CEBU PARISH CHURCH AND MONASTERY
Twenty-three years after the Redemptorists arrived in the Philippines they made their new house in Cebu City the center for their missionary work. The house was built under the direction of Fr. William Byrne,CSsR. This center was blessed and occupied on the 2nd of August 1929. In the early days there were hardly any houses near us. We had no church then. People came to the room at the end of the house for the Eucharist, Confession, etc. Life was simple in those days with the community constantly on missions and retreats all over the Visayas and Mindanao.
During the war years The Redemptorist House was a refuge for many families whose homes were destroyed or commandeered by the Japanese.
After the war present church was built by Engr. Gavino Unchuan under the direction of Fr. Luke Hartingan,CSsR. When the church was inaugurated in June 1950 there was doubt if it would ever be filled so far was it from the people. Soon the city expanded all around the church and today it is an extremely busy center. The apostolic work that has its center in Cebu is a perpetual mission.
We have been serving the lepers as chaplains in the Eversley Child Sanitarium since 1937. The novena to our Mother of Perpetual Help (begun in September 1946) has eleven sessions every Wednesday. In 1961 we opened St. Alphonsus Major Seminary. On Sunday the Eucharist is celebrated ten times by overflowing congregations. Many hours everyday (except Sundays) are spent in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Enclosed retreats were being given regularly since 1963 and there was such a demand for them that we opened in 1969 the Holy Family Retreat House (now Redemptorist Retreat House). At the request of Cardinal Julio Rosales we opened the Redemptorist parish in 1971.
With Redemptorists engaged in many different types of apostolate our traditional missions have become less, but have not been abandoned- we have now Cebu Urban Mission Team (CUMT). In all these apostolates, and many more, their success is very much due to the many lay-cooperators working with us and to the support we get from the wonderful people of Cebu.
THE BIRTH OF THE CEBU REDEMPTORIST CHURCH REVISITED by Fr. Ramon Fruto, CSsR
How did the building of the present Cebu Redemptorist Church come about? Who was the confrere primarily responsible for the building of the church? I doubt if any of the present Redemptorists, even among the most senior Irish confreres could answer that question – unless they had heard the story from me. The most that a number of the senior Irish confreres might say is that Fr. Peter Mulrooney would be credited with the building of the church. For his being the most senior surviving Irish Redemptorist priest of the Cebu Province for a couple of decades till his death, this presumption is not surprising. On my part, I am presumptuous enough to say “unless they had heard the story from me”, because I have never heard the subject talked about in the Province. On the other hand, I have learned about it from the person himself who was behind the building of the Cebu Redemptorist Church.
My memory of the Cebu Redemptorists dates back to the World War II year of 1942, when I started serving as an altar boy in the original Cebu Redemptorist church. This was just a chapel that took up a quarter of the floor space of the lower story of the monastery. After the war, as a working-student, a Redemptorist convento-boy, I served the first masses of three newly arrived Fathers from Ireland. The year was 1946 and the three new arrivals from Ireland were Frs. Luke Hartigan, Peter Mulrooney and Tom Crowley. As was the practice in the Congregation in those days, anyone who got assigned to the Philippines would be sent out on the traditional Redemptorist parochial missions. In those days we had no parishes or retreat houses and the Cebu church was only a small shrine church. To be able to give missions, every new arrival had to learn Cebuano.
So it happened that Frs. Luke Hartigan, Peter Mulrooney and Tom Crowley took their first steps in learning Cebuano under the tutelage of a Mr. Francisco Castro who lived in a nipa house within the property. But for Fr. Luke, learning Cebuano posed a special problem. He had shared a common World War II history with Fr. Peter: both were chaplains in the British Army. but while Fr. Peter roamed the jungles of Burma, Fr. Luke was chaplain to a tank brigade on the continent of Europe. Moving with the tanks meant being the special target of the shelling by the Germans. The shell explosions damaged the hearing of Fr. Luke. While on furlough in the middle of winter in Scotland, he woke up to find himself deaf, with tones zinging at different notes in both ears. Later a doctor would say to him that it was a wonder he had not got crazy with that constant two-tone ringing in his ears.
It was with this handicap that Fr. Luke started his learning of Cebuano with Frs. Peter and Tom. Not being able to hear the sounds of the language, he ended up unable to learn it. This meant that he would not be able to go on mission at all, in other words, would be useless in the Philippines; usefulness was then identified as the ability to give barrio missions. He was therefore told to return to Ireland.
This was a big disappointment – and even a hurt – for Fr. Luke, who by then had fallen in love with the Philippines. Despite his handicap, he had built up a good “clientele” among the church-goers. He was admired for his preaching in church, was often asked to give retreats to religious and schools. Among those who came to him for direction, he developed fast friends, notable among them four American service men: Bill McDowell, of whose conversion to the faith Fr. Luke was instrumental, Jim McLaughlin, Ed Canova and Dick Boyarski. After their discharge from military service, these gentlemen stayed on for a good number of years in the Philippines, McDowell and McLaughlin, working as pilots in PAL’s early years. McLaughlin, Canova and Boyarski left their hearts in Cebu, having married Cebuanas, McLaughlin marrying Rose Chu, Ed Canova marrying Don Ramon Aboitiz’ daughter Maria Luisa and, most remembered among the Cebu confreres, Dick Boyarski marrying Ting Corominas. Occasionally Fr. Luke would give these “Filipinized” Americans their retreat. With friends like these, Fr. Luke seemed to have made Cebu his home and was loathe to leave it when the Provincial in Ireland told him to go back home since he could not give missions. So, Fr. Luke pleaded with him to let him stay on. The Provincial, Fr. Hugo Kerr, relented and said to him: “Alright, I’ll let you stay. I’ll make you Rector of Cebu, and you build the church.” This was how Fr. Luke himself related his experience to me after he had become rector of Cebu and concomitantly my novice master when the novitiate first opened in 1950.
With Fr. Luke as Rector and Fr. Peter as minister the “Young Turks” took over from the “Old Guard”, Fr. Tom McHugh (outgoing rector) and Fr. Tom Creagh (his minister). The Old Guard, under the then Vice-Provincial, Fr. Alphie O’Connor, shepherded a community of nine other Irish priests and three Irish Brothers* (the lone Filipino in the community, Br. Gerard was then still a novice), had done heroic work not only of surviving on meager diet during the World War II years in Japanese-occupied Cebu, but of continuing their apostolic work in conditions that would have been hazardous for white foreigners. Being white meant being exposed to the risk of being mistaken by the Japanese as the American enemy. They kept the shrine-church ministry going, which was a bonus to me for it was in this period that I learned to serve as an altar boy in their church. Some went out to outlying towns to “supply” when their pastors had fled to safer ground: Fr. John McDonnell not only served as chaplain of the leprosarium but also acted as parish priest of Mandaue. Fr. George Kilbride served in the more distant parish of Cordova on Mactan Island. Fr. Pat Murphy would be seen pedalling his bike to Talamban. Fr. Patrick Drumm served as chaplain of the guerrilla in the mountains of Cebu, only to be gunned down by a bandit faction of the guerrilla who did not take kindly to Fr. Drumm’s preaching against their injustices – John the Baptist and Herod episode all over again. There was a time when all but two of the Irish confreres were detained by the Japanese “Kempetai” (military police) for having passports issued by the British enemy. It was said that few came out of the Kempetai prison alive. Fortunately with the intervention of friends who had some pull with the Japanese authorities, especially Mr. Paulino Gullas who had been appointed governor of Cebu by the Japanese when they had set up a “puppet” government, the detained confreres were released. Working in these wartime conditions, the Old Guard and their community certainly deserved a break and home leave in Ireland. So, when transport was available, thanks to Uncle Sam’s armed forces who gave them a lift on their ships, the war-weary Redemptorists went home to Ireland by way of the United States in staggered groups. Thus, the “Young Turks” took over where the Old Guard had left off to continue the Redemptorist presence despite their thinned ranks. Fr. George Kilbride (popularly known as “Padre Jorge”), who when asked if he would be going home like the others had answered, “Oh, no, I’ll be buried here under the bamboos!”, refused to go home. He stayed on, providing the continuing link between the incoming young and the outgoing old.
It was at this time that the miracle that was the building of the Cebu Redemptorist Church began to happen, and Fr. George had a special role in it. The year was 1947, The community was just beginning to move forward after the deprivations of the war just ended. They had P3,000 in the bank and the construction would cost P300,000. For their upkeep, the community depended on what the missioners would bring in from their missions and the collections from the four Sunday masses in the small church, certainly not a source for money to cover the expense of building the church. A fund drive started in earnest, but without much fanfare. Announcements were made in the church appealing for donations. As the donations started pouring in, they were posted on a typewritten sheet over the holy water stoop near the entrance to the church. On top of the list was the name of Don Ramon Aboitiz with a P20,000 peso donation and Don Sergio Osmena with P10,000). The sight of the names and amounts served as an encouragement to other potential donors, among whom were people not otherwise known to easily untie their purse-strings. Supplementing the church collection was the house-to-house heart to heart approach, and it was here that Fr. George would play a special role. A number of potential donors were Spanish-speaking and did not have much English. The Irish Redemptorists, were not Spanish speakers, but Padre Jorge had Cebuano. Fr. Luke Hartigan, as Rector would lend the appeal the weight of authority. As Fr. Luke would describe their house-to-house appeal, he and Padre Jorge would visit a house together. While Padre Jorge negotiated in Cebuano with the targeted benefactor, Luke would sit some distance away, saying his rosary. Among the fruits of these visits, it would seem, was the donation by one benefactor, Mr. Jose Avila, of the cost of building the semi-dome over the high altar in the church.
Capping these collection efforts was a charity fair held in the monastery grounds and the whole ground floor of the monastery itself. All the ground floor rooms were turned into booths for various exhibits. A special feature of the charity fair was an auction for pots of flowering plants. It was not the value of the plants that attracted the bidders, for the plants were not particularly rare, but the fun of the bidding itself. If I recall correctly, it was Mr. Ed Canova who conducted the auction, and was able to inveigle the bidders to empty their pockets. One such “victim” was the American ex-serviceman and then PAL pilot, Bill McDowell. After winning the plant by bidding an uncontested P300 (!), he held up the flower-pot for all to see. Then he declared it wasn’t going to be much use to him, and put it back on the shelf to be auctioned off again!
I don’t know how much foreign aid came in or if an appeal was made outside the country. But in the end, with the dedicated work of Engr. Gavino Unchuan and the architect Mr. Tablante, later replaced by Mr. Ancheta, the construction slowly progressed towards its completion. Those who followed the progress remarked that it was going slow enough, but what they were not aware of was that much work was put into decorative molding of the capitals topping the columns supporting the structure. The sanctuary and aisle tiles, too, were imported from Belgium while the gigantic four-faced tower clock had to come from Switzerland.
Still unfinished but initially usable, the church was open for mass at Christmas of 1949. But by June of the following year, on the eve of the Feast of the Mother of Perpetual Help, the new church packed to overflowing was solemnly blessed by former Archbishop of Cebu and then Archbishop of Manila, Archbishop Gabriel Reyes. The following day, the day of the feast Cardinal (then Archbishop) Julio Rosales celebrated the Pontifical Mass while Archbishop Reyes preached the homily. It is an event I will always remember. We were novices at that time. A year later, Br. Alphonsus and I were professed in the new church, the first profession ceremony of Filipino Redemptorists that would be followed by many more in the years to come, on the sanctuary of the new Redemptorist Church in Cebu.
While the perpetual novena started in Iloilo, it was in Cebu that the devotion blossomed significantly following the popularity of the Baclaran novena. It had started quietly in a very small scale in the small chapel at the end of the monastery building. At that time, it was held on Saturday and followed the Belfast format. But shortly after the new church was opened, the community moved the novena day to Wednesday and adopted a format similar to the Baclaran model. From then on, there was no stopping the growth and popularity of the perpetual novena, so that today the Cebu Redemptorist Church is almost synonymous with the Perpetual Novena in honor of the Mother of Perpetual Help.
It is sad that the story of such a historic event as the birth of the Cebu Redemptorist Church should be tinged with a sad note: the departure of Fr. Luke Hartigan from the ranks of the Congregation. This happened after his trip to the US, made necessary by the doctor’s recommendation so that he could have surgery on his ears. But I think it is an event that God would look kindly to as I believe it was the outcome of a serious misunderstanding or miscommunication between him and the authorities in the home Province. But this is a story that needs to be written elsewhere. All I can say is that despite his living outside the Congregation, he had remained until his death a faithful and dedicated priest. He had been incardinated in the Brooklyn diocese. After retirement, he was advised by the doctor to move to a place with a more moderate climate, otherwise the problem of his hearing might open the way to cancer in his ears. The surgery he had undergone years earlier in New York was a total failure. Whatever hearing he had on the ear that was operated on was completely lost. So, he would not let anything be done further on his other ear. He found the Sta. Barbara, California climate conducive to his health and moved there. His sister gave up her job in New York and moved to Sta. Barbara to take care of him in his waning years. Without a parish assignment, he supported himself by doing supply in neighboring parishes. He remained a well-respected priest in the vicariate. Twenty years after I had said goodbye to him in Manila airport, I got to visit him between terms of my study in Chicago. At that time, he was host to an Easter gathering of the priests of the vicariate. The following day, over dinner, we reminisced about the days we were together in Cebu. He shared his memories of people he knew in Cebu, including his memories of the house staff, among whom he well remembered Dimas and Julio and Felix. Before we parted he bequeathed to me the mission cross that had been given him by an old missionary confrere in Ireland. That cross now hangs in my room, a reminder of my missionary vocation – and of the man who made the Province’s dream of a Redemptorist Church in Cebu the reality that it is today.*Note: The other 9 Irish priests were: Frs. George Kilbride, Patrick O’Connell Snr, Tom Roche, John Byrne, Liam O’Carroll, Patrick Drumm, Patrick Murphy, Patrick Myers. The Irish Brothers: Jarlath Kyne (died in Whittier, California on way home to Ireland after the war), Charles (Michael) McCann, Gall (James Joseph) Hernan. Bro. Gerard (Filomeno) Sta. Maria, then a novice, finished his novitiate before the war ended, but could not be professed because communication with Rome was not possible, so had to live as a Redemptorist without vows until permission for his profession was granted by Rome when the war ended.