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Balangiga: a history of the town

It’s been months that we have been reading about the Balangiga bells, and almost always only in relation to the 1901 massacre of the US soldiers (48 dead and 18 wounded), and the retaliation from the American military that killed thousands of Filipinos and burned the town and surrounding areas.

After 117 years, the three bells have been returned to the Philippines. At the “turnover ceremony” in Balangiga, a Mass presided over by Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines president, Archbishop Romulo Valles, with other bishops and priests, underlined the fact that the original purpose of the bells was to call the people to the church and unite them in the celebration of the Mass and the other sacraments.

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There is, in fact, more to the bells than the 1901 massacre. The writeups on the bells never mention the Catholic history of Balangiga. The town was a visita —a village that was part of a bigger parish nearby, which was Guiuan. The limited number of missionaries at the time meant that a priest could not afford to reside in Balangiga.

The evangelization of Samar was among the tasks entrusted to the Jesuits when the archipelago was divided among the first religious orders to come to the country in the 1500s. In 1767, Spain decreed the suppression of the Jesuits; the royal decree from Spain reached Manila in 1768.  The Jesuits left the country in 1769. In 1773, Pope Clement XIV, a Franciscan Conventual, affirmed the suppression order.

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The Jesuit missions in Samar were then entrusted to the Franciscans, as they were already working in Bicol then and it was a short passage from Sorsogon to Samar. Or, perhaps, it was also because, since it was a Franciscan pope who suppressed the Jesuits, the Franciscans here had to take over their missions as well.

The Franciscans took over the Jesuit missions in 1768 and also founded new ones, like Catarman and Calbayog, among others. In 1814, Pope Pius VII reinstated the Jesuits, and they returned to the country in 1859.

Since there were not enough Franciscans to take over the whole of Samar, the Augustinians helped in the eastern part, administering Balangiga as a visita from the bigger town of Guiuan, from 1768 until 1804, when they definitively left the area to the Franciscans’ ministry. It was the Jesuits who placed the church of Balangiga under the patronage of St. Lawrence the Martyr.

In 1850, Fr. Manuel Valverde started the structural improvement of the church of Balangiga, and had the first bell made in 1853; the next year, Balangiga became a parish. The other bells were ordered and made in 1889 and 1895, which showed that the parish was flourishing as a Christian community.

With the start of the revolution against Spain, the Franciscans left Balangiga and the rest of Samar in 1898 to return to Manila, and eventually to Spain.  Some records show that a few friars remained behind to continue the pastoral ministry, until the local clergy would be able to take over. The Franciscan coat of arms on the bells, and the years when they were made, are proof of the ministry of the Franciscans in Balangiga.

Last Dec. 16, the bells were rung for the start of the dawn Masses (“Simbang Gabi” or “Misa de gallo”), nine days before Christmas. It was a moment of great joy to the residents, and indeed to the whole country, as the bells have acquired iconic status through the years as symbols of the Filipinos’ fight for freedom against invaders and colonizers—not only those from other lands, but even their local counterparts as well in modern times.

As the 1998 marker on the belfry says: “Let freedom ring once more from these bells, from the Belfry of Balangiga where they originally belong, to punctuate America’s generosity of spirit, and the gallantry of our forebears, and complete the healing.”

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May this Christmas season bring us peace and hope.

Fr. Antonio Maria Rosales, OFM (thinktonymaros@gmail.com), an author and theology professor, is the former parish priest of Forbes Park, Makati City.

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