Columbans in Negros
The writer edits Misyon.
This week sees the culminating activities of the year-long celebrations for the 75 years of the Diocese of Bacolod. Columbans have been very much part of the history of the diocese since July 1950 when we were given responsibility for the southern part of Negros Occidental that was to become the Diocese of Kabankalan in 1987. They also took care for some years of Ma-ao Central and of Canlaon, now in the Diocese of San Carlos. For a while too the Columbans provided chaplains to St. Paul College, now St. Paul University, Dumaguete City, and to Sta. Theresita’s Academy, Silay City.
I was totally unaware of the Columban connection with Canlaon City until I got a phone call last year from Sr. Susan Turingan, FAS, of St. Joseph’s College there asking if a Columban could be present for the Golden Jubilee of the school. It had been started by the late Fathers Colum O’Halpin and Patrick Hynes, both of whom spent all their active lives as priests in Negros. Indeed, Father O’Halpin was serving in Biscom, Binalbagan, when he died in 2003 and is buried in Kabankalan.
My lack of awareness as a Columban of our Canlaon connection reflects a characteristic of the members of the Missionary Society of St. Columban. We are secular priests – not religious – with our roots in the diocesan clergy of Ireland, Australia, New Zealand and the USA. The men who came to Negros in 1950 had inherited a tradition of “rugged individualism”, getting on with the job and responding to the needs of the people. One of the greatest needs they saw was to enable poor children to have the chance to go to high school.
My first assignment in the Philippines was in Tubod, Lanao del Norte, from 1972 to 1973. My parish priest, the late Fr. James Flynn, one of whose classmates, Fr. Patrick Hurley, is still serving in Biscom, once told me of an encounter he had on the launch crossing Panguil Bay from Tubod to Ozamiz City. He happened to be sitting beside a young man who was a journalist. When this man learned that Father Flynn was a Columban he told him to read The Manila Times during the next few days.
A few days later Father Flynn found an article there about the largest chain of Catholic schools in the Philippines – those run by Columbans – and the writer was the late Max Soliven.Yet the Columbans have never run “Columban” schools. They established parochial schools in Zambales, Pangasinan, Rizal, Negros and northwest Mindanao. Very few were called “St. Columban’s”. The priests used to spend much of their annual vacation in Manila going from one office to another filling up forms and going from one supplier to another to get what was needed for the coming school year. In at least one instance a school was burned down in March and a new school was up and running by June. This was done through the hard work of local people and generous benefactors from overseas, often people struggling financially themselves.
I sometimes get annoyed and frustrated when Catholic schools are presented as “exclusive”. Some are. I’ve no difficulty whatever with that. But the typical Catholic school is a parochial one, run by the parish priest or by a religious congregation of Sisters or Brothers. Some religious schools that charge higher fees use some of their income to support schools for poorer children. Many schools struggle to pay their teachers a decent salary while not keeping out students from very poor families.
In the last few decades public high schools have spread to more remote areas where there were no such schools before. But in many instances it was Catholic missionaries who first made it possible for the poor to get a second-level education. There are many such groups in the Diocese of Bacolod and thank God for all of them.During the Martial Law years Columbans were very much involved in the struggle for justice, in response to the grave needs of the people and to the call of Vatican II and of Pope Paul VI in particular. Pope John Paul II reinforced that call in Bacolod in 1981. On that visit he met the widows of Alex Garsales and Herman Muleta, from Barangay Tanawan, Kabankalan, two men whose bodies were found in shallow graves in 1980 months after they were murdered. Alex had played the part of Jesus in a Good Friday Passion play that year a few days before he and Herman were abducted from their homes. In 1983 the “Negros Nine” saga started with the arrest of Columban Fathers Brian Gore and Niall O’Brien, diocesan priest Fr. Vicente Dangan and six lay leaders, falsely charged with the murder of Mayor Pablo Sola of Kabankalan. This was to draw international attention to Negros, with media people coming especially form Ireland and Australia, because of the two Columban priests. Eventually the charges were shown to be the travesties they were.
Father Dangan has since died. So has Fr. Niall O’Brien. In 1988 he became the founding editor of Misyon, the bi-monthly magazine of the Columbans in the Philippines. Earlier this year it ceased to be a printed magazine and is now primarily online.
Another need seen by a Columban in Negros was that of the Deaf. The late Fr. Joseph Coyle established Welcome Home in Puentebella, Bacolod City, a residence for out of town Deaf students who attend public schools in the city. During the nearly 17 years since his death the work he began has grown under the direction of Mrs. Salving V. Tinsay who died recently. Your columnist regularly celebrates Sunday Mass in Sign Language in Welcome Home.
As a Columban, I am grateful to God for the faithful service of so many Columbans here during the last 58 years and for many blessings we Columbans have received from God through the people of Negros.