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Grave believed shared by Josephine Bracken and mom unveiled

14 April 2021

By Vir B. Lumicao

Bracken's grave in Hong Kong Cemetery in Happy Valley as it looks now
A solemn ceremony in a wooded section of Hong Kong Cemetery on Wong Nai Chung Road in Happy Valley last Sunday may put to rest a century-old search for the grave of Josephine Bracken, the Irish common-law wife of Dr Jose P. Rizal.

On Apr 11, a handful of officers of the Knights of Rizal and Kababaihang Rizalista members unveiled a newly restored memorial gravesite of Elizabeth Jane McBride Bracken, the mother of Josephine, in Section 41 of the cemetery’s Catholic quarter.

Two years ago, a dark, grimy stone slab engraved with the number 4258 was the only marker that indicated that beneath the 2.5-square-meter barren patch on the gently sloping ground lay the remains of Mrs Bracken, who was buried there on Nov 9, 1876.


The spot was flanked by graves of fallen British soldiers from the Hong Kong Garrison who perished during Commonwealth Wars, in particular World War 1, as their concrete tombstones indicated.

After Sunday’s unveiling, the freshly restored and enhanced grave of Mrs Bracken has become the centerpiece that brightened the desolate section of the cemetery.

In place of the grave’s dirt surface now is a polished concrete platform with a steel bar enclosure that is supported by 12 of the Masonic emblem of square, compass and circle.

The new tombstone on Elizabeth Bracken's grave

At the platform’s head is a black polished concrete tombstone with the inscriptions:

“Elizabeth Jane nee McBride Bracken/Born 1847 Ireland/Burial Date 11-9-1876 Hong Kong


Inscribed on another polished black concrete slab at the foot of the platform is a brief biography:

“Elizabeth Jane nee McBride Bracken was the mother of Marie Josephine Leopoldine Bracken who became the common-law wife of Philippine National Hero, Dr. Jose P. Rizal. Josephine became a widow when her husband was executed by the Spanish colonialists on fabricated charges on Dec 30, 1896.

This memorial was sponsored by 10 Knights of Rizal of China Regional Area. Designed and built by a MM/KGOR, 2021.”

Pindutin para sa detalye

At the bottom of the inscription is the grave number “4258”. 

Rizal and Bracken as they looked when they were together

The restoration work cements a belief long held by many, including project proponent and Grant Knight Pieter Nootenboom, that on this spot rest the remains of Josephine, who Rizal has called “my unhappy wife”.

They believe that Josephine, who died of tuberculosis at age 25 on Mar 14, 1902, was buried in the grave of her mother the next day. At the time, the common practice in the former British colony was to bury all who died from the disease in unmarked communal graves a day after, due to the lingering plague.

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There would not have been time to arrange for a new grave, (so) the relatives would have arranged with the gravedigger to bury Josephine in the same grave as her mother’s…This is, perhaps, the reason why Josephine’s grave cannot be found today, they said.

Nootenboom, a Dutchman married to a Filipina, is an avid Rizalist who for decades had joined the search in Hong Kong cemeteries on the ground and online, for Josephine’s long-lost grave.


“The grave is surrounded and protected by a retinue of Masonic graves as escorts – both on the downward slope in front of the grave and also on the slope above and behind the grave,” Nootenboom said. 

The burial site is therefore well-located and fitting for Rizal’s wife, as the martyr was a member of Freemasonry, a civic movement that young Filipino students in Spain joined and helped spread rapidly among Filipinos there.

The reference to Josephine on a marble slab by the marked grave

These students, Rizal, Marcelo H. del Pilar, Graciano Lopez Jaena, Jose Alejandrino, Ariston Bautista, Julio Llorente, Galicano Apacible, Antonio Luna and his brother Juan Luna, later formed the Propaganda Movement that called for reforms in their homeland.

It was Rizal’s being a Freemason that fed the ire of the Spanish friars in the Philippines, who were pilloried by Filipino propagandists due to their alleged excesses and influence over the repressive colonial rulers.

Tunghayan ang isa na namang kwentong 

Josephine was endeared to the Knights of Rizal due to her status as Rizal’s common-law wife who stayed with him and bore him a stillborn son during his exile in Dapitan, Zamboanga del Norte.

The couple sailed to Manila in August 1896 and lived there as Rizal waited for his voyage to Cuba, where he was appointed as a doctor in the Spanish military in a deal with Governor General Ramon Blanco. But that fell through as Blanco was replaced by Camilo Garcia de Polavieja when the revolution broke out.

In November 1896, Rizal was thrown in a jail in Fort Santiago, accused of being one of the leaders of the revolution that was launched by Katipunan founder Andres Bonifacio.

Rizal retracted his anti-friar views and reconciled with the Church on the eve of his execution on Dec 30, 1896. Whether he married Josephine just before he was executed remains one of the most debated questions among Philippine historians.

Three days after the execution, Josephine joined the Filipino revolutionaries in Cavite guided by Rizal’s siblings, Paciano and Trinidad. According to some accounts, she was well received by the revolutionaries after being introduced as Rizal’s widow. She took care of the wounded in the battlefront, and learned marksmanship.

But after spending months in the battlefield, she became the target of ire by Spanish authorities. Sometime in May 1897, Paciano arranged her escape back to Manila where she was intercepted by the Spaniards before embarking for Hong Kong. But she was let go because she was the daughter of an American citizen.

Back in Hong Kong, she was introduced to Vicente Abad, a Cebuano, in early 1898. In December of that year, they married at the Catholic Cathedral of Immaculate Conception on Caine Road. Josephine was just 22 years old.

In May 1899 the couple went to the Philippines and settled in Cebu, where Josephine got pregnant. They traveled back to Hong Kong the next year so Josephine could get better medical care for her delivery. On Apr 17, 1900, Josephine gave birth to a baby girl the couple named Dolores.

The Abad family remained in Hong Kong until Dolores was a year old, then sailed back to the Philippines where Josephine was granted a license to teach English in public schools. But not long after, she contracted a tuberculosis of the larynx, and decided to go back to Hong Kong after she was not given medical assistance by the American-ruled government in the Philippines.

The China Mail write-up said Josephine's funeral was held at Happy Valley

Josephine’s ailment rapidly advanced and took a toll on her body. On Mar 14, 1902, she quietly died in the land of her birth, an event that merited a small write-up in the China Mail, which still referred to her as “the widow of Dr. Rizal, a Filipino martyr.”

Nootenboom said with the grave now marked as a historical memorial with Hong Kong and Filipino flavors, it has the potential to attract both local and Filipino tourists.

“I am requesting the Hong Kong Tourism Association to feature the Rizal markers and special places in (the city) that he wrote about in his diary to promote Rizal walks in Hong Kong,” Nootenboom said.

“Hopefully more Filipino tourists may be interested to visit these places. So the HKTA should promote this,” he said.


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