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How Chinese Mestizo Lorenzo Ruiz Became the First Filipino Saint

His life and faith is a reminder of the hold of religion in the Philippines.
IMAGE WIKIMEDIA COMMONS
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In 1636 Manila, a man was accused of committing murder most foul. Normally, the courts arranged for justice to be served after due process, but the situation was slightly different. The victim was a Spaniard, and the accused?

It was Lorenzo Ruiz.

Lorenzo Ruiz did not trust the Spanish courts.

The news of the accusation shocked Ruiz and his family. By all accounts, Ruiz was a normal Filipino. He lived peacefully with his wife, Rosario, his two sons, and his daughter. He was a devout Catholic and a member of the Dominican Cofradia del Santisimo Rosario. His life was much like everybody else, revolving around God and subsistence from day to day.

Ruiz couldn’t trust the courts; he knew that much. A lifetime of colonial inequality has taught him that a legal battle between Spaniards and Filipinos under Spanish laws wasn’t a legal battle at all. He couldn’t turn to the government.

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And he wasn’t just any native Filipino, either. He was a Chinese mestizo, with a sangley father and a Filipino mother. Ruiz was barely three years old when the Sangley Rebellion ended with the massacre of thousands of native Chinese migrants in 1603. If there was one fact of life that he knew, it was that the Spaniards treated people like him as slightly better than dirt.

Photo by WIKIMEDIA COMMONS.
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Lorenzo Ruiz sought help from the Dominican friars.

So he sought a higher power. The Dominican priests had always been good to him. As a boy, he served as an altar boy at the Binondo Church. The Dominican friars would teach him basic education for a few years, just the minimum deemed necessary for a Chinese mestizo, and gave him the title of escribano or calligrapher. When he got too old to be an altar boy, he worked a desk job in the church as a clerk.

Thankfully, the Dominicans were able to help. Understanding Ruiz’s plight, he was allowed to join a missionary mission bound for Japan. This would be life-changing for Ruiz. He had never been outside the Manila, let alone outside the Philippines. But, he had no other choice. On June 10, 1636, Ruiz left his wife, his children, and his life, and set sail to Japan.

He joined three Dominican priests: Antonio Gonzales, Guillermo Courtet, and Miguel de Aozaraza; a Japanese priest, Vicente Shiwozuka de la Cruz; and a leper, Lazaro de Kyoto. Their plan was to land near a Christian enclave and begin proselytizing there. It’s no secret that the Japanese didn’t take too kindly to Christian missionaries: the Tokugawa Shogunate took a very isolationist approach and kicked out all foreigners along with any foreign influences. Even powerful daimyos like Dom Justo Takayama weren’t spared from the cull.

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It is debatable whether or not Ruiz knew what he was getting into. The Dominican priests, naturally, knew the dangers of going to Japan. Regardless, Ruiz would rather leave than become a victim of a show trial. That he was also going to a mission in the service of God was a nice bonus.

Lorenzo Ruiz was martyred in Japan.

Things didn't go as planned, however. The Dominican ship hit a snag and landed in hostile waters: Okinawa, Japan. The Japanese shogunate immediately arrested the foreigners and jailed them.

They stayed in jail for over a year before they were brought to Nagasaki for a trial. They were ordered to abandon the Catholic faith and leave Japan. The missionaries all agreed to leave, but not to apostatize. Thus sealed their faith.

Ruiz and his companions were tortured: physically and psychologically. They were forced to ingest inhuman amounts of water. They were stabbed, pressed, soaked, and repeatedly crushed. Their captors emphasized that the torture would stop if they renounced their faith.

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None of them did do so.

The final day came on September 27, 1637, over a year after his initial journey. He was hung upside-down by the feet, and lowered to a pit. A cut was made on his forehead to facilitate bleeding and prevent unconsciousness. This was tsurushi, reverse hanging, and was the common punishment for Christians.

Ruiz lasted two days as he lost more blood. Eventually, his body gave out and he passed away, his faith intact. He was 37 years old, and the Philippines’ first martyr.

Lorenzo Ruiz is the first Filipino saint.

His story is fascinating in multiple lights. Beyond the story of a man who clung to his faith despite every single hardship, he also reflected attitudes common to early 17th-century colonial Philippines. The importance of religion in a colonial, feudal society like the Philippines at the time showed itself in Ruiz’s life, from his humble beginnings to his grisly end.

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Today, Lorenzo Ruiz is known as the first Filipino saint of the Roman Catholic Church, the religion still predominant in the country. He is both a symbol of pride of Filipino resilience and a reminder of our history and the hold of religion in daily Filipino life.

Sources:

St. Lorenzo Ruiz, Catholic.org

Rose, M. The Heroically Ordinary Life of Saint Lorenzo Ruiz. Catholic Exchange.

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About The Author
Justin Umali
Justin is left-handed, left-leaning, and best left in a cool, damp place. He listens to Vampire Weekend when he's down and Car Seat Headrest when he's not. He usually writes about Philippine history and politics, and believes that you cannot change the world without understanding it first.
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