By Roger Terry
Or right-click to download audio file here: The Appearance and Disappearance of Lourdes Amarille Estrada
Over a dozen years ago, when I was a new editor for the Liahona, the international magazine of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I was sent to the Philippines for two weeks to interview Church members there and write an article about them. The Church’s Philippines area office staff arranged my itinerary. They selected three rather diverse cities and had the local leaders select a few of their more notable members for me to interview. They were obviously trying to put the Church’s best foot forward. In Manila, I interviewed such luminaries as a luscious movie star; a physician who composed music, to the tune of about three hundred movie scores (at the time of our interview); and a freelance producer of television commercials. In another city, I interviewed the wealthy owner of a silver shop and one of the Church’s area authority seventies (as they were called then).
It was in the third city, however, that I met my most memorable Filipino. He lived in Tacloban, which was decimated by Typhoon Haiyan fourteen years after my visit. In 1999, Tacloban was a bustling, somewhat backward city on the east coast of the remote island of Leyte, where McArthur had made his famous return to the Philippines. And it was indeed remote, an oppressively hot and humid corner of paradise. I stayed in the fanciest hotel in town, in a cinderblock room with an industrial-tile floor, no air conditioning, and no hot running water. Geckos scampered about on the wall outside my room. I was informed that the previous week the locals had caught a forty-foot anaconda in the middle of town. Enchanting.
The Church apparently had no high-profile members in this sultry little city. So I spent my day there interviewing rank-and-file members. And among them was a jewel. Or perhaps I should say a Juwell, for that was his name. Juwell had recently returned from serving a mission in another part of the Philippines. He was now a college student. We had a nice chat. Speaking of his mission, he said, “It wasn’t the best two years of my life, but it was the best two years for my life.” Friends who were not members of the Church criticized him for “wasting” those two years, but he told them, “I may have forgotten my X plus Ys, but I will treasure the two years I served as a missionary for the rest of my life.” This was genuine and heartfelt, but I didn’t know if any of it would end up in my article. It was pretty ordinary RM talk.
Near the end of our conversation, however, I had a thought. “Tell me about the most spiritual experience you had on your mission.” As Juwell sat silently for a moment pondering my question, the hair on his arms suddenly stood on end. I’d never seen that happen before, but I took it as a sign that he was going to tell me something extraordinary.
“It was October 21, 1997,” Juwell began, a mere seven days after he was transferred to a new area and assigned to serve as zone leader. His companion was also new to the city, so “it was like we were opening the area.” That evening they were visiting a Church member, and afterward they had to walk three and a half kilometers to an appointment. This would have happened after sunset, which, at about 10 degrees north of the equator, takes place before 6:30 p.m. on even the longest day of the year.
While crossing a bridge they met an elderly woman. They talked for a while, and she told them she was ninety-three years old. Then she said, “Why don’t you come to my house tomorrow morning?” They asked where she lived, and she described a house not far from the bridge, a residence they recognized well—an old, pretty house from the Spanish era.
“We’ve already passed that house many times,” they told her, “but no one is ever home.”
“Be there by 9:30,” she replied, “and I’ll be waiting for you.”
So they went the next morning and knocked on the door. Someone was indeed home, but not the elderly woman they had met the night before. A younger woman answered the door. They asked for the old woman by name—Lourdes Amarille Estrada—and the younger woman looked surprised. “Are you kidding?” she said. “When did you meet her?”
“Just last night on the bridge right there,” they told her.
“Are you sure?”
“Yes, we’re sure.”
“Can you point out her picture on the wall there?”
Even though there were several pictures on the wall, the missionaries had no trouble picking out the picture of the old woman they had met on the bridge.
“You know,” said the younger woman, “she’s been dead for fifteen years.” She then informed them she was Lourdes Amarille Estrada’s youngest daughter, and her mother had died at age ninety-three.
“They let us in,” Juwell told me with a big grin, “and they were baptized and sealed in the temple—two parents and five children.”
Great story. But what on earth was heaven thinking? The questions this story raises border on the outrageous. For starters, aren’t immortal spirits supposed to be in their prime? But here’s this old lady who’d been dead for fifteen years walking around after dark as a ninety-three-year-old, and looking every second of ninety-three. She even told them she was ninety-three. What she didn’t tell them was that she was a ghost! And she was not exactly on the up-and-up with them. She led them to believe she still lived in the old Spanish-style house and would be there the next morning. Is it possible she did still live (haunt) there? Early LDS Apostle Parley P. Pratt once wrote, “Many spirits of the departed, who are unhappy, linger in lonely wretchedness about the earth, and in the air, and especially about their ancient homesteads, and the places rendered dear to them by the memory of the former scenes.”1
Pratt wrote at length about the spirits, both good and evil, who appear to mortals here on earth, and his is a very categorical discussion. But nowhere in his categories does Lourdes Amarille Estrada fit very comfortably. She certainly wasn’t an evil spirit, sent to deceive or cause trouble for the servants of God, as Pratt suggests the spirits of the wicked prefer. And to Juwell and his companion, she didn’t seem “unhappy” or wallowing in “lonely wretchedness.” Nor was she a righteous spirit sent to “minister to the heirs of salvation,” for these spirits “cannot hide their glory.”2
So what are we to make of this 108-year-old ghost? Perhaps nothing more than the fact that we know a whole lot less about the hereafter than we sometimes pretend we know. We’ve got this notion that the spirit world is divided up into nice, tidy compartments—spirit prison, paradise, you know the routine—but maybe the spirits in spirit prison aren’t just sitting around waiting for the Mormon missionaries to show up with the keys and let them out. Maybe they’re not exactly locked up. Maybe they tend to wander around a bit.
If the spirit world is all about us, as Brigham Young and others have taught, we might well ask ourselves how many of the people we pass on the street are really flesh and blood. The answer might surprise us. Heck, it might scare the living daylights out of us! All I know is that Juwell and his companion met Lourdes Amarille Estrada on the evening of 21 October 1997, and telling me about it two years later made the hair on his arms rise and salute.
I must admit, though, that I’ve saved the best part of Juwell’s story until last. I brought my conversation with him home on a cassette tape, along with some very vivid memories of the good Saints in the Philippines with their movie scores, their silver shops, and their TV commercials; their 7,107 islands, their forty-foot snakes, and their colorful jeepneys. I transcribed Juwell’s story and worked it into my article for the Liahona. But when the article appeared in print, Juwell and his friend Lourdes were nowhere to be seen. I suppose it’s poetic justice for a ghost to disappear like that.
I know what you’re thinking. Correlation. No way Correlation would permit a crazy tale like that into an official Church publication. But you’re wrong. I’ve still got a copy of the article on my computer. At the very top are these words: “Cleared by Correlation 9/22/00.” Yes, Correlation approved Juwell’s story. Can’t say I understand why.
So who was the ghostbuster? Turns out it was the area president in Manila. Protocol required the Liahona to send him a copy of my article for his approval. He apparently thought Juwell’s mysterious encounter was just another missionary legend, the Church’s version of the ubiquitous urban legends that have become popular in regular society. “We hear stories like this all the time in the Philippines,” he was reported to have said. And he didn’t want to encourage those who believed them.
I am sympathetic with his concern, but this wasn’t just a faith-promoting piece of fictional flimflam. Nope. This one I heard firsthand. And I saw the hair on Juwell’s arms. Hair doesn’t lie. At least his didn’t.
1 Parley P. Pratt, Key to the Science of Theology, 10th ed. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1973), 117.
2 Pratt, Key to the Science of Theology, 116.