Reflection: Being A Passionist in the Philippines: 1959-1996

Home / Reflection: Being A Passionist in the Philippines: 1959-1996

by Fr. Herbert Eberly, C.P.

In August 1996 I met Fr. Herbert Eberly at St. Paul of the Cross Monastery, Pittsburgh while he was on furlough. He accepted my request to write his reflections as part of the ongoing effort of The Heritage Newsletter to let Passionists and those associated with the Passionists reflect on our history. In doing so Fr. Herbert allows us to reflect on larger themes as well. Historically, the Passionists have been negligent in providing opportunities for overseas missionaries to engage during furlough in historical reflection of ministry. Also, the longevity and commitment of Fr. Herbert in the Philippines is a reminder that many Passionist provinces have not written twentieth century histories. For local Passionist leadership to emerge, such histories will be most important for future decision-making. For background information on the Philippines one may read Sterling Seagrave, The Marcos Dynasty (1988) and Stanley Karnow, In Our Image: America’s Empire in the Philippines (1989).

Rob Carbonneau, C.P.

On December 7, 1959 the President Wilson from San Francisco docked at Manila with four young Passionists aboard: Fathers Raymond Pulvino, Eugene Leso, Henry Free and myself. We had to come to the Philippines to help the Church here to grow. We hoped to do this, first by developing the ecclesiastical district that would be entrusted to the Passionists in Cotabato Province, and second, by planting the Passionist Congregation and its Spirit in the Philippines.

We were warmly welcomed by V. Rev. Quentin Olwell, our religious superior, and by Fr. Anthony Maloney, the Procurator of our house in Santa Mesa, Manila. They shepherded us through throngs of people crowding on every side, amidst deafening noise and chaotic traffic. Welcome to Manila.

One week later we took a 5:00 flight on a Philippine Air Line Fokker to Cagayan de Oro in Northern Mindanao. There we transferred to a DC 3 that had probably been through the war. Four hair-raising stops and six hours later we arrived at the Allah Valley Air Port on Surallah, Cotabato Province. We were joyfully welcomed by fourteen Passionists who had arrived there a year or so earlier. There with them to greet us were a number of Marist Brothers, Dominican Sisters of Sienna College, Augustinian Recollect Sisters, Oblate Sisters of Notre Dame, as well as many teachers and friends. After the greetings, we climbed aboard what became a caravan of jeeps and trucks for a rough, dusty ride over the low mountains that separate the Allah Valley from the Koronadal Valley to the west. An hour later we arrived in Marbel, the town that in a few years would become the Capital of the new Province of South Cotabato, and also the See of the Prelature of Marbel.

Unexpected Awakening

After a long, hot day of travel, we were happy to turn in early in the Marbel Convento (Rectory). At 3:00AM all “hell” broke loose underneath our windows. The twenty piece Notre Dame High School Band exploded into the marching music of the Fighting Irish! Why? Because, mounted on an open cargo truck, they were off to wake the whole town to come to the opening Mass of the “Simbang Gabi”, the novena of 4:00 AM Masses in preparation for Christmas. By 3:45 AM the pews that seat 1,500 were full. By 4:00 AM a thousand more were standing inside and outside the church. We were staggered by the numbers attending Masses, the number of Communions, Confessions, Weddings, and Baptisms. In one year alone, the number of Baptisms in the parishes under our care was 11,000.

Go South Young Man, Go South

In the middle of the last century, millions of Americans went West. In the middle of this century, millions of Filipinos went South to the largely unpopulated Island of Mindanao that measures 36,537 square miles. Among these millions were those who came from Iloilo in the west-central Philippines and settled in the Koronadal Valley. Hence, our first assignment was to study their dialect, Ilongo. Our first teacher was a seminarian, Antonio “Tony” Maganua, who later became the first to be ordained a diocesan priest for the Prelature of Marbel.

During our three months of language study, we visited many of the Notre Dame Schools begun by the Oblates of Mary Immaculate under Bishop Gerard Mongeau, O.M.I, of the Diocese of Cotabato. Some of these schools developed under the Oblates and the Marist Brothers into Colleges and Universities. Others developed under the Dominican Sisters and the Augustinian Recollects. In time, we Passionists would also participate in developing schools, especially the mission schools for the mountain peoples.

Parochial Assignment

My first parochial assignment was in Norala, a rural parish one hour north-west of Marbel, where I was assistant to Fr. Justin Garvey, C.P., a seasoned China missionary. Life for the people followed the seasons; first everyone plants rice, followed in three to four months by harvesting. Then corn and other crops are planted until, after harvesting them, it’s time to prepare again for planting rice.

Most of the farming people lived in clusters called Barrios. The American Government in the first half of this century, and the Philippine Government after their independence in 1946, had developed a good Public School System, reaching out even to the barrios. These, however, were mostly Grade I to VI Elementary Schools, with few High schools, especially in Mindanao. The Church in Mindanao was especially active in building Secondary Schools to keep the youth in school and help prepare them for the future.

Notre Dame of Norala was one such school. The parents, priests, sisters, teachers and students worked together. In the one area of religious vocations the Norala Parish and School have given in thirty years a half dozen who have persevered in the Brotherhood. Pray God, vocations have become a tradition in Norala.

The following year I was in a very different kind of parish. Dadiangas was a bustling seaport that looked just like the “Wild West.” This was a very cosmopolitan port, with people from all over the Philippines. At least a half dozen different dialects were mixed with Tagalog, the national language, and with English, the language of the schools and business, and of newspapers and movies. The parish priest here since 1958 was Fr. Reginald Arliss, C.P., until he was called to Rome in 1961 to be the first Rector of the newly built Pontificio Collegio Filipino, a residence in Rome for Filipino diocesan seminarians and priests studying in the Universities of Rome. In 1970 he was ordained bishop to succeed Quentin Olwell, C.P., who retired because of failing health.

Building The Native Church

In 1960 the very large Prelature of Cotabato was divided, its southern part becoming the Prelature of Marbel, with M. Rev. Quentin Olwell, C.P., as its first bishop. His very first undertaking was to build and staff Our Lady of Perpetual Help Seminary for the training of future Filipino diocesan priests. Fr. Justinian Gilligan, C.P., was the first Rector from 1962 to 1971 teaching Philosophy and Latin. I assisted him through these same years as Spiritual Director and Econome, teaching Religion and English. During the 60s’ we averaged ninety seminarians, including those who upon graduating from Second Year College in Marbel proceeded to St. Francis Xavier Regional Seminary in Davao, which was under the administration of the Fathers of the Foreign Mission, of Quebec, Canada.

In 1965 Bishop Quentin welcomed three Passionist Nuns from Scranton and helped them build their Our Lady of Hope Monastery on the front few hectares of the seminary property. Another branch of the Passionist family was added.

Our Lady of Perpetual Help Seminary pretty much perpetuated the traditional seminary training of Pre-Vatican II. The Davao Regional Seminary strongly stresses Pastoral Theology and social concerns. The stress bore much fruit in the Mindanao Church during the 70s and 80s.

In 1971 the diocesan clergy of Marbel were able, with transitional help from Fr. Justin Garvey, C.P. to assume leadership of the Marbel seminary. Fr. Justinian Gilligan, C.P. continued to teach Philosophy in Notre Dame of Marbel College, followed in the mid-70s by Ronan Callahan, C.P. (I am deliberately omitting the story of our Passionist seminary and seminarians, as I believe that story can best be told by those who were directly involved.) In 1971 I returned to parochial ministry in the Marbel Cathedral Parish.

The Troubled 70s

In 1971 the Mindanao Muslim secessionist movement broke out into war in Mindanao, especially in areas with heavy Muslim population, e.g., Jolo, Sulu, Basilan Island, Zamboanga, Ilagan, and North Cotabato. In South Cotabato the Muslims numbered roughly 5%. Led by the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), this movement called for secession of Mindanao from the Philippines. Assisted by foreign funding, the MNLF put the Philippine military on the defensive. Christian settlers, assisted by the Philippine Government, formed Home Defense Units that had much courage, but not as much discipline. Many innocent men, women and children lost their lives in the crossfire between these two groups. In 1972 the Municipality of Marbel, together with the Churches and schools, gave shelter to 3,000 Muslims who fled from the Allah valley to safety in Marbel. One year later the same facilities sheltered 2,000 Christians who fled on foot over the mountains as their town was being torched.

In a desperate attempt to achieve peace in Mindanao, the then First Lady, Mrs. Imelda Marcos, traveled to Tripoli, Lybia where a peace settlement was brokered by Muammar M. Qaddafi. The settlement was signed, but the war did not end. The MNLF simply went on to become part of the anti-Marcos landswell.

Building Parish Councils

In the 70s, building Parish Councils was in full swing in the Philippines. I spent two of these years in the Polomolok Parish where the very large Dole Pineapple plantation and cannery are located on the slopes of Mt. Matutum, a dormant volcano. The secessionist war, President Marcos’ Declaration on marshal law, the anti-Marcos rebels, and other problems made these three years quite turbulent. Despite it all, or maybe because of it all, the people were very enthusiastic in building Parish Councils and developing the roles of the laity in the Church. This involvement of the laity in the life of the Church, especially in forming Christian Communities, held great promise for the future.

St. Paul of the Cross Parish, Marikana, Metro-Manila

In 1974 the M. Rev. Jaime L. Sin, D.D. was appointed Archbishop of Manila. In 1975 he asked many Religious Orders and Congregations to help him divide the old parishes that were much too large. We Passionists were asked to form a new parish in Concepcion in the Marikana Valley, east of Manila. We named it St. Paul of the Cross Parish. Fortunately, we had three years to build the parish community before building the buildings. The Parish Council and Ministries quickly developed, such as Catechetical, Family Life, Christian Community, Social Action, Music, Youth Ministries, etc. In the mid-80’s the Parish Renewal Experience (PREX), Couples in Christ, and other lay movements would bring many persons and families to participate in the Parochial Lay Ministries for “building up the body of Christ, the Church.”

In 1987 an international group of five Passionist Sisters of St. Paul of the Cross came from Italy to found their Congregation here. In addition to the five originals, they now number eight novices, thirty-five sisters in temporary vows and two in perpetual vows. Their novitiate and formation house are in our own St. Paul of the Cross Parish, Marikina. Again, our Passionist Family continues to grow.

Building the Larger Church

In 1985 I was asked to travel to Rome to the Pontificio Collegio Filipino on Via Aurelia, a few miles west of St. Peter’s and the Vatican. There were an average of fifty Filipino diocesan Priests in residence during each of the nine years I served there as Spiritual Director and Librarian. Most of these remained two years, obtaining a Licentiate. Others stayed for four years to obtain a Doctorate. These years were very encouraging, for the caliber and dedication of these young priests spoke well for the future of the Church in the Philippines. These years also helped me to see how the Church is moving beyond western culture into a multi-cultural Church. What a difference this makes to so many people who can now be “at home” both in their Church and in their culture. This is what the word “Catholic” means.

Rip Van Winkle

On returning from Rome in 1994 I was asked to help for a year or two at Dadiangas, now General Santos City, the “Boom City” of the South. The total population of this area in the early 60s was around 100,000. Now it is close to 400,00. What were two parishes are now four. The small airport has been replaced by a large International Airport with direct, daily, airbus flights to Manila. The small fish piers are being replaced by the second largest fish port in the Philippines.

The Church has been a very real part of the development. What was a parish staff of eight in the 60s is now a staff of close to eighty. The Parish Lay Ministries have also blossomed, e.g., over 176 barrio chapels, 34 full-time catechists and dozens of volunteers.

The Passionist Spirit

What, one might ask, is distinctly Passionist in all these developments and structure? I believe that the distinctly Passionist dimension that we have helped develop in the Diocese of Marbel and in our Passionist parishes is the spirit of enthusiasm and joy in the face of difficulties, sacrifices, and suffering. I believe that Bishop Reginald’s enthusiasm, generosity and joy exemplified what it means to be a Passionist, i.e., to love, even unto suffering, with joy.

Back to the Passionist Heritage Newsletter Archives »