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Co-workers Eulogize Priest Who Died Saving Typhoon Victims

Updated: December 07, 2004 05:00 PM GMT
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A young chancery worker narrated at a liturgical service how a priest died saving lives during a typhoon.

Residents found the bloated body of Father Charlito Colendres on Nov. 30 in Pilaway community of Infanta town, 70 kilometers east of Manila. More than 1,000 people were reported killed or missing there and in other parts of Quezon province following two major storms that peaked Nov. 29 and Dec. 2.

Father Colendres, chancellor and administrator of properties, or oeconomus, for Infanta prelature, was 48 when he died.

Found wrapped around his torso was the rope he tied around his waist and a utility pole to anchor himself as he rescued villagers on the evening of Nov. 29, at the peak of the tropical depression known locally as typhoon Winnie.

His body was embalmed and laid out for a vigil wake Dec. 3 at Divine Infant Jesus of Prague and Saint Mark Parish in Infanta.

On Dec. 4 the body was taken to the parish crypt at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Shrine in Quezon City, run by Discalced Carmelite priests. Bishop Rolando Tria Tirona of Infanta and his predecessor, retired Bishop Julio Labayen, belong to the Carmelite order.

Dionisio Cadungog, a 17-year-old helper at the Infanta chancery, was among those who spoke about Father Colendres at Mount Carmel shrine after the evening Mass on Dec. 6.

"I care for Father Cha (Colendres) and love him like a real father and friend," said the Church worker. "When he wanted to go alone to Pilaway, I would not let him leave without me because I was afraid of what could happen," Cadungog said in Filipino.

Father Colendres paid for Cadungog´s schooling, and the youth helped out in the chancery.

Cadungog recalled how he and the late priest went house to house trying to convince villagers to evacuate.

He said that when it rained heavily all evening Nov. 29, Father Colendres sensed danger for people living in Banugao, a low-lying village in Infanta that floods easily during rains.

"We banged on doors and urged people to go with us and transfer to safer grounds at the municipal hall," Cadungog said. "Some were hardheaded and answered that as they would die anyway from hunger after the floods, they´d rather die together inside their homes."

The chancery worker reiterated that he told Father Colendres not to leave the chancery at the height of the typhoon, but the priest drove his jeep past fallen trees and electric posts and through flood waters to borrow a 10-wheeler truck.

Having obtained the truck, Father Colendres went to the villages, where he carried small children and led others to the vehicle. He pulled one 1-year-old child from the rushing water.

With 200 or so people already on board, Father Colendres insisted on continuing to neighboring Pilaway to save more people, including some of his relatives and Infanta parish staff.

Fighting strong currents, he tied the 30-meter rope around his and Cadungog´s waist and the other end to an electrical post so the water would not drag them away. But a surge of water almost two meters high carried with it logs and debris that hit their heads, backs and legs, knocking the two out.

"Before I collapsed I heard Father Cha gasping and crying for me saying: ´You can do it. Live! Save yourself.´"

Cadungog remembered feeling nauseous when he woke atop floating logs, mud oozing from his mouth and nose. He searched for Father Colendres on foot until he reached Infanta´s municipal hall, where he reported the priest missing.

The youth was pale and his clothing had been ripped off his body. "They thought I was crazy," Cadungog said. He told UCA News he did go "almost crazy" when he heard that Father Colendres "did not make it" and when he saw "so many people crying around dead bodies."

From the time the priest´s body was found until it was embalmed, Cadungog "was always by his side," said Father Edwin Adapay, rector of Saint Joseph Major Seminary in Infanta.

Preaching at the Dec. 6 Mass, the rector admitted he was not surprised that his best friend perished in the typhoon, because it was "natural" to Father Colendres to "sacrifice his life for others." The chancellor, he said, "left the comforts of his position to express his ultimate love for the poor."

Father Adapay told UCA News that Father Colendres´ body was to arrive in North Cotabato province, 885 kilometers southeast of Manila, on Dec. 7. Bishop Tirona and prelature workers were bringing the body on a plane. Father Colendres´ deceased parents were from Midsayap town in the southern province.

The priest´s sister, Bernadette Mercado, told the Dec. 6 gathering at Mount Carmel crypt that her brother was "kicked out" of the Regional Major Seminary in Davao City, east of North Cotabato, in 1978, the same year he entered. He went to Bishop Labayen, who then headed Infanta and accepted him there.

Bishop Labayen said in his Dec. 6 eulogy, "I cried when I lost this brilliant son, but learning the circumstances of his death I said, ´What more could I wish for?´"

Father Colendres was ordained a priest in 1986 in Aurora province, Quezon´s northern neighbor. Infanta prelature covers all of Aurora and the northern part of Quezon. He served as parish priest and vicar forane in the prelature until 1998, before completing a master´s degree in management at the University of the Philippines in Laguna, south of Manila.


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