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Ambassador and ex-HK Congen Bernie Catalla succumbs to Covid-19

02 April 2020

By The SUN

Ambassador Bernie with then Chief Secretary Carrie Lam at the Phl Independence Day celebration in 2016

The SUN deeply mourns the passing of Philippine Ambassador to Lebanon and former Consul General in Hong Kong Bernardita M. Catalla, due to complications arising from Covid-19. She was 62. 

Ambassador Catalla, who served as consul general in Hong Kong from 2014 to 2017, reportedly died in Beirut on Apr 2, shortly after falling ill following a visit to Manila in the middle of March.

The Department of Foreign Affairs in Manila issued this statement early this morning about Ambassador Bernie’s passing:

“With deep sadness, the Department of Foreign Affairs announces the untimely demise on 2 April 2020, of Ambassador Bernardita Catalla, Philippine Ambassador to Lebanon, from complications arising from Covid 19. A career diplomat for almost 30 years, service to the country has been the hallmark of Ambassador Catalla’s distinguished foreign service career. She served in key posts like Kuala Lumpur and Jakarta and was Passport Director where she delivered frontline service to millions of Filipinos. Prior to her assignment in Lebanon, she was Consul General in Hong Kong, looking over the welfare of hundreds of thousands of overseas Filipinos. Since December 2019, she spearheaded the voluntary mass repatriation program of the Philippine Embassy in Beirut. Bernie, as Ambassador Catalla was fondly called, has always lent a helping hand, to her family, friends and colleagues. Her ever ready smile and infectious laughter may have been extinguished but her dedication to our country will be always be there as a guiding light for all members of the Philippine foreign service."

Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin, Jr. later said that Ambassador Catalla’s remains will be received with an honor guard, and that he will be putting forward a nomination for Gawad Mabini and Order of Sikatuna for her.


Both awards are bestowed on individuals and diplomats who have rendered distinguished or meritorious service, or promoted the interests of the country at home and abroad.


Farewell lunch with The SUN, PAHK, Pintura Circle and Filipino Bankers Club

As the head of post in Hong Kong, Ambassador Catalla distinguished herself for her fearless and open type of leadership. Shortly after taking over the post, she ordered an investigation into the alleged misconduct committed by the then labor attaché, Manuel Roldan, and allowed the publication of a damning report afterwards. 


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She also acted decisively to address several issues, including the seasonal long queues for the overseas employment certificate, and unfounded accusations of irregularities during the overseas prrsidential election in 2016.

Global Alliance farewell for CG Bernie

At the opening of an art exhibit by Pintura Circle

Manning the desk at the 2016 overseas voting 

At the opening of the education fair with reps from UP, La Salle and Ateneo

As proud UP alumna administering the oath to  UPAA-HK officers

But her biggest legacy to the Filipino community in Hong Kong is the amendment of the foreign domestic helpers’ contract to include a ban on dangerous window cleaning, which took effect on Jan. 1, 2017. No other consul general in Hong Kong can lay claim to such a feat.
Many Filipinos in Hong Kong, including migrant workers in the building where the official residence is located, will also remember Ambassador Catalla, who was single, for her excellent cooking skills and her generosity. She often cooked regularly for her staff and Filipino community leaders she invited to her residence. She also did much of the cooking for events at the Consulate, including the traditional breakfast to celebrate the annual Philippine Independence Day.

Hosting Christmas dinner  for OFWs at her residence

To show appreciation for her outstanding service to the community, various Filcom groups gave her a send-off, including migrant organizations as well as business, academic and professional associations.

The SUN also awarded her a certificate of appreciation for keeping an open line of communication between her office and the community at large. (http://www.sunwebhk.com/2016/04/cg-gets-plaque-from-sun.html )
Accepting a plaque of appreciation from The SUN
Shortly after being assigned to Beirut, Ambassador Bernie said in various interviews that she would have opted to stay in Hong Kong if she could be made ambassador here.

“That’s the height..the peak of your career to become an ambassador. If I can become an ambassador in Hong Kong, why shouldn’t I stay? I love it in Hong Kong, but it’s a career move,” Catalla said in one interview with The SUN.
It was fitting that she not only accomplished her lifelong career goal, but also managed to make her mark as an ambassador, before her untimely demise.

Here are some of the tributes to Amba Bernie by those who knew her, and her outstanding work as a diplomat:

Ex-Labor Attache Jalilo dela Torre, who worked with Amba Bernie in her last year as consul general in Hong Kong:
Though not many people knew it, it was she who first pushed me to engage the Filipino community, supported by the Indonesians, to advocate and fight for the ban against window-cleaning, which succeeded and is now embedded in the standard employment contract for Filipino domestic workers in Hong Kong. Her courage and her can-do attitude fortified my resolve to put everything on the line to get the campaign going. Though we differed on some issues, it was never in the commitment to carry the interests of the Filipino community forward. Saludo ako, Amba Bernie!

Cynthia Abdon-Tellez, general manager of the Mission for Migrant Workers, which spearheaded a call in 2014 for an investigation into an alleged malpractice by the then labor attaché:
“We mourn her loss pero mas maiging buhayin ang halimbawa niya.
Nung nag file ang CSPEM (Coalition of Service Providers for Ethnic Minorities) 
ng kaso laban sa dating labor attache dito na si Manuel Roldan for abuse of power, nagtayo sya ng Investigating Committee at isinabmit ang reports sa Manila. Malaking bagay yon. House Reps from the Overseas Workers Affairs Comm visited HK for that, nag call sya ng meeting with them inviting us at nakipagtalakayan.
Even the window-cleaning is a celebrated issue din. Nagpapakita ito na kung titindig ang consulate para sa kagalingan ng kanyang mamamayang migrante, may bigat iyon para ikonsidera ng gobyerno ng OFW- receiving country (HK)
We celebrate Amba Bernie's life that, though short, was spent to its fullest. A friend to many, an active servant of the overseas Filipino community. May she rest in peace.”

Edwina Antonio, executive director, Bethune House Migrant Women’s Refuge, who recalls a congen who made herself available to those in need at all times:
“Congen readily acted on our requests on behalf of migrant workers and other people in need. She responded even outside office hours, like in the case of a Filipina DJ who was detained along with her 7-year-old daughter in Indonesia. A relative of the woman sought our assistance to locate her. Congen did her best to endorse the case to our embassy in Indonesia for immediate action. A few days later, both mother and child were rescued.
She did the same for Leonora, an OFW who was dying of tuberculosis in the brain in HK. The daughter and aunt needed to come to HK to visit Leonora. Congen did not hesitate to assist the family, too, so they could see our OFW one last time.
We grieve the loss of a true civil servant, one who faithfully lived by her oath of serving her compatriots abroad.”

Eman Villanueva, chairman, Bayan Hong Kong and Macau. Eman remembers one particular incident when Amba Bernie showed  her decisiveness, and genuine desire to serve Filipino migrant workers in Hong Kong:
“Bukas siya sa mga suggestions. Hindi niya pinepersonal ang mga kritisismo. Natatandaan ko noon, nakipag meet kami sa kanya tungkol sa sobrang perwisyo ng pila sa pagkuha ng OEC. Ang Polo OIC noon ay si ALA (Assistant Labor Attache) Nena German. Ipinaliwanag namin bakit we were strongly against the OEC at gusto naming na  matanggal na ito. Pero dahil hindi naman siya makaka decide nito, nag suggest kami na at least magkaroon ng sistema para hindi na pipila ng halos buong araw ang mga OFWs. We suggested yung numbered appointment system. Na kukuha ng number ang mga OFWs at babalik sila sa specified time for service para hindi na nila kelangan mag stay sa pila. Despite the reluctance ni ALA German to the idea, then Congen Bernie immediately accepted our proposal and implemented it the following day.”

Leo Selomenio, chair of Global Alliance in Hong Kong, one of the community’s biggest migrant workers organizations:
“She will always be remembered. I can’t believe that she is gone, only memories remain. Maybe that is why I organized big time for our farewell party before she left for Lebanon. I can’t forget how I brazenly said to her face that she was the ‘meanest’ when I felt frustrated about some project my group was doing with the consulate. All she did was to give a good laugh, pat my shoulder, and say with compassion, ‘am I?’. I regret saying that because I realized later on that she was not. She was straightforward but very professional, and had a good sense of humor. I will never forget our funny moments together. I may be sad now but I am happy with the thought that she has joined our Creator. Rest in peace, Amba Bernie."

Abigail Camaya-Hills, president, Pintura Circle Hong Kong. Her group made up of Hong Kong-based artists held various art exhibits for charity at the Consulate, with Amba Bernie's blessings. 
“She will be forever remembered and respected for her untiring commitment to the Filipino community of Hong Kong. She inspired us to keep giving back for the blessings we have.”

Jo Campos, ex-OFW and contributor of The SUN.
“Nakakalungkot. I could not believe what I saw on my newsfeed. I needed to wait for other posts and searched for news to confirm that it was indeed Amba Bernie Catalla. I had the opportunity to see the other side of our dear ConGen in HK when I was assigned to interview and feature her in The SUN's Food Trip celebrity chef. I prepared well and wrote my notes and questions carefully (which I don't usually do.) Ayoko mapahiya kay ConGen na magkalat sa interview. I went to her residence on Kotewall Rd and she greeted me warmly at the door. It was a different Ma'am Bernie, as she was not in her usual "ConGen" attire, but was just wearing a t-shirt and jeans and an apron. We went straight to the kitchen and she was more prepared than me! The kitchen looked like a set for a cooking show! We had something in common, and it just clicked, we started talking endlessly about food and cooking, about her signature sauces,  specially her own version of XO sauce and I completely forgot how nervous I was so that I totally ditched my notes and recorder. I came home inspired, I was able to compose my article so quickly, even my editor noticed it! I will always have a fond memory of that day although she never knew that I learned so much from that experience. Goodbye, Maam Bernie. Rest in peace.”

Consul Charles Macaspac, who served with Amba Bernie in HK from 2014-2016 before returning to Manila, and is now posted at the Philippine Embassy in Belgium.

“It was an honor and privilege to serve under her. She had great rapport with then Hong Kong Labour Secretary Matthew Cheung we were able to shut down numerous abusive agencies during our regular meetings with the HK Labour Department. She also revived the political and economic sections. She always had my back.”

BASAHIN ANG DETALYE


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