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Dr. Leonor Testa Feliciano: Children's psychiatrist; promoted awareness of Filipino culture

Dr. Leonor Feliciano, who came to the United States to complete her medical training and succeeded in teaching thousands about Philippine culture, pride and contributions, died Saturday of breast cancer at her home in Creve Coeur. She was 66.

She had been diagnosed with breast cancer in 2001. Three days before her death she had written, "I have lived my life out loud and with happiness."

Her daughter, Sonjie Solomon, confirmed that assessment.

Mass will be celebrated for Dr. Feliciano at St. Monica Catholic Church on Friday morning.

In 1971, Dr. Feliciano, a child psychiatrist, came to the United States with her husband, Dr. Wilfrido Feliciano, a cosmetic and reconstructive plastic surgeon, and their two oldest children, who were still babies at the time. They came to attend Columbia University Medical School in New York. They had not planned to stay.

They arrived in the U.S. one step ahead of martial law that was imposed on the Philippines by President Ferdinand Marcos in 1972. The Philippines would not begin to return to a democratic form of government until the election of a new president, Corazon Aquino, in 1986. The strife had lasted too long; one year before the election, the Felicianos had become American citizens.

After completing psychiatric training in New York, Dr. Feliciano and her family moved to St. Louis. She worked several years in private practice, at a mental health unit in southern Illinois and as the chief medical officer at St. Louis State Hospital. She continued working part-time with the Human Support Services Clinic in Waterloo.

They had made America their home, but they held the Philippines in their hearts -- and their actions.

Dr. Feliciano devoted much of her time to raising her children and promoting causes that elevated the stature of the Philippines and its people. The latter took the form of numerous and Herculean tasks. She founded the Philippine Art Foundation in 1989, she said, to educate her children -- and herself.

"I said to myself, `Is there not one page of our history of which we might be proud?'," she told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in a 1996 story about the organization she was building to preserve, promote and develop Filipino-American culture and arts.

We were "always being portrayed as dog-eaters and lazy and prostitutes," Dr. Feliciano said. "I was completely sick of it."

She also founded Amadoula Health Corp. and was director of Partnerships for Gawad Kalinga St. Louis and Gawad Kalusugan USA, which builds homes -- more than 80,000 in 2,000 villages -- and medical clinics for the poor in the Philippines.

"She wanted to devote her life to helping the poor people in the Philippines," said Wilfrido Feliciano. "She was concerned about uplifting the human condition."

She was also concerned about her adopted home recognizing and appreciating her country of birth. In 1996, she spearheaded the "First Philippine Festival Week," which ran from Oct. 13-20. It was no small feat, said Anne Borman of the Directory of Missouri Foundations. She worked on the festival with Dr. Feliciano.

"All the effort behind the scenes to make it happen. All the effort to recruit different groups to support it. There was always one group balking. She just kept reaching out," Borman said. "Leonor had high standards. Everything came together because of her."

Highlights of the festival included a re-creation of the Philippine village from the 1904 World's Fair, which she worked on for 18 months with the History Museum; musical performances, including the Strano Sisters, a guitar duet from Australia; demonstrations of traditional dancing and singing; displays of Philippine artifacts, marketplace exhibits and lectures by leading professionals.

"We are physicians, restaurant owners and business people," Dr. Feliciano told the Post-Dispatch.

The festival drew more than 10,000 people and was held at three cultural venues: The St. Louis Art Museum, the History Museum and the Missouri Botanical Garden. It was crowned by a dinner and fashion show at Union Station. Dr. Feliciano, who modeled in the fashion show, brought in renowned designer Patis Tesoro, who is credited with reviving the art of sewing that is unique to Filipino villages. The fabrics showcased by Tesoro were promptly snapped up by the House of Dior.

Service above and beyond

One of Dr. Feliciano's efforts strengthened America's workforce and provided work opportunities for Filipinos. In the early 2000s, upon learning of an anticipated long-term nursing shortage in the U.S., Dr. Feliciano set about recruiting her countrywomen for nursing jobs. But things didn't always proceed as planned.

"She was back and forth from the Philippines," Borman said. "She was dealing with lawyers and hospitals and different government operations."

When she discovered that some nurses she was aiding were stuck in a basement, hungry, dirty and with nowhere to go because an arrangement had fallen apart, Dr. Feliciano persevered and resolved the issue.

"She had nerves of steel; she always came roaring back," Borman said.

Dr. Feliciano served on the board of Kendrick Seminary, the Philippine Medical Association of Greater St. Louis, Villa Duchesne, and as president of the St. Louis Metropolitan Medical Society Alliance and the Coalition of Asian Americans. While leading the coalition, Dr. Feliciano spoke during the Martin Luther King birthday celebration in 1997.

She was a recipient of the Gintong Pamana and Prism Award, which recognizes high achievers in the Filipino community, a service award from her almamater, UST, and she received an award from UST for her efforts in the building of a clinical assessment facility at the university. The facility was completed last week and Dr. Feliciano received the award just before her death.

A beautiful mind

Leonor Testa, who was known by family and friends as "Nong," was born April 19, 1944, near Manila. She was the only child of Antonio, an electrical engineer, and Lourdes Testa. While a student at the University of Santo Tomas, where she received her undergraduate degree and attended medical school, she was named first runner-up for Ms. Luzon, the largest island in the Philippines. She later became an active member of the Class of 1967 UST Medical Alumni.

Dr. Feliciano, a much sought-after presenter by businesses, often and gladly shared her insights with school children, in person and in writing. "Sarimanok Series-A Philippine Primer," co-authored by Dr. Feliciano with fellow Filipino, Theresa San Luis, was published in February. The children's book (the cover is shown at right) provides an introduction to the culture of the Philippines and a portion of its proceeds are designated to help feed and immunize impoverished Filipino children.

"I think about how Leonor cared about the children," said Borman. "You could see it in how she talked about her grandkids but it counted with all kids. That was pretty wonderful."

Dr. Feliciano was preceded in death by her parents.

In addition to her husband of 42 years, whom she met and married while both were in medical school in the Philippines, Dr. Feliciano is survived by a son, Bart Feliciano of Redwood City, Ca., and three daughters, Sonjie (Perry) Solomon, of New York, Dr. Josephine (Dr. Patrick) Ryscavage, of Chicago, and Angelica (Keith) Aumiller, of St. Louis. She is also survived by her grandchildren, Jaime, Theodore, Leonora and Emanuel.

Visitation for Dr. Feliciano will be from 3-9 p.m., Thurs., Sept. 16, at Ortmann-Stipanovich Funeral Home, 12444 Olive Blvd., Creve Coeur. Services will be at 10 a.m. Fri., Sept. 17, at St. Monica Catholic Church, 12136 Olive Boulevard. 

In lieu of flowers, memorial contributions may be made to GK Kalusugan USA. 

Gloria Ross is the head of Okara Communications and the storywriter for AfterWords, an obituary-writing and production service.

This article originally appeared in the St. Louis Beacon.

Gloria S. Ross is the head of Okara Communications and AfterWords, an obituary-writing and design service.