Teresita Canilao, 76, was from Batangas, a Tagalog-speaking province south of Manila but spent most of her life in Hawaii.

She moved to Honolulu in 1974 to work at the Philippine Consulate General of Hawaii. Canilao, known as Tessie to friends and family, served numerous consuls general and became a fixture in the island’s growing Filipino community over a career spanning 48 years.

Friends, family and colleagues in Hawaii and her homeland were devastated when she was killed on Oct. 6. Her 81-year-old estranged husband, Rogelio Guevarra Canilao, has been charged with second-degree murder in her death.

“Everybody who’s had dealings with the Philippine Consulate knew her,” said state Sen. Bennette Misalucha, who received this year’s Presidential Banaag Award from the Philippine government for advancing the cause of Filipinos overseas.

Philippine Filipino Teresita Canilao Tessie Maui Outreach Philippine Consulate
Teresita “Tessie” Canilao, center, joined an outreach trip of the Philippine Consulate in Hawaii to Maui. Philippine Consulate General in Hawaii

She said Canilao fostered continuity among consuls general by helping them with her institutional memory, cultural context and wisdom on the nuances of working with the Filipino community in the island state. 

Canilao joined the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs after graduating from St. Theresa’s College in Quezon City in Manila. She served on assignment to the state’s Philippine Consulate General in Honolulu until 1986 when she became a permanent local hire there as a secretary.

A devout Catholic, she made her mark by working humbly in the background. She was so quiet about her personal life that even some of her closest friends were taken aback by TV news footage in which people at her Ala Moana apartment building mentioned that she had been receiving food from a hospice service and check-ins from neighbors prior to her death.

“She was always concerned for the other person, going out of the way for the other person.” — Dominic Olaso, head of the Diocese of Hawaii Evangelization Task Force

Canilao had been suffering for years from Parkinson’s disease, according to a statement written by her daughter Mary Francis Schwartz and read aloud on her behalf at the memorial service held Saturday at Co-Cathedral of Saint Theresa of the Child Jesus in Kalihi. Canilao’s two daughters and son could not attend in person.

“She was such a gentle spirit, very kind. I never heard her raise her voice,” Misalucha said, adding that “the pillars of her life were the consulate, the church and her family.”

Misalucha first met Canilao in June 1985 during a Philippine Independence Day celebration at the consulate. As a transplant from Cebu majoring in communications at the University of Hawaii Manoa, Misalucha wanted to connect with her roots. At the time, she did not imagine that she and Canilao would develop a deep connection over the next four decades through their joint leadership and service in the Filipino community. But the women took a picture together; one that disappeared into a collection of photo albums that Misalucha has yet to look back upon in her grief after losing Canilao. 

Chona Montesines-Sonido, president, publisher and managing editor of The Filipino Chronicle in Honolulu, met Canilao at a cultural event in the 1990s. The two enjoyed a decades-long friendship and professional relationship. 

“She called me all the time when the consulate needed exposure, and when I interviewed diplomats, she was the person to go to,” Montesines-Sonido recalled.

The Ala Moana apartment building where Teresita Canilao was killed. David Croxford/Civil Beat/2022

The pandemic prevented Canilao and Montesines-Sonido from seeing one another as often as they used to, but not from catching up on the phone. The last time the friends spoke was when Canilao called Montesines-Sonido to express excitement over a welcoming event for Consul General Emil Fernandez.

Outside work, Canilao was a proud mother and grandmother in addition to acting as a tita (auntie) and ate (sister) to many others. Her children and grandchildren lived in Los Angeles.

“She often said, ‘Oh, I’m going to LA to babysit,’” Misalucha recalled.

Canilao’s family extended to the church as she regularly attended services at the Co-Cathedral of Saint Theresa of the Child Jesus and the St. Augustine Church By The Sea in Waikiki as well as other congregations and religious gatherings.

“Wherever there was a church event, you could usually find her there — especially if it had to do with the Filipino community,” said Dominic Olaso, who leads the Diocese of Honolulu’s Evangelization Task Force. 

Heartbroken by her death, Olaso found himself still looking for the soft-spoken woman with a gentle smile on Sunday at the 23rd anniversary of the El Shaddai Hawaii Chapter. “I knew she was gone, but I kept expecting her to tap me on the shoulder. She’d always say, ‘I’ll be back.’” he said.

“She was a living saint,” he said. “A lot of people think a person becomes a saint when they go to heaven. No, she was a saint right here on Earth. She was always concerned for the other person, going out of the way for the other person.”

According to Misalucha, the Catholic faith strengthened Canilao’s resolve to remain married to her estranged husband after years of separation. Court records state that the man was visiting Hawaii from Los Angeles when he called 911 and said, “I killed my wife.”

A grand jury indicted Guevarra Canilao on Oct. 12, and he is being held at the Oahu Community Correctional Center pending trial. He faces a sentence of life in prison with the possibility of parole if convicted.

Canilao’s friends and family want people to remember how she lived rather than how she died. For others, Canilao’s brutal killing has brought more attention to the problems of domestic violence and elder abuse. 

A Domestic Violence Awareness group on Facebook created a memorial meme of Canilao, with a logo of a purple ribbon and the hashtag #SheStillSpeaks emblazoned on it.

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