A kindly old church | Inquirer Opinion
Commentary

A kindly old church

01:28 AM July 13, 2015

WHEN THE winds and water of Supertyphoon “Yolanda” rose around the old church, the priest let the people in with their clothes, valuables and beddings. As the danger neared, he let in the people’s animals—their pigs, goats, chickens and dogs. The carabaos, cows and horses were left outside, in the churchyard. That day, no person or animal there was injured. The church, with its bells, is a kindly, old structure that has served the people of Basey, Samar, since 1591.

The church was built by Jesuit missionaries who were parish priests there until 1768 when their order was suppressed by Rome. Samar and Leyte are dotted by old churches, one more beautiful than the other, and all tightly interwoven with the life of the people.

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We talk now of evacuation centers in times of disaster as if it were a new concept. Old churches have kept the people safe from storms for centuries. They warned the people of pirate attacks, they provided places for revolutionaries to meet, and have been witnesses to the baptisms, marriages and the final, funeral Masses in the communities they serve. These old churches have been “God’s sanctum” through the centuries. People may not like the parish priest, but these churches are more than their priests. They have outlasted priests and their critics.

When I asked a group of development workers what they believed ordinary Filipinos thought of old churches, they gave various answers: refuge, sanctuary, solitude, prayer, town pride, meditation, landmark, plus the fact that a lot of things of significance that happened in their towns took place in their church.

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The Basey church is built of coral rock. It has weathered into a benign gray tinted with red. It stands bravely against the sunset sky, and faces with confidence the early morning when the clouds first take color in the sky.

I find an image of these churches in the lola of our poor urban families. They work to feed their children and grandchildren; they settle all personal problems in the family; they give their family its status in the community; and they do these all with immense love. The Catholic Church is called Holy Mother Church for a good reason.

We sat in what was once the common room or sala of the old Jesuit convento. The priests’ bedrooms open into it. The priests probably met in this room before dinner. Maybe they already had the Jesuit custom of taking a drink before eating. Or maybe they talked about the families in the parish who had troubles, or about news from Spain which came only a few times each year, so seldom in fact that the priests probably lost interest in that country’s politics and economic ups and downs.

Right now, around the room are relics of the past—the first tabernacle used in the original chapel; the skull of a priest whose name is not known, which was found during construction; a marvelously carved wooden statue of Jesus being baptized by John; old statues of St. Francis of Assisi and St. Augustine, founders of the religious order that took over when the Jesuits had to leave.

The room looks out to the Leyte Gulf and Leyte itself. Near the end of World War II, the priests could have seen Gen. Douglas MacArthur wading to shore near Tacloban. Priests will come and go, but this room will remain unchanged.

There are old stories—legends connected with the very old church. In 1688, Jesuit Fr. Ignacio Alcena told a story about crocodiles. There were so many crocodiles in Basey, they stole the Jesuits’ pigs and chickens. The Jesuits decided to ask God’s help, so they wrote lots of saints and drew one who would be the church patron and the church’s answer to the crocodiles. Father Alcena narrated that St. Matthew was chosen, but others said it was St. Michael the Archangel after whom the parish is named. Anyway, the crocodiles are now gone. The story reminds us of St. Patrick who is said to have driven the snakes out of Ireland and across the sea to England.

How did the ordinary people in remote towns such as Basey look on their priests, some of whom were with them for 20 years or more? No issues about friar lands there, so there is no such problem there. Did political differences with Spain cast a shadow over the relations between priests and people? Or was it a much simpler relationship? I once heard an old Jesuit missionary in Mindanao say, “People will like their priest if he doesn’t yell at them; if he is not always asking for money, and if he comes to bless their dying relatives no matter what time of day or night it might be.” Was it as simple as that?

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Looking at the old church of Basey, I can believe that people have fallen in love with it. It is all that remains from the past, through generations. It stands witness to the Basey people’s history. It is the place where they meet God. It is the most beautiful man-made object in all the countryside, and it is always open in times of disaster to serve as a haven.

The old churches may be the supreme achievements of the missionaries.

Denis Murphy works with the Urban Poor Associates ([email protected]).

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