A Time to Say Goodbye

Written by Allyson Escobar for her Lolo (Grandpa) Pete Lagrosa.

Throughout his life, Pedro “Pete” Lagrosa, 81, has always cared for others.

He admires the Italian saints Padre Pio, St. Peregrine, and St. Francis of Assisi for their qualities of courage, devotion, and sympathy for people everywhere. Wanting to pray and follow in their holy footsteps, Pete was determined to visit the final resting places of these beloved saints in June of this year. So with the help of his three sons, he started planning a last-minute family trip to Italy to visit his favorite saints.

Pete, who has had diabetes as well as a heart stroke in 2005, was recently diagnosed with pancreatic cancer on May 11th after losing a considerable amount of weight over the past four months. Since the diagnosis, he has felt no bodily pain, no signs of jaundice or vomiting.

“I have the feeling that this might be the divine will, and I consider it as having a passport to heaven,” Pete says humbly of his condition.

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An Extraordinary Life for Others

Born June 1933 in Culion, a small colony on the Palawan Islands of the Philippines, Pete grew up surrounded by family, three sisters and one brother. His mother was Ana Fernandez, from Cuyo. His father, a doctor and graduate of the University of the Philippines, devoted his life to taking care of people, particularly the lepers living in Culion. Pete and his siblings spent a lively childhood on the island while their father tended to the sick and dying. Years later, the Lagrosa family relocated to Davao City, where Pete graduated from two Jesuit institutions: a local high school and later at Ateneo de Davao University.

“It’s why I have such a respect for the Jesuits and especially Pope Francis,” Pete comments about his education. “My Jesuit professors were all from New York, because at the time the Philippine Jesuits were still under the province of New York. Under the Jesuits, I had a profound education and training so that influenced me to later enter the Jesuit seminary in Manila, where I stayed for about a year.”

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As the saying goes, “Many are called, but few are chosen.” In the end, Pete did not feel called to become a Jesuit priest. A twist of fate brought him to enter the F.E.U. Medical Center in Quezon City, where he studied medicine and later graduated in 1963. “I wanted to follow in my father’s footsteps and help others, especially the sick,” he said.

Pete married Amelia Uytingco shortly after graduation, and they moved to the United States in 1968. After a few years traveling around and later becoming U.S. citizens, they settled in Hacienda Heights, CA, in 1974. Around the same time, they were blessed with three sons, Alfredo (Freddy), Anthony, and Paul.

Pete’s medical career began in West Covina, where he worked at Queen of the Valley Hospital and Intercommunity Hospital for 34 years. He later started up his own practice caring for others. He still lives in Hacienda Heights with his family and four grandchildren.

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The Medical Missions 

In 1986, Pete and some of his colleagues started groups of medical missions in the Philippines to places without proper medical care.

“I kept thinking about helping the poor the way my father did in Culion,” Pete remembers. “Together with some of the doctors and nurses from the hospital, we started a medical mission to provide aid to the needy back home in the Philippines. It was the beginning of a large scale mission that has now spread to other places such as Luzon, Visayas, and Mindanao.”

The medical missions happen every year or two, and they involve treating patients, performing surgeries, and bringing qualified doctors and plenty of supplies to places in need. “On our first medical mission in 1986,” Pete recalls, “we flew to Palawan with just three Balikbayan boxes filled with medicine and supplies. We help many parients, performing surgeries sometimes until 2 AM.” Surgeries consist of cleft lip repair, thyroidectomy, abdominal surgeries, eye surgery (for cataracts), and treating various medical conditions. The doctors’ medical mission is a collaborative effort, mostly composed of volunteers, and headed by California doctors Dr. Baron and Dr. La Madrid, with help from Dr. Cabebe Quevido and others. Missions are also open to everyone and anyone who wants to go.

After nearly 20 years working in hospitals and going on medical missions, Dr. Pete Lagrosa retired in 2005 after suffering a stroke. He was 72.

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Saint Searching

“This trip to Italy is a special spiritual journey,” Pete says. “I wanted my family to be with me to pray at the shrines of my favorite saints, Padre Pio and St. Peregrine.”

Pete has always been a devoted follower and fan of Padre Pio. Canonized in 2002 by Pope John Paul II, throughout his life Pio suffered from the stigmata, bleeding wounds on both of his hands that correspond with the wounds of Jesus Christ during his crucifixion. He also performed healing miracles and said daily mass at his church in San Giovanni Rotondo, where he lived for many years with the Order of Capuchin friars.

“One person I know personally, Dr. Robinson Baron, a surgeon at a West Covina hospital, had cancer of the colon and thyroid. He prayed very hard, stayed devoted, and made this spiritual journey to see Padre Pio over 7 years ago in San Giovanni Rotondo.” Inspired by his friend’s story of healing, Pete recalls, “This amicable friend is still strong and performing surgeries today. Because of this miracle, I was encouraged to make a spiritual pilgrimage of my own.”

The sudden idea for a spiritual pilgrimage soon became a reality. Within a few weeks of learning about the cancer diagnosis, tickets were ordered, bags were packed, and soon Pete and his family—including three sons, one daughter-in-law, and six grandchildren—were on a plane to Rome, Italy, on the first week of June.

After staying a few days in Rome, Pete and his family traveled south through the countryside to San Giovanni Rotondo, the small town where Padre Pio lived and died. Their hotel was walking distance from a new basilica that holds more than 7,500 pilgrims and parishioners, has a museum, and serves as Padre Pio’s final resting place.

“At the basilica we were met by an old friend of Padre Pio, Fr. Ermalindo, who also knows my friend Dr. Baron. We were shown the sanctuary, the gardens, and the place where Pio lived as a Capuchin priest and friar. We also saw Padre Pio’s tomb where Mother Teresa and Pope John Paul II prayed, and the altar where his preserved body is laid to rest.”

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Pete smiles, remembering each part of the two-day visit to the basilica. “Visiting San Giovanni Rotondo was my favorite part of the whole trip because Pio is a newly-canonized saint, and I enjoyed learning about his life and healing miracles. Seeing how many Christian pilgrims make the trip each year to visit and pray to the shrine of St. Padre Pio was uplifting.”

They also made a side trip to Monte San’Angelo, a 30-minute drive from San Giovanni Rotondo, to visit the underground grotto of St. Michael the Archangel. The cave-turned-shrine has been there since the early 11th century, and it is said that St. Michael has appeared there. Pete spent the day admiring the wonders of the underground cave and praying to St. Michael for earthly protection.

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After the few days in the southern region, the family made the long trip back up through Tuscany going to Florence. Pete was comforted by the beautiful lush landscape, the green vineyards and wineries and small castles spotted in the hills along the way. It was a lot different from back home in California.

After exploring the cobblestone roads and cultural beauty of Florence, they took a long journey through the mountains to the little town of Forli and inside the Basilica di San Pellegrino Laziosi where the uncorrupted body of St. Peregrine has laid since his death in 1345. St. Peregrine, who lived an extraordinary life as a Servite priest in the mid-13th century, suffered from afflictions and leg cancer and was miraculously healed after praying to an image of Christ in his church. Since his conversion, Peregrine has been known as the patron saint of cancer and other insufferable diseases. His body rests below the church’s altar in a large glass case, and hundreds visit each year to pray for grace and healing. After saying a few prayers and writing in a book of intentions, Pete and his family were met by four Filipino Servite Order priests who run the basilica.

“They eagerly gave us many prayer books and religious articles, and showed us the very same chapel where St. Peregrine was healed from his cancer,” Pete recalls. “I prayed that what was granted by our Lord Jesus Christ to him many centuries ago can also touch my body. I believe in these miracles. I asked St. Peregrine for a favor to find healing grace.”

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On the way back up to Rome, they made one last side-trip to Assisi to visit the tomb of St. Francis in the original basilica where he lived. Pete remembers this was another favorite part of the pilgrimage experience. St. Francis, one of the most beloved saints in the Catholic tradition, was known for emphasizing peace and a life of simplicity, forgiveness, and respect of nature. He began the Order of Friars Minor, also known as the Franciscans, in the early 13th century, following in the footsteps of Jesus Christ. The mother-church of the Franciscan order and final resting place of St. Francis stayed in Assisi, in a great basilica that Pete and his family visited.

After walking through Assisi’s many small chapels, looming stained glass windows and Gothic-style church architecture, Pete joined some of the Franciscan priests and brothers at the underground tomb of Saint Francis, saying the rosary and other prayers.

“I prayed for a healing grace. I felt so blessed to be able to pray there with my family. We also went to the bookstore and bought a crucifix, some rosaries, and some novenas to take home.”

For Pete and his family, the experience was not only saint-searching throughout Italy; it was soul-searching. And they were inspired in multitudes.

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Back to Rome: The Pilgrimage
When they arrived back in Rome, exhausted but content, the family knew there was just one last thing they had to do to complete their pilgrimage journey. Over the span of two days, they visited the four major basilicas of Rome: St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican, which remains the largest church in the world, St. Paul’s Basilica (also called St. Paul’s Outside the Walls), the Archbasilica of St. John Lateran (San Giovanni in Laterano), and the Basilica of St. Maria Maggiore. Each of the ages-old basilicas are important landmarks in the Catholic tradition, and several popes have renewed indulgences for sins by visits to these venerable sites. That’s why thousands of pilgrims visit Rome every year, to witness these ancient holy shrines, and to pray for their own intentions.

“I was able to walk from the hotel to the Vatican & St. Peter’s Basilica and back, but I made it!” Pete laughs, remembering their 25-minute walk from the hotel to the Vatican City walls. He had been there more than 30 years ago with his wife and sons, and enjoyed visiting the Vatican grounds, seeing the 136-meter high dome of St. Peter’s Basilica, Michaelangelo’s Pieta sculpture, and praying to the papal tombs of Pope John Paul II and Saint Peter.

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“On another day we were shown to the other major basilicas by Father Memeng Salonga from Pontificio Collegio Filippino, the Filipino College based in Rome. We know him because of his sister Cynthia, who lives in California and has worked in my clinic before. On our second night in Rome, he invited us to dinner at the Collegio, where we also met with the rector. Fr. Memeng also said he would pray for me.”

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They visited the major basilicas throughout the city and were taken aback by timeless Renaissance architecture, high ceilings adorned with images of Christ, and magnificent altars containing relics of saints. They prayed and made wishes at each new church. Pete and his granddaughter, both graduates of Catholic Jesuit universities, especially enjoyed the visit to the Chiesa del Gesu, the mother-church of the Jesuit order and tomb-site of St. Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuits.

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“Fr. Memeng was very helpful taking us around on our all-day basilica tour. He is the spiritual director at the Collegio Filippino and at various Filipino community churches in Rome,” Pete says about his priest-friend. “Because of his status, we were able to get good discounts on religious articles we bought near Vatican City: tapestries, rosaries, and crucifixes!”

Demonstrating his kind heart and generosity, Pete also bought a 4-ft crucifix that is to be donated to the new church of St John Vianney back home in Hacienda Heights, CA. The old church had burned down a few years ago and is currently being rebuilt.

Guided by Fr. Memeng, the family was able to attend a Tagalog mass and eat at a delicious Filipino restaurant, Asian Delight. Pete and his wife Amelia, who love to cook, especially enjoyed the food there.
Pete dishes about his last few days in Rome, “Aside from seeing the beautiful Roman basilicas and architecture, we were overdosed with pizzas, pastas, Italian food, and wine. There were also ‘fireworks’ (thunder and lightning) in the sky on the day we left. We experienced a Roman summer storm!”

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A Spiritual Healing and Transformation

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“Before this spiritual journey, I have been undecided to undergo surgery for my pancreatic cancer. Now, after prayers to Padre Pio and St. Peregrine, patron saint of cancer, as well as visits to other shrines all over Italy, I have been changed. They have shown me the way to fight this cancer. I will undergo a special gamma knife radiosurgery, which directly targets the tumor and was advised to me by doctors at the USC Medical Center.”
Pete admits to being an “at-risk” surgical patient due to his unstable heart condition. However, after a two-week experience in Europe discovering saints and praying to many different shrines, he is feeling both optimistic and determined. “I have been inspired by all that I have seen and experienced here in Italy, especially with the lives of the saints I admire most. I pray that I will be granted a healing grace so that when I return home to California I can withstand the surgery on my pancreatic cancer.”

Sitting on the plane beside his family, Pete smiles wearily but reassuringly. A devoted, prayerful, and loving man, after two weeks on a spiritual pilgrimage he is ready to go home and be with the people he has cared about his whole life.

“Now, I feel the courage and strength from God to continue moving forward,” he says. “And I hope and pray this is not yet the time to say goodbye.”


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