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Filipino Jesuits keep up mission on island of living dead
Some 8,000 local priests take care of the pastoral needs of 70 million Catholics in the Philippines
Filipino Jesuits keep up mission on island of living dead

Father Adriano Tapiador joins a fluvial procession of the Immaculate Conception with parishioners and staff of Loyola College on Culion Island in Palawan. (Photo supplied)

Published: December 15, 2021 03:22 AM

The red and white Loyola College stands atop the hill overlooking the Sulu Sea at the edge of Culion Island in the Philippines. It’s a picturesque sight, popular among adventure divers across the world, in stark contrast to its gloomy past as an abandoned colony of lepers.

For Filipino Jesuit Father Adriano Tapiador, life on the island in Palawan province is another kind of adventure. He is part of a Jesuit team there that continues the Catholic mission set up by Spanish missionaries in the early 18th century.

American Jesuits arrived on the island almost a century ago, following the Spanish. It was during that time the US administration isolated the island from the rest of humanity, making it a leper colony.

The American missioners took upon themselves the harrowing task of performing hospital work in a leprosarium that would become a global laboratory for scientific leprosy research.

Culion is no more a lepers’ island but the Jesuits continue. Filipino Jesuits have replaced their American counterparts, following the trend of local priests taking over mission areas in Asia where foreign missionaries earlier served.

Father Tapiador, 49, and his colleague Father Earl Barredo, 52, continue the Jesuit legacy on the island, which is still referred to as “the island of living dead.” They run the island’s first school, now called Loyola College.

Armed only with mercy and compassion, they risked being contaminated with a disease that, back then, was incurable

The institution was founded in 1936 by American Jesuit Father Hugh J. McNulty as Culion Catholic Primary School to educate children of the lepers. Over the years, it developed into a high school and college, becoming known for the high-quality education it offered.

“We thank the American Jesuits who came before us. The late Father McNulty opened the school despite the challenges during his time such as the lack of medicine and transport. In between, war caused the school to stop its operations,” Father Barredo said.

The island was a cursed place where many refused to go. But there were a handful of courageous men and women who answered the call of duty. Many among them were Filipinos.

“They were Filipino physicians, nurses, pharmacists, priests, pastors and medical technicians who left their families and traveled far, far away. Armed only with mercy and compassion, they risked being contaminated with a disease that, back then, was incurable,” says a report in the Inquirer.

In 1950, when the Philippines enacted a law banning discrimination against lepers, the Jesuit mission among them became irrelevant, but they opted to stay put.

“Our mission was finished … But after consulting our superiors, we felt there was a need for the missionaries to stay. There was still work to be done, though not among people suffering from leprosy,” Father Barredo told UCA News.

The Jesuits took upon themselves the responsibility of providing good education and treating malnutrition among the local children, says Father Tapiador.

The college also runs a project providing food and potable drinking water to local indigenous groups, the Tagbanua in particular, found in Culion and the wider Calamian Islands.

Loyola College on Culion Island in the Philippines (Photo: Facebook page of Loyola College

Tagbanua communal unity

Even today, Culion remains an isolated place with scarce water and electricity. A lack of potable water meant its largely indigenous inhabitants used water from the rivers and streams for their daily needs.

The Jesuits developed a system to trap and store rainwater for safe drinking. They are now in the process of installing a deep well and water purification systems to provide clean water, Father Tapiador added.

The Bayanihan spirit, which in the Philippines means communal unity, helping others without expecting rewards to achieve a certain goal, played a key role in realizing these projects, the Jesuits said.

In earlier days, when houses were made of lighter materials such as leaves, Bayanihan meant helping one’s neighbors move their house — literally.

A typical Tagbanwa hut (Photo: Wikipedia.com)

The communal spirit is less common in today’s world of concrete buildings elsewhere but is still alive among the Tagbanua communities of Culion.

Father Barredo said this simplicity of the people, especially their eagerness to lend a helping hand to the needy, continues to influence and inspire their mission.

“The people of Culion are shielded from the materialism of the world. People dress simply, no latest gadgets. The Bayanihan spirit is a good reminder of what really matters in life,” Father Barredo said.

They have received aid or help for generations and know that now it is their time to give, the priest noted.

They see themselves as the natural guardians of the island and look out for it through their environmental work and through legends handed down through the generations.

Tagbanua people earn income from fishing.(Photo: Wikipedia.com)

Culion, officially the Municipality of Culion (Tagalog: Bayan ng Culion), is now a municipality in the province of Palawan. According to the 2020 census, it has a population of 23,213. 

The original people of Culion, the Tagbanuas, remain a cultural minority group that lives by fishing and food gathering. Almost 80 percent are Catholic while the rest are followers of Islam.

The Tagbanuas, with their brown skin and straight hair, faced discrimination not only because of their physical appearance but because many of them had low self-esteem due to their lack of reading and writing skills.

Over the years, the Loyola school became a pioneering institution for the islanders, some of whom still bear the scars of leprosy. Jesuit education and formation helped the young generation of islanders to dust off the past for a bright future.

Island mission turns leper mission

Spanish Franciscan friars preached Christianity among locals in Culion in the 18th century. They also introduced new crops such as sweet potatoes and corn along with modern methods of agriculture, as mentioned in The History of the Filipino People by Teodoro Agoncillo.

Spanish Jesuit Fathers Manuel Valles and Father Jose Maria Algue were the first to begin an organized mission on the island. They built a chapel and suitable quarters, said Jesuit social anthologist Father Albert Alejo.

Father Valles gave catechesis and offered rosary prayers with the workers, although many of them were not Catholics and had arrived on the island looking for employment as construction hands to build the leprosarium.

People infected with leprosy living in Culion leprosarium sing using traditional musical instruments during the American period. (Photo: Wikimedia)   

Some workers grew hostile toward religious people on the island as they thought the missionaries were imposing the Catholic faith and practices on them.

“It was a trial-and-error method. The first Jesuits on the island felt how it was to be marginalized by a group of men oozing with testosterone who were only there for the pay,” Father Alejo added.

The mission was progressing. But then, almost a century ago, the leprosarium was set up, making Culion the womb and tomb of many lepers who were effectively banished to the island from various parts of the Philippines.

During the US occupation of the Philippines (1898-1946), Culion went through a major transformation. Various reforms were introduced in state-run schools, agriculture and health services.

The then American governor of Culion, Luke Edward Wright, ordered the establishment of a “self-sustaining” leper colony to isolate those infected with the contagious, deadly disease from those in the rest of the archipelago at the beginning of the 20th century.

The Jesuits were already on Culion in 1904 even as the setting up of the leper colony was underway. When the day of the lepers' arrival came, the Jesuits didn’t know what to expect. In fact, they had never seen lepers in their life before.

Assisting the authorities in Culion were the Jesuits and the Sisters of St. Paul of Chartres.

“Just as when we felt at home evangelizing the workmen and the local villagers. We received news that the first group of lepers had started their journey to the island. Oh Lord, grant us strength as we face this new mission,” prayed Father Valles in his diary.

Finally, the day arrived. Two boats loaded with 370 lepers anchored at Culion on May 27, 1906. Sadly, one leper couldn’t cope with the long journey and died before the boats arrived at the island.

Leprosy-infected people are seen on their beds inside the Culion leprosarium during the American period. (Photo: Wikimedia)

A doctor and some nurses rushed toward the boats. They were dressed in thick brown gowns to avoid getting infected. Father Valles lamented that he could not administer the last rites before the poor man died, documents show.

Some lepers were taken toward the 85 nipa huts (bamboo houses) while others went to the infirmary, where they were treated for days.

After a few days, Father Valles welcomed the lepers inside the church for prayer. He looked at them and saw some people with fallen noses and ears, bandages around their hands and feet, and an unbearable, stinking smell that filled the chapel’s air.

“I remember one of them crying saying he had to leave their home upon showing symptoms. One of the lepers had longed to meet with his mother, hoping that after a few months he would be sent back home. Little did he know, the island of Culion would be his home for the rest of his life,” Father Valles wrote.

Father Valles lifted their spirits by playing the guitar and leading the congregation to sing Marian hymns in Spanish, Latin and the vernacular.

Giving hope to the hopeless

For the Jesuits, dispensing the last rites became a norm as lepers died at frequent intervals. Anointing of the sick, confession, deaths and funerals came one after another, day after day.

In between, the missionaries had some time to talk to men and women during counseling sessions, confessions and even the very last chat. They kept comforting the hapless men and women, often for hours together, just to replenish their strength before their last call came.

Father Valle’s diary shows he visited the hospital at least once a day to give the last rites to sick and dying lepers. Those who died were accorded a proper Catholic funeral before they were laid to rest in the cemetery.

The burial was always heart-rending. Lepers who could handle tools prepared coffins from local wood and dug graves for their fallen comrades. Those who could walk, even by limping, joined the funeral procession before the coffin was lowered to the final resting place.

The lepers sang sad Catholic songs in Latin and shed tears for the person who had died a lonely death without seeing families again in the last chapter of their life. Some held pictures of their loved ones as precious documents, while others drew pictures of their loved ones that were never sent for fear of infection. 

Catholic nuns working with leprosy-infected people in the Culion leprosarium. (Photo: Facebook.com/cebuchannelonline)

Some wanted to write letters to their families, and the missionaries wrote for them. They talked to the Jesuits and asked them to write their message for them. Out of hundreds of letters a year, only a handful received replies. Many were afraid to open the letters that came from the leprosarium even though they were written by the missionaries.

Marriage was banned to ensure the extermination of leprosy.

The lepers had their own “mini” government — a president with his council — and a police force to maintain law and order.

The missionaries were their spiritual advisers and the government treasured their pieces of advice. Father Valles was offered a seat in the government, but he politely declined by saying his role as a missionary was “more than enough.”

“... after the establishment of the leper colony, the indigenous Tagbanua communities, the original inhabitants of the Culion peninsula, were forced to settle in the forest or in remote islands, with limited access to basic social service and education,” according to Jesuit Father Bok Arandia.

The Tagbanwa tribe managed to survive through fishing, food gathering and primitive agriculture. They were illiterate and even the lepers were more educated than them.

The Jesuits used their resources to defend the rights of the Tagbanwa people, especially against those who exploited them to buy their ancestral land with their produce at throwaway prices.

Since 2006, the Jesuits have focused on literacy programs for the tribal people through their schools. They also formulated an adult education curriculum to teach lessons in writing and communication to adult members of the tribe.

Besides, they also have programs to make the tribal people aware of their rights, such as protecting their ancestral land and ensuring their economic, social and cultural well-being.

Local missionaries

“I have always wanted to work in mission areas,” said Father Tapiador, president of Loyola College. A Jesuit priest for 27 years, he began his mission in Culion in May 2012.

“I never expected I would be assigned in Palawan. God knows what’s best for us. Now, I am enjoying my mission as a school administrator,” he said in a speech in 2012.

Asians like Father Tapiador are replacing Jesuit missionaries across the world. Some 33 percent of 17,000 Jesuits in the world today are Asians, mostly Indians and Filipinos.

Jesuit Father Adriano Tapiador receives a certificate of appreciation for his work at Loyola College. (Photo: Facebook Loyola College) 

Since the arrival of the first Jesuits in the Philippines in 1581, Jesuits have focused on their core mission of education and formation. However, seminaries were established only in the early 17th century to accept and train native people to the Catholic priesthood.

The country of about 70 million Catholics has only some 8,000 Catholic priests, roughly one priest to every 8,750 Catholics. Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, former archbishop of Manila and current prefect of the Vatican's Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, reportedly said the ideal ratio should be at least one priest for every 2,000 Catholics.

Some families like that of Father Tapiador have more than one priest. His parents have five children and two of them became priests. His brother Father Gerardo Tapiador is a diocesan priest.

“When I entered the priesthood, it was not that surprising because my older brother was already in the ministry. The difference, I think, was that I chose to become a Jesuit, a religious, instead of a diocesan priest,” Father Tapiador said.

In November 2013, Typhoon Yolanda hit Culion with devastating effect. This island is now an environmental hotspot ranked by the Philippine government as an “extremely high priority” with its increasing population threatening resources including water, fishery stocks and traditional livelihoods.

People on Culion collect aid sent by Jesuits in the Philippines. (Photo supplied)

“We [Jesuits] have been called to serve where there is need. Pope Francis has called us to go to the peripheries. Well, Culion is a periphery — literally and metaphorically,” Father Tapiador said jokingly.

Hidden from the rest of the world for almost a century, Culion’s spectacular beaches have started attracting tourists. The main town is peaceful, the jails are empty, and the serenity it gives the mind is considered priceless in today’s busy world.

The Jesuits never left Culion and their mission to give a witness to the faith, hope and anguish of the local people continues with Filipino Jesuits like Father Tapiador and Father Barredo.

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