Bernardo and Cecilia Farrol at their store, Bernard’s Pilipino Specialities, in Toronto’s Parkdale neighbourhood, top. Below is Mrs. Farrol in her nursing graduation photo. Photos courtesy the Farrol family

Cecilia Pascual Farrol, a trailblazer in Canada’s Filipino community

By  Sheila Dabu Nonato, Catholic Register Special
  • January 10, 2021

Black and white photos of their beloved “Cely,” smiling confidently, began to play on the screen for friends and family unable to say their final goodbyes in person. So many people tried to log on that the funeral home website crashed before the memorial service resumed online.

Cecilia “Cely” Pascual Farrol died peacefully at Toronto’s St. Joseph’s Health Centre on Dec. 8 Her husband of 62 years, Bernardo, was by her side. She was 86.

During the online memorial service, necessitated by COVID-19 restrictions, Mrs. Farrol was remembered as a woman of faith, a trailblazing business woman and leader of the Filipino-Canadian community.

In A Portrait of Filipino Canadians in Ontario (1960-1990), the Farrol family is featured as part of Canada’s history of trailblazing Filipino health care workers and entrepreneurs.

In July 1962, Cely, then an expectant mother, and Bernardo travelled with their one-year old son, Emmanuel, in their old Ford Falcon compact car towing a U-Haul from Chicago to Toronto. 

“Both nurses, the couple had $500 in their pockets, a set of Encyclopediae (sic) Britannica, a sack of rice and other personal belongings. They had just joined the ranks of early Filipinos exploring the possibility of resettling in Canada,” the book recounts.

The family was among 153,303 Filipinos admitted to Canada from 1946 to 1990 as part of a huge wave of immigration to Canada, many of them settling in Toronto.

Mrs. Farrol was born in Cuyapo, Nueva Ecija, in northern Philippines. She graduated from Manila Central University where she met the love of her life, Bernardo, while working at Manila Doctors Hospital. Their nursing careers took them overseas where they pursued post-graduate courses in psychiatric nursing in Melbourne, Australia, and at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Md. They also worked at Chicago’s Cook County Hospital and Toronto Western Hospital. 

In 1970, the couple left their nursing careers for entrepreneurial pursuits within the growing Filipino community, opening the first Filipino store in Kensington Market.

“The (family’s) legacy is that they were the very first one that had a Filipino store in Toronto. They were the first importer of Filipino goods so we didn’t feel lost because we have a couple that provided us with some of the goods that we missed from home,” said Tess Cusipag, Managing Editor of Balita, a GTA-based Filipino newspaper.

In 1972, the couple established the Philippine Trading Centre Ltd. as the sole importers and traders of Filipino products and handicrafts in Toronto. They later opened their successful and award-winning Philippine Travel Agency. In 1974, the Farrols moved their importing business to Parkdale, next door to the “Filipino town” in the Jameson-Queen Street area of downtown Toronto. Later, they opened Queen Theatre, a 400-seat movie theatre on Queen Street which featured Filipino movies. It also showcased live performances by the Fiesta Filipino Dance Troupe in the 1980s during the Metro International Caravan, a popular festival highlighting different cultural traditions of Toronto’s immigrant population.

In 1991, concerns over Mrs. Farrol’s health led to the scaling back of their businesses and closure of the travel agency. However, she and her husband continued to work side-by-side at Bernard’s Pilipino Specialities, the family store in Parkdale which is renowned for “lechon,” a Filipino specialty dish of roasted pork.

Emmanuel Farrol, the eldest of the couple’s five children, remembers his parents’ passion to help others.

“They always thought of their business as a service to the Filipino community,” he said. 

Her Catholic faith was a source of strength, Emmanuel said. He recalls weekly family rosaries and his mother’s example of faith through her involvement at Parkdale’s Holy Family Parish, the family’s spiritual home for 45 years. She was a member of the Catholic Women’s League and a pilgrimage organizer to Our Lady of Fatima Shrine in Lewiston, N.Y.

“(Faith) sustained her during every period of her life, especially the time when she was incapacitated in the wheelchair. She couldn’t do what she used to,” he said. “She could pray for us and she continued to do so.”

Fr. David Roche, who presided at her funeral, recalled Mrs. Farrol’s cheerfulness and generosity.

“She was always very pleasant, never down, never discouraged. That, I think, is a result of a deep Catholic faith,” Roche said. 

Fr. Paul Pearson recalls Mrs. Farrol organizing a parish celebration for St. Lorenzo Ruiz, the first Filipino saint.

In a Filipino newspaper column entitled “They are among us — We are proud of them,” Rosalina E. Bustamante wrote that the couple’s greatest pride and joy were their children.

“My siblings and I are the products of their hopes and dreams, and struggles as immigrants to Canada,” Emmanuel said. “But we’re also a product of their prayers, especially my mother. 

“Despite her entrepreneurial successes, her treasure has always been her children and grandchildren.”

(NOTE: This story has been changed to correct the date of death.)

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