks later, police officials returned with heavily armed soldiers from the Army’s 20th Infantry Battalion and air support in the form of two MG-520 helicopters. This time, at least 2,000 PBMA loyalists surrounded the Ecleo mansion, with some of them opening fire against the arresting team, leading to the officials being forced to fire back.
When the shootout ended, 17 people lay dead. Sixteen of them were Ecleo’s followers and one was a police officer. Ecleo Jr. eventually gave himself up to police. The trial commenced while Ecleo was allowed to post bail worth P1 million. Ten years later, in 2012, he was found guilty of murdering his wife and sentenced to at least 30 years in prison. He was also ordered to pay P25 million as compensatory damages to his wife’s family. (Unfortunately, Alona Bacolod’s parents and two siblings, Ben and Evelyn, were all shot to death by a gunman in 2002. The suspect was allegedly a loyal member of the PBMA).
In addition to the murder case, Ecleo Jr had also earlier been convicted of graft and corruption related to the construction of the town market of San Jose when he was mayor.
Even then, residents of Dinagat Islands seemed not to care about the charges against Ecleo Jr. In fact, he ran for congressman of the province in 2010—and won.
The law catches up
But after his conviction, Ecleo Jr. was nowhere to be found. He had stopped appearing in court in 2011. He had then become one of the country’s most wanted men.
Finally, in July 2020, Ecleo Jr. was arrested by police in Pampanga. He had reportedly been living under an assumed name, “Manuel Riberal,” in Angeles City and was even able to play golf occasionally.
Ecleo Jr. maintained his innocence of the death of his wife, but, in media interviews, he said he accepted the verdict as it had already been proven in court. He also said that he had not been Supreme Master of PBMA “for a very long time” and had already handed over his responsibilities with the organization to his sister and son.
The onetime leader of PBMA succumbed to cardiopulmonary arrest on May 13, 2021. Reports say he had been suffering from multiple health issues—including COVID-19, from which he had already recovered—when he died.
It is unknown how many members PBMA has today. A report from 2013 said the PBMA had about 140,000 members, but that number could have easily risen—or, more likely, fallen—since then. What’s for sure though is that most members of the organization, particularly those living in its home province of Dinagat Island, continue to pledge their undying fidelity to the Ecleos, and that’s something we don’t see wavering in the foreseeable future.
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