In this year of faith, many people will tell their stories and share their faith and gratefully say how they captured their faith or how their faith captured them. Pulpits will creak and blush with preacher’s anecdotes and experiences, some true, some exaggerated and some conveniently called parables as they try to convince congregations. In this little story of faith alive, I will try to tell how my community converted me from a doubting Thomas to a believing Peter.
In a very densely populated city of nearly half a million people in the Philippines, I was pastor of a parish that had 110,000 professed Catholics. Even with four active priests, a dedicated community of Sisters and some wonderfully committed lay people, we were only touching the surface and not much more than a presence. One particular area with a population of about 10,000 just outside an American naval base was always of particular interest to me. It was furthest away from the parish center and least wealthy or comfortable and felt “unworthy” to become involved in the main stream of parish life and activity.
After extensive home visitation in the area, we formed a group of potential leaders under the name and patronage of San Lorenzo Ruiz, the fi rst Filipino saint. Our objective and challenge to San Lorenzo was to help us form a parish in this area of Katalake and Pagasa, and our bribe would be to dedicate the parish to him. In a place almost devoid of private transportation, it was essential to have the church and parish in the center, but it seemed that all the saints in heaven couldn’t find a site where every inch was occupied.
By this time our group of leaders and some followers were becoming interested and had even started a little fundraising for the parish church that was only a dream for me but only a matter of time for them. “Father, don’t worry so much. You will only get sick. San Lorenzo Ruiz was one of us who lived for his family and was executed for his God. We are all praying to him, and we know he will take care of everything.”
For most of the first year, we had a Saturday night vigil Mass in the tool shed of a public school and even did some baptisms and a few weddings in there as well. San Lorenzo seemed to be still in Nagasaki, Japan, where he, together with a few Dominican missionaries, was tortured and martyred for refusing to abandon the Christian faith.
Eventually a large old house on a small lot, ideally situated, became available. Against our better judgment, we bought it at a bargain price. It was a beginning but far too small for a parish church but was enough incentive to pester San Lorenzo day and night! The lot next to ours was owned and occupied by an elderly man who wasn’t too friendly towards Catholics. That didn’t worry our growing community who insisted that Lorenzo would take care of the problem. Within a few months, Lorenzo obliged, and the heirs of the old man were happy to sell us the house. We now had a lot large enough for a church that would seat about a thousand people.
I sent letters to friends and relatives all over the U.S. and Ireland, and our ever-increasing community did likewise. San Lorenzo became a hive of activity from bingo to raffles to interfamily contents and sacrifices, until within a year, we were able to lay a foundation, erect pillars and put in place a galvanized iron roof. The hollow blocks were donated mostly by people from all over Olongapo City.
The next couple of steps were at first tragic but later almost amusing. With little forewarning, Mount Pinatubo erupted 32 miles away and dropped ten inches of debris and sand on us. For almost a month, our unfinished church became a place of refuge for about two hundred people whose houses were damaged or destroyed by the volcano. Ironically it provided enough beautiful white sand for the plastering of the walls both inside and outside. San Lorenzo stopped at nothing! The nearby American naval bases were closing at the time, and they kindly delivered enough surplus gravel and cement to give us the concrete floor!
We now had a finished church seating over a thousand people and filling to capacity for most or all of our weekend Masses. However, we still had no rectory, no office and no parish hall all of which should be adjacent to the church. I felt San Lorenzo was due a vacation, but I was about the only one ready to give him a break. The prayers and novenas were doubled, and after a few months, a widow living in a nice two bedroom bungalow right across the street in front of the church came to me and said, “You know, I don’t really need that house. I can live with my sister. I will sell it to you at half price.” It was perfect for a rectory and had a substantial lot. There was enough space on the right hand side of the house for the parish secretary’s office and for my office and room at the back. But was the access space on the left side of the rectory wide enough to meet the requirements for a building permit? To meet the fire hazard requirements, it must be seven feet wide. I nervously measured it to be seven feet and two inches!
San Lorenzo Ruiz parish now has a Filipino pastor. One year ago, one of its parishioners from a family that moved in when the parish was established, was ordained a priest in San Lorenzo church. Two years ago at the diocesan Holy Name, a lay organization for men, convention, it was voted the most active parish in the diocese!
I am now on mission awareness and magazine promotion here in the United States, but San Lorenzo and I communicate every day!