Obituary: Priscilla Almazan / Chef devoted life to charity in her native Philippines
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Priscilla M. Almazan, despite owning six restaurants and working as the private chef of wealthy families, refused to tell anyone what her favorite meal was. Instead, she used her cooking skills to make others happy.
The Swissvale resident died Tuesday, taking the secret of her favorite dish with her. She was 74.
Originally from the Philippines, she moved to Wisconsin when she was 17. "When she came to the United States, she didn't know anything about how to cook," said Manny St. Mary, her husband of 30 years. "She learned everything by acts of passion, commitment."
This commitment paid off, as Ms. Almazan made a long career out of food -- working as a private chef for violinist Isaac Stern, Pittsburgh philanthropists Henry and Elsie Hillman and the Doubleday family, owners of the New York Mets. She also managed restaurants in Pittsburgh, Wisconsin, Illinois and Florida.
"She always invited people over. She fed them like kings and queens and loved to take care of everyone," said Loren Webb, a family friend. "That was her gift."
But cooking was not her only passion. GracePointe Church in the South Hills "was her heartbeat," Mr. Webb said. He met Ms. Almazan and Mr. St. Mary through the church, which the couple had co-founded with Pastor Chris Helms 10 years ago. Mr. Webb, 46, after forming a close bond with the couple, became known as their "adopted nephew."
Although she lived in the U.S. for a majority of her life, she never stopped thinking of her Filipino roots. She had grown up comfortably there -- her family had owned a school -- but she knew many children and families who did not. Impoverished Filipinos cannot afford basic housing and are left to build shacks in cemeteries and near landfills, Mr. St. Mary said. He said that his wife felt their suffering and wanted to help.
Inspired by Mrs. Hillman's various charities, Ms. Almazan began to collect boxes of clothes, food and general supplies to donate to the poor in the Philippines. She flew there often, bringing 14 to 18 boxes each time, which she personally handed out, her husband said.
"She was strong in every way. From church, to work, to her husband -- she took charge of everything," Mr. Webb said.
Ms. Almazan was diagnosed with Type II diabetes in 2009 and needed dialysis. She was heartbroken that she couldn't fly to the Philippines anymore, Mr. St. Mary said, and that she needed a kidney transplant to continue her work. While her husband tried to persuade her to forgo the risky operation, Ms. Almazan refused to listen.
"I asked Priscilla, 'Why do you want a kidney transplant?' Her answer was, 'I want the transplant because first I want to live for you, Manny, and second I want to do it for the Filipinos.' "
Although the surgery did not go as planned and forced her to remain hospitalized until her death, she found a way to keep helping those around her. GracePointe Church made a documentary about the lives of impoverished Filipinos, raising about $2,000 in donations for the families.
Throughout the 16 months of intensive care and hospitalization, Mr. St. Mary put his wife on a pedestal, Mr. Webb said. He said their devotion to each other lasted till the very end. "Manny was never allowed out of her sight."
A funeral will be held at 7:30 p.m. today at GracePointe Church.
First Published June 11, 2012 12:00 am