Fr. Carmelo “Tito” Caluag told guests that the fabulous dinner held in the spacious lanai of the home of Bienvenido “Rico” Tantoco Jr. and wife Nena in Sta. Elena, Laguna, was just a “dry run.”
“You are actually our guinea pigs for next year when we do a (bigger) fundraiser for 125 people. But we’ll invite you again,” he said in jest.
Caluag—who also writes for Inquirer Lifestyle—was referring to Magna Anima Education System Inc., a nonprofit whose efforts to raise funds for a spiritual and leadership formation program focus on public school teachers, so they can forge a deeper connection with their students.
Magna Anima (great soul) aims to reach out to teachers and students in at least 125 public schools in the country by year 2023, the 125th anniversary of Philippine Independence.
Caluag, the project’s program lead guide, said it began in 2006 as a two-year program for principals and other school administrators.
In 2010 the program was extended to the faculty at the prodding of principals who noted its positive results. Magna Anima now offers a Master of Arts in Education, major in School Community Development.
Nena Tantoco said Caluag did not have to convince her to host the benefit dinner in her family’s neo-bahay-na-bato in Sta. Elena Golf and Country Estates that the locals fondly call Villa Marina in her honor.
“I’m supporting Fr. Caluag’s efforts because education is very necessary in our country. If people are educated, they will not remain poor,” she explained.
She is not alone in supporting Magna Anima’s endeavor. Chef Regis Saint-Geniez from the three-star Michelin restaurant Maison Bras in France and chef Booj Supe of the Manila-based Gourmet Garage volunteered their services for the benefit dinner.
The chefs and their staff occupied two of the three huge kitchens at Villa Marina where the energy and activity peaked as hungry guests cooled their heels at a late afternoon cocktail held on the roof deck.
Among the guests were newlyweds Dingdong and Marian Dantes; Ryan and Judy Ann Agoncillo; Bianca Gonzalez-Intal; Tantoco siblings; cousins and in-laws; family friends like the Borromeos; and Caluag’s friends among ABS-CBN honchos.
Also present were members of Caluag’s team in Magna Anima and the Ateneo Chamber Singers which rendered soulful gospel numbers during the anticipated Mass earlier that afternoon, and relaxing ballads at dinner.
Former ambassador to the Holy See Bienvenido Tantoco Sr. was the first to arrive, having rushed from his home in Makati City to catch Caluag’s Mass set for 5:30 p.m.
Minutes before the Eucharistic celebration, the elder Tantoco, whom Caluag described as an “active supporter” of Magna Anima, approached the priest and asked when it would start. “Ngayon na po sana, Tito Benny, eh, wala pang tao,” Caluag replied.
“Umpisa na tayo! Time na! Dapat on time,” the ambassador said, half-pleading.
His son Rico laughed when told about this. “The ambassador is really like that. He’s very strict about appointments and is always on time. He had always been like that especially when he was still at the Vatican,” he noted.
Caluag noted that the ambassador’s alma mater, Malolos Integrated School (formerly Malolos Elementary School), was among the first to benefit from Magna Anima’s masteral program for teachers.
Just before dinner, chef Supe sent out appetizers of truffle honey-marinated freshwater shrimps, micro amaranth and black balsamic pearls.
When people finally took their seats, chef Saint-Geniez served a Maison Bras signature dish created in 1985 called gargouillou that has young vegetables, anise accents from fresh herbs and three oil emulsions.
Saint-Geniez later sent out his farcie de homard made from lobster, almonds, prosciutto, consommé of lobster and black sauce.
Supe followed with Himalayan salt-baked Wagyu beef strips and ended the feast with dessert that included creamy cheese panacotta and a pineapple and cookie butter brûlée .
Saint-Geniez said it was his first time to work in a family setting, adding that he had a great time working outside a professional kitchen “because I know it’s for a good cause.”
Caluag pointed out it was Saint-Geniez and his Filipino wife Bingbing (the priest’s former chief of staff) who thought of throwing a dinner to raise funds for Magna Anima two years ago.
Nena Tantoco said hosting the priest and Magna Anima’s staff reminds her of the work she does for Rustan’s. (Husband Rico is chair of Rustan’s Group of Companies.)
“It’s all integrated. I enjoy all this. This is my work at Rustan’s, I’ve been doing this for 35 years,” she noted.
Caluag also gave a video presentation mapping out Magna Anima’s projections and plans. A movement called Kalayaan 125 Kilusan (K125K) will be launched this year to complement the group’s objective to “build caring communities in our public schools and nurture a renewed culture of excellence” in future generations.
“With K125K, we put (Magna Anima’s) work within the context of our nation’s story and journey towards greater freedom,” he said.
Caluag said the project aims to raise P794.18 million by 2023.
But instead of impressive grants that are given only once, the priest said he prefers that concerned citizens shell out P10,000 or P50,000 or P100,000 a year.
“It’s hard to pull in big grants. They would be there for one or two years and then gone. I’d rather reach out to a thousand people who can give P10,000 a year consistently. Let’s pull in more partners,” he urged guests.
Caluag also asked patrons to take time to visit the public schools in Magna Anima’s program.
“I want you to be more involved, visit the school and have a personal concern for the school you are supporting,” he said.
He reminded his friends that recent visitor Pope Francis urges the faithful “to ensure that humanity is served by wealth.”
Caluag stressed that he wants “every young kid in the slums or in the barrios to dream, knowing there is a good public school they can go to and help them dream. And I think that, with our partnership, we have done the first step. We have already held their hand, sinabayan na natin.”