A Journey of Faith
CICM Missionaries in the Philippines
At the start of the 20th century, CICM faced an important challenge: the Philippine Church. More than 300 years of Spanish evangelization and colonization had come to a violent end, and a strong Protestant influx had begun with the arrival of American colonizers. One of the newcomers’ positive influences was the democratization of education, but given the temper of the times, many of the American teachers were also active in proselytizing campaigns. The number of Protestant missionary families grew steadily, and many of their writings reflected an open contempt for the religiosity they found among the Filipinos. From an academic standpoint, their thesis was that Spanish missionaries had over-adapted to the culture and produced not a Christendom, but a type of animistic folk-religiosity colored by Christian beliefs. On the grassroots level, this led to endless debates that misled many people on both sides as to the real meaning and message of Christ.
The understandable desire to have a national Church developed from honest beginnings into the Aglipayan schism, leaving many parishes without a priest. Millions of faithful were either “like sheep without shepherd” or “like sheep with too many shepherds.” With the Philippine Church in dire peril, Rome called upon missionary Congregations to save its outpost in the Pacific. One could feel the urgency of the situation from the letter of Msgr. Ambrosius Agius, Apostolic Delegate to the Philippines, dated February 14, 1906 to Fr. Adolf Van Hecke, CICM Superior General: “The Superior of the Mill Hill Fathers suggested that I write to you because you could provide several vigorous and zealous missionaries since you are looking for new mission territories. Please, good Father, come to our aid and do it without further delay.”
It was not an easy decision for the CICM, which was founded as an exclusively missionary Congregation. The Superior General could not respond right away; he needed to consult the confreres and the concerned authorities in the Vatican for such a major shift in their missionary orientation. Could members be sent to a Catholic country? What about logistics? The Congregation was already spread over two vast mission fields demanding ever more personnel.
However, the needs of the promising Philippine Church could not be ignored. There was ample scope for missionary work in the region offered to the Congregation: the diocese of Vigan, then still covering the whole of northern Luzon. The mission procurator of Shanghai, Father Alphonse De Cock, reconnoitered the regions of Lepanto-Bontoc and Benguet, and confirmed the statements of the Apostolic Delegate, Archbishop Ambrosius Agius and of Vigan’s bishop, Msgr. Dennis Dougherty. Only one priest was left in a large territory of 12,000 square kilometers with less than 20,000 Catholics and some 158,000 non-Christians. Fr. De Cock noted: “I learned that the mission CICM has accepted had first been offered to the old friar orders and to different missionary institutes in Europe. All of them refused on account of lack of means of support or put up such steep conditions that they could not be accepted.” The preparatory report for the mission in the Philippines said: “The religious who were here before us do not understand that we accept this mission even if the minimal essentials of life are not even assured. We have to go forward. Real missionaries have fertile soil before them.”
The first group consisted of eight priests and one brother from Belgium. Two others from the China mission followed after a couple of weeks. The minutes of the meeting of June 30, 1907 of the CICM General Government ticks off their names, as follows, “The Council destined for the new mission of the Philippines: Fr. Peter Dierickx as Superior, Frs. Herman Ramaekers and Albert Botty from Ortos Mission in China as his councilors. To these are added: Frs. Florimond Carlu, Albert Dereume, Serafin Devesse, Constant Jurgens, Jules Sepulchre, Oktaaf Vandewalle, Henri Verbeeck, and Bro. Christiaan Hulsbosch.”
Fr. Vandewalle described their historic voyage in a letter: “A strike among the stevedores in Antwerp delayed our departure. We left Brussels by train in the evening of September 28. We spent the night in Switzerland and reached Genoa next day. Our boat, ‘Prinz Ludwig’ of the Nord Deutscher Lloyd put to sea around noon next day, October 1. Everybody got seasick except myself.” In Hong Kong they transferred to the Tean, a small and dirty Chinese vessel that would bring them to Manila.
When the first CICM missionaries landed in the Philippines on Nov. 2, 1907, they were met by Father Carroll, secretary of Bishop Dougherty of Vigan. The group went to the residence of Msgr. Agius, who welcomed them with open arms. They were offered lodging for almost two weeks at the convent of the Augustinians in Intramuros. Aside from the Apostolic Delegate, they were invited at table by Archbishop Jeremiah James Harty of Manila and later, also by the Jesuits.
A letter from Bishop Dougherty of Vigan awaited the missionaries, requesting some of them to proceed directly to Baguio and for all of them to shave their beards. Superior Dierickx was confronted with a problem, as he had told the whole group that they would proceed to Cervantes and stay there together for a year to learn the local languages. Eventually, Frs. Vandewalle, Devesse and Verbeeck were appointed for Baguio in deference to the request of the Bishop. Five went to Cervantes, the old capital of the mountains, to serve a region that extended to Bontoc. Their first CICM Christmas in such surroundings must have been novel indeed. Those who went to Baguio found a balmy region of impressive pine woods and nothing much else, even though the American government had already intended to make it the summer capital of the Philippines.
The newcomers began to study native dialects and customs. Over the years, these studies became a treasure trove of linguistics and anthropology, preserving much that was in danger of getting lost forever. Among the names associated with this period were Fathers Morice Vanoverbergh, Alfons Claerhoudt, Francis Lambrecht and Francis Billiet. However, they never forgot that their real work was the work of the Gospel. To these men, the Kingdom of God came first.
The classic CICM missionary, known as a “sublime plodder,” had become established by that time. This humble trait now stood him in good stead. In 1908, several CICM confreres started working in Nueva Vizcaya, where the only secular priest had left to join the Aglipayans. There were some setbacks such as the Mandac revolt, when the good people thought they saw the specter of colonialism returning. This was hard on the missionaries, but the story ended well. God’s grace was at work and found a rich soil in the people.
Soon, a great revival of faith and religious practice arose. In March 1909, Tagudin became the first of several Ilocano CICM parishes. Father Jerome Moerman opened the first CICM mission station of Ifugao in 1910, in the old Dominican mission of Kiangan. Christmas in 1911 saw the inauguration of the new church in Bontoc, built through the joint efforts of Fathers Jurgens and Sepulchre. From 1912 onwards, Father Leo Quintelier became the roving apostle of Benguet from his central station of Itogon. In Baguio’s early story, the epic name is Father Florimond Carlu. He served as a true shepherd to a fast-growing flock for 32 years, starting in 1913. The humble school-chapel near what is now Session Road was replaced by the imposing cathedral on top of the hill. He also helped develop two main campuses: Holy Family in Campo Filipino, and St. Louis below the cathedral.
The Philippine Mission became a CICM Province in 1909, with Father Henry Ramaekers as its first provincial superior. Home Sweet Home in Baguio served as its central house until 1954, when the provincial house was moved to Quezon City.
The First World War (1914-1918) forced the missions to become more self-sufficient, as supplies in personnel and material aid from Europe were cut off. The watchword may have been “hold your ground” but instead, Father Joseph Schipman started the Catholic School Press. Help was sought in America but also among the wealthier Filipinos, inspiring more Catholics to support their home missions. During these war years, CICM personnel also took over part of the Abra mission from the deported German missionaries.
The end of the war brought fresh groups of missionaries from war-torn Europe, some of them seasoned veterans hardened by the privations of trench life. Their sober enthusiasm was now put in the service of a far greater ideal. Old missions, for years without a priest, and a wealth of new missions got a resident priest. Historical names such as La Trinidad, Bokod, Kapangan, Daluperip, Kayan, Sabangan, Barlig, Burnay-Lagawe, Lubuagan branching out to Naneng and Salegseg have all known their “sublime plodders.” The isolated northern sub-province of Apayao was given, more with pious blessings rather than material help, to Father Morice Vanoverbergh: eminent anthropologist, linguist, and above all, missionary. This steady growth led the Holy See to create the Apostolic Prefecture of the Mountain Province on July 15, 1932. Msgr. Octave Vandewalle was the first Prefect, succeeded in November 1935 by Msgr. Jose Billiet.
In 1940, the CICM mission in the Philippines celebrated another milestone: the first native priest, Father Alberto Duggom from Pantiklan, Salegseg, was ordained. He baptized his old father during his first Holy Mass.
By 1941, the Mountain Province had a population of 296,874 and about one-third of them were Catholics. A total of 37 priests took charge of 20 mission stations, and an additional 73 substations with a chapel.
A leading theologian once said that God moves at a speed of three miles per hour. That’s the walking speed of his missionaries. Thus, the Lord was with his men in the Lepanto-Amburayan territory, part of the Diocese of Vigan, with parishes in Cervantes, Tagudin, Concepcion, Angaki, Tubao, and Pugo. The Nueva Vizcaya parishes remained under the Diocese of Tuguegarao, with Msgr. Constant Jurgens as its bishop (1929-1950). He had been a missionary in Bontoc, and thereby hangs a tale.
In some ways it is a sad tale, of great and noble endeavors that were made to fail due to adverse circumstances, or by bad will. Aware of the need to contribute to the physical, social and economic uplift of the people, the missionaries sought to improve material conditions. “Development” was a major concern among CICM missionaries long before it became a fashionable term. Father Jurgens tried to set up a silkworm culture industry in the Bontoc area, and local youth were sent to Japan to observe the process. An entire mountainside was purchased and planted with mulberry trees to provide food for the silkworms, but the whole plan was thwarted by the rabidly anti-clerical governor of Bontoc. However, other projects succeeded in many places. Weaving, lace-making, silver-smith work and broom weaving were introduced to improve living conditions. More ambitious programs in later years included roads cut in the wilderness, irrigation projects, farming cooperatives, credit unions, piggeries, dispensaries, mission hospitals and clinics.
In 1941, the Second World War reached the Philippines. By then, the missionaries had been cut off from their homelands for a year due to the events in Europe. When the blood was spilt and the dust settled, the CICM community in the Philippines found that 80 per cent of the physical plants had been reduced to ruins and charred remains and five priests had been killed. The missionaries had to rebuild what they started.
Peace brought the last wave of young missionaries from the West, which had been hit harder than it realized. About twenty arrived in 1946 alone and soon, the number of missionaries had doubled and even gone far beyond its pre-war personnel. The Philippines had become a major CICM Province. Once more, war added to the self-sufficiency of the local Church. The prefecture had been forced to set up its own seminary in Baguio under the direction of Father Francis Lambrecht. By 1978, twenty-five native priests were working among their own people. Two bishops came from this valiant group, Bishop Francisco Claver, SJ, and the late Bishop Emiliano Madangeng.
In 1948, the Apostolic Prefecture in the Mountain Provinces was elevated to the rank of Apostolic Vicariate with Msgr. William Brasseur, CICM as its first Vicar Apostolic. The number of mission stations rose to 38 and the substations with a chapel to 173. According to the census of 1960, there were 231,564 Catholics among the population of 435,839. In 1952, the diocesan congregation Servants (later Sisters) of the Immaculate Heart was founded at Tuding. A tireless Vicar Apostolic had brought the religious life and apostolate within the reach of native girls. In 2004, the congregation already had 81 professed Sisters.
Another leap from hard and humble beginnings was the CICM school system. This initiative grew rapidly under the dynamic leadership of Father Raphael Desmedt, the Provincial Superior from 1948 to 1957. It spread far beyond the Montañosa to every nook and cranny where the CICM was present. Seen in its own time, this effort became the main sounding-board for the Gospel work in our situation. The Nueva Vizcaya parishes opened high school courses and some developed elementary departments. St. Mary’s in Bayombong became the leading college in the region. This growth culminated in the provinces of Nueva Vizcaya and Quirino becoming the Prelature of Bayombong in 1966. Msgr. Alberto Van Overbeke was its first Prelate and became its Bishop in 1969. In 1977, the region counted 166,000 Catholics in a population of 273,896.
Early on, seminary work became one of the major tasks of the CICM in the Philippines. The Archbishop of Manila appealed to the Congregation to start a major seminary in Cavite. New missionaries, together with veterans of the seminary work in China, arrived to take up this task. However, they withdrew when this institution was converted into a college course. Some of the priests who were freed from seminary work were assigned to abandoned parishes in the Archdiocese and that was how Pasig, Paco, Parañaque, Las Piñas (and, from 1930 to 1977, Cainta) became resounding names in the CICM story. Other confreres continued to play a major role in developing the Major Seminary of Lipa, San Carlos Major Seminary in Manila, the Guadalupe Minor Seminary, St. Joseph’s Seminary of Dumaguete, and St. Peter’s in Butuan for many years.
With most of the collaboration on religious formation becoming a thing of the past, seminary work towards a truly Philippine CICM Province began in earnest. In line with its internationalization program, the CICM started its first novitiate in 1953. Maryhurst Seminary, housing in the main the Philosophicum, was built among the pines of Baguio in 1954-1955. Maryhill Seminary in Taytay, built in 1968, housed the Theologicum. Students followed the lectures in San Carlos Seminary until 1972, when the Maryhill School of Theology was opened.
Formation work among Filipino missionaries has brought the CICM presence in the Philippines to a full circle: the once receiving Church has become a sending Church. The faith that has been shared has borne fruit in the increasing number of young people willing to leave their familiar surroundings in order to share that faith to others of different races and cultures. Despite the unfortunate crisis in 2002 when a significant number decided to separate from CICM in order to form another missionary group, at the moment we take pride in telling the world that we still have 115 Filipinos who continue, despite the odds, to be faithful to their missionary vocation. They quietly share the faith and the Filipino spirit in 13 countries abroad and in their home country. In a sense, this is the greatest achievement of the CICM story in the Philippines: we take pride in being at the forefront of the Church’s missionary effort.
There is much more to share, but for now, we are happy to contribute to keeping alive the missionary conscience of the Philippine Church.We have sounded our institutional horn as we celebrate our 100th anniversary, which is a double golden jubilee. The Lord will forgive us and get the work of his Kingdom safely past all detours toward his own designs.
-Fr. Eugeen Flameygh, CICM and Fr. Pedro Peñaranda, CICM, [with data from “A Tiny Shoot”, by Fr. Albert Depré, CICM], CICM Centennial Edition