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‘Mama Tess’ mourned

Teresita Pagatpatan, Fort St. John’s first Filipino resident, came to work in town's maternity ward

The nurse who pioneered Fort St. John’s Filipino community more than a half century ago has died.

Teresita Baligad Pagatpatan passed July 23 after a brief battle with cancer, family and friends say. She was 83, and leaves behind a legacy that helped welcome three generations of newborns into the world, and thousands of other Filipinos who followed in her footsteps to Fort St. John.

“A lot of people owe their being here and coming here to Mama Tess,” said Ovvian Castrillo-Hill of the North Peace Filipino Canadian Association. “Everybody who’s ever met her felt her warmth. She was always smiling, always generous.”

Pagatpatan was in her late 20s when she arrived in Fort St. John in 1967 to work in the old Providence hospital maternity ward. She was a midwife and came overseas in search of a more prosperous life for herself and her family. She later became an LPN, and by the 1970s had started sponsoring her family to come to Canada, including her older sister and brother and their siblings, and all her nieces and nephews.

Shirley Ramos, one of her nieces, said her auntie's dream and ambition was for all of her family to come to Canada, and she helped pay for their education while encouraging them to come live and work here. She did so right up until her death.

“She wanted to give the best life to her family. She wanted us to have an education,” said Ramos, grateful for the support she received for her own nursing education, and who now works as a care aide in Fort St. John.

“In the Philippines we cannot get a better job there, there’s no benefit, there’s nothing at all. She said for us to come over here to Canada where we get all the benefits that we can," she said. “If we stayed in the Philippines, I don’t think we would have this kind of life right now that we are enjoying.

“She enjoyed working here. She liked to live here.”

Pagatpatan retired in 1997 after a 30-year career helping young mothers and nurturing new families in the community. In her retirement, she still kept busy working part-time, whether that was babysitting or helping deliver the Alaska Highway News. Pagatpatan never married, and is survived by her sister, and three generations of nieces and nephews who are spread out across Fort St. John, Surrey, Vancouver, and in Alberta. She was lovingly known as Mama Tess, or Auntie Tess, and Ramos said her focus was always her family even though she didn’t have children of her own. Ramos said family, friends, and many new mothers in the community will remember her Mama Tess for being humble and compassionate.

“I think that was her dream job… she liked to be a midwife and to work in maternity. She liked babies,” Ramos said. “She didn’t get married and that’s why she loved to take care and look after babies, and other people. She just wanted to help.”

Fort St. John residents Joan and Larry Evans recalled Pagatpatan as a “fixture of the maternity ward” who was on duty during their birth of their three kids. 

“She was the kindest nurse,” said Joan. “She was very compassionate, very kind to the new moms.”

The Evans said they later got to know Pagatpatan outside the hospital and in the community through family and mutual friends.

“You couldn’t meet a better nurse,” said Larry.

“Decades later, she would see you someplace and she would remember that you had been in the hospital and she had been the nurse,” added Joan.

“Some people you meet you just don’t ever forget their name. Tessie is just one you would never forget.”

Castrillo-Hill, of the Fil-Can Association, is working on a documentary series about the local Filipino community, now the fastest growing immigrant population in Fort St. John. She first met Pagatpatan in 2009 when she was visiting here as a tourist. The association was putting on a show at the Lido and asked if she could help, an occasion that would later honour Mama Tess as the first Filipino-Canadian in Fort St. John.

Castrillo-Hill said many people have been touched and are mourning her passing. She will remember Pagatpatan as someone who was always smiling and always giving, an “exemplary human that set an example for others.”

“The ones that are old-timers here, I always feel very grateful for them and I think every single Filipino should feel grateful, especially to people to people like Mama Tess,” said Castrillo-Hill, “and especially for people who came as workers, because if the people who came in the 60s or 70s didn’t show good examples of being good workers, I don’t think anybody would have hired Filipinos.

“The kind of reputation they established and the kind of work ethics that they had that gave them those reputations, I think, are very instrumental, and growing the community,” she said.

Funeral services are planned next week, Aug. 4, at Church of the Resurrection at 10 a.m.

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