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Philippines

Unearthed Bones May Tell Story Of Church Beginnings In South

Updated: October 03, 2007 05:00 PM GMT
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Pieces of human bone and corroded skulls dug up recently in a college here may shed light on the Church´s early days in the southern Philippines in the 16th century, a historian says.

They belong "to dead men who told and still tell ancient tales of war and death, and love and life that shaped Mindanao into what it is today," Hermenegildo Malcampo told UCA News. He was referring to 50 skeletal pieces that have been recovered since May at Zamboanga State College of Marine Sciences and Technology.

Workers found the remains while digging to build an aquarium on the college grounds in Zamboanga City, 850 kilometers southeast of Manila. Zamboanga is located on Mindanao Island, but that main island and smaller nearby islands also are referred to collectively as Mindanao.

In 1585, a ship carrying Spanish Jesuit Father Diego del Rosario landed on the coast of La Caldera Bay, now the site of Recodo Barangay, a coastal village of Zamboanga City, Malcampo said. The priest came to convert the local people and establish a Christian mission in the south, the local historian added.

By the 1590s, Malcampo said, Spanish colonial soldiers who fought pirates sailing the Basilan Strait, south of Zamboanga, began building a wooden fort in La Caldera that they later abandoned following skirmishes with the predominantly Muslim Moro people of the area. His research on the history of Zamboanga during the pre-Hispanic and Spanish Period, roughly 1400-1900, revealed that Father del Rosario died in Recodo in 1594.

Personnel and students of the marine science college had been finding human bones on campus "for years," its public affairs officer, Roderick Trio, told UCA News. School workers stored the bones in a pit, and the college community prayed for the dead during First Friday Masses, he said.

In September, the school turned over a crate of bones to the City Government. City health officer Doctor Rodel Agbulos said the mayor requested the National Bureau of Investigation to conduct forensic examinations on the bones to determine their age and other information.

While that batch is kept in La Merced Funeral Home, more bones continue to turn up, reports aquarium construction foreman Jerson Salac.

Malcampo maintains that the campus is located on the site of a former cemetery and the variety of "big and small" skeletons and bones found there indicate that the bigger-boned Spaniards and Mexicans were buried with the "smaller" natives.

Since no headstones were found, he speculated that graves in those days may have been marked with wooden crosses that have rotted away.

Others speculated that some bones belonged to soldiers guarding the fort, because earlier reports from the college said worn out leather belts were found among the skeletal remains.

Malcampo says that after the first batch of Spaniards left Recodo, five Spanish Jesuits returned in 1635 with some 300 soldiers, including Mexicans, and a thousand workers from Cebu in the central Philippines to build what is now Fort Pilar, adjacent to the marine college.

With Jesuit Father Melchor De Vera as architect and engineer, the garrison was built out of limestone. Later, a meter-high granite facade embossed with the image of Nuestra Senora del Pilar de Zaragoza, or Our Lady of the Pillar of Zaragoza, the national patroness of Spain, was raised on the eastern wall. Today, it is a shrine and the Blessed Mother is revered as patroness of Zamboanga City.

The settlers also reportedly built a cemetery in the fort for soldiers and workers they brought along from other parts of the Philippines.

Malcampo said his research shows the Jesuits went to various islands, converted the natives and set up chapels, schools and parishes.

In 1910, Pope Pius X created Zamboanga diocese. This first diocese in Mindanao was elevated to archdiocese in 1958. Today, 74 percent of 692,174 people in its territory, which has been reduced to Zamboanga City after two new diocese were created, are Catholics. Most of the rest are other Christians, Muslims and indigenous peoples with native beliefs.

Claretian, Jesuit and Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions priests serve in the archdiocese along with 56 diocesan priests, according to the 2006-2007 Catholic Directory of the Philippines.

END

(Accompanying photos available at here)

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