Sixty years ago this month, a group of young American Jesuit scholastics, myself among them, sailed into Manila Bay. Fr. Francisco “Fritz” Araneta was our superior. He was home after years of study abroad, and began presenting his country. He pointed out a young woman, a legendary heroine, asleep on the mountains. He spoke of Corregidor Island, and told us of its fall. Part of the story he got from another Jesuit, Fr. Pacifico Ortiz, who had been there with President Manuel Quezon until they left with Gen. Douglas MacArthur. He told us there were sharks in the waters between Corregidor and Cavite, as if he expected us to jump in if he didn’t warn us. We saw nothing but green mountains and the blue sea. It was a wonderland.
We were in our early 20s. We would study philosophy at Berchmans College Cebu, then teach in one of the Ateneos before going on to theology. We had been 21 days on the old freighter Pacific Bear without seeing land, until we stopped at San Fernando, La Union, to unload the heavy-duty trucks intended for Ambuklao Dam.
I don’t remember much of the next few days. I recall visiting Intramuros and the immigration office there, and seeing the demolished walls of the city and the poor people everywhere, even on the site of the old cathedral. They were called “squatters” by everyone. I never dreamed I would spend most of my life working with these people.
At that time there were about 27 million Filipinos; now there are 93 million, more than thrice the 1953 figure. The extremely rapid population growth is arguably the most important historical fact of the last 60 years.
We were wearing white soutanas in public for the first time. We felt very odd, but the people didn’t seem to notice. I remember our trip to Cebu on the Basco, a small freighter, packed with people and cargo, chickens and pigs. All three days of the trip the people stared at us in our white soutanas and we stared at them; both sides were fascinated with what they saw. One in our group, Ed Spinello, had been a football player at Fordham University. He stood 5’9”, but he weighed at least 250 pounds. The people realized he never used the toilet. When he got up to walk around the ship, every eye followed him. Parents pulled their children out of his way.
Besides Spinello and myself there was Cal Poulin, who died in Cagayan de Oro in 2012. Asked once what he wanted on his tombstone, he said: “Here lies a Jesuit missionary of 60 years.” He died a year before that time was up. The fourth man was John Van Bemel, who left the Jesuits soon after ordination. We lost track of him. Spinello died shortly after ordination. Such are life’s vagaries.
We were fascinated by the way the mothers made “homes” out of the few square meters their family occupied amid all the cots and cargo in that ship. We were looking at families, not a crowd of individuals.
Flying fish followed us all the way with leaps of up to 20 meters. We saw the small islands scattered over the sea in their turquoise rings. We saw thunderstorms marching across the sea toward us on dark spindly legs. We were on our own; Father Araneta had stayed in Manila. For us it was a first-class adventure. Actually I think it was the love of adventure as much as the missionary spirit that moved us to volunteer for the missions in the first place.
We landed in Cebu on June 21, the feast of St. Aloysius Gonzaga. We knew the American scholastics who had gone ahead of us in 1951 and 1952. We met our Filipino classmates for the first time. Looking back now, I don’t see any way in which all Americans differed from all Filipinos. Some of each group loved philosophy, some found it torture. Some were interested in the fine arts, others were not.
We heard Ramon Magsaysay campaigning to become president at Fuente Osmeña. He said America would never give the weapons the Philippines needed to defeat its enemies (the Huks) “unless they saw the name Ramon Magsaysay at the bottom of the page.” He got a truly rousing reception in Cebu. Just four years later he flew from Cebu to his death.
One night not long after we arrived, I heard loud noises coming from the mountains behind the city. I left my room to see what it was. It sounded like people beating on pots and pans, and I saw rows of torches moving on the mountains. “What is it?” I asked the superstudious Filipino scholastic who lived next to me. He had a scholar’s interest in angels. Whatever problem came up in class, he related it to the angels: “What has this to say about the angels?”
He told me the people were making noise because they wanted the moon back. I hadn’t noticed the eclipse; nearly half the moon was gone and the night was darker. He said, “They believe the dragon took part of the moon and they want it back. If I were you, I’d stay in my room. Sometimes the people look for victims to sacrifice to the dragon. They prefer fair-skinned people. It’s about the light you see. Stay in your room.”
I stayed in my room until the dragon gave back the moon and the mountain people went to bed. My neighbor came and told me he was only kidding about the human sacrifice. It was the only time anyone can remember that he did something frivolous.
“What does it say about the angels?” I asked him. He laughed. It was the first time we saw him laugh out loud.
I once again thank the Filipino people, who have been angels mostly over the years.
Denis Murphy works with the Urban Poor Associates [email@example.com].