Lost fact: Philippines president died here

A few locals mark 75th anniversary of Manuel Quezon’s death of TB in Saranac Lake

People hold up the flag of the Philippines in front of the Saranac Laboratory Museum in Saranac Lake after attending a Mass for the 75th anniversary of the death of the first president of the Philippines, Manuel Quezon. (Enterprise photo — Kevin Shea)

SARANAC LAKE — Until the early 1980s, citizens of the Philippines used to journey to Saranac Lake. They would make their way to Camp Massapequa on Lower Saranac Lake and to a funeral home near St. Bernard’s Catholic Church. On Thursday, the 75th anniversary of the death of the first president of the Philippines, interest in his presence here started again.

“Few of us probably know that Manuel Luis Quezon died here in Saranac Lake 75 years ago today, Aug. 1, 1944,” said the Rev. Alex Guimpol, a native of the Philippines and a Catholic priest who is serving a temporary contract at St. Bernard’s.

He was right. Among the audience of 12 attending a Mass to celebrate Quezon were several Philippine natives who had come to Saranac Lake and Lake Placid for work without knowing that their homeland’s first president had died among these mountains and lakes.

“I was surprised when I found out he died here,” said Cat Hadlow, wife of Ambie Garcenila, who had come from the Philippines a few years ago.

“Manuel Quezon was the first president of the Philippine Commonwealth established under the U.S. tutelage in 1935,” Guimpol said during the Mass. “With the Japanese invasion of the Philippines in 1941, Quezon left the Philippines for the U.S. and ran a government-in-exile in Washington, D.C.”

Manuel Quezon is seen on Oct. 31, 1942, less than two years before he died in Saranac Lake. (Provided photo — U.S. Farm Security Administration, Office of War Information)

But Quezon began to get sick and soon was diagnosed with tuberculosis. He traveled up north to Saranac Lake, where Dr. Edward Livingston Trudeau had established a leading TB sanitarium in the 1880s. He died while staying at Camp Massapequa.

After the Mass, a man came to the front of the church and spoke of what he remembered of Quezon’s passing and the tradition that soon followed. He was Ron Keough.

Ron was 8 years old when his father Eugene was called to the camp where Quezon resided on Lower Saranac Lake to embalm him. This is not a common practice in the United States, but in the Philippines, according to those who attended the Mass and are from there, it is tradition for one to be embalmed in one’s own home. The president’s body was then sent to Washington, D.C., where he was initially buried in Arlington National Cemetery. After the war his body was brought back to the Philippines for burial.

Ron said in the years that followed, up until the 1980s, citizens from the Philippines would travel to Saranac Lake in a sort of pilgrimage and make their way from where Quezon had died at Camp Massapequa to the funeral home, where Ron and his father Eugene would meet them, take pictures and talk to them. Ron held up the tradition after his father passed away in 1981, but soon the pilgrimages stopped. Ron said he believes those making the trip were aging and are likely now dead.

After the Mass Thursday, the group walked a short distance to the Saranac Laboratory Museum, sharing their own bits of knowledge and reveling in the fact that their first president had died here. Inside the laboratory, they examined a portion of the wall in the entrance with the president’s name inscribed upon it, alongside other famous TB patients. Others meandered inside, looking for more information. For many, this man was important. He was their first president.

Manuel Quezon’s name can be found on the front entrance of the Saranac Laboratory Museum, as he was treated for tuberculosis before his death. (Enterprise photo — Kevin Shea)

“Aside from the honor of being in the roster of Philippine presidents, Quezon is also known for his pledge of ‘more government and less politics,'” Guimpol said during the Mass.

Lionor Fogy said that next year she hopes to bring Filipinos from Plattsburgh. She said there are few in Saranac Lake and Lake Placid, but many in Plattsburgh.

The Rev. Alex Guimpol conducts a Catholic Mass in honor of the 75th anniversary of the death of the first president of the Philippines, Manuel Quezon. (Enterprise photo — Kevin Shea)

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