Last Man In and Last Man Out

By Fr. Peter Woodruff
August 11, 2011

Jim Sheehy

Spanish Augustinian friars founded the town of Lingayen, the Philippines, in 1614 and established the parish in 1616, naming it Los Tres Reyes (The Three Kings). In 1740 the Dominicans took over the parish. They were obliged to leave the parish after the successful Filipino revolt against Spanish rule in 1898, and Filipino priests served in the parish until 1933, when the Columbans were invited to staff and develop the parish. In 1939 the Columban Sisters arrived to work in the catechetical apostolate and in education.

The massive adobe church with its imposing bell tower dates from around 1700 and has gone through many stages of construction and reconstruction, the latest of which was the rebuilding after WWII bombs destroyed most of it. It was offi cially reopened in 1965, but is now called the Parish of the Epiphany of Our Lord, as there is no mention of three kings in the Bible.

Lourdes de Guzman, my guide for the visit to Pangasinan Province, grew up in Lingayen. She knew many Columbans who worked in the parish of her hometown. She wanted me to put on record some of the achievements of the Columbans in the province and also parishioners’ memories of the Columbans. The last Columbans to work in Lingayen left in 1981, so I did not expect to fi nd many whose memories went back beyond that date.

We drove into the church courtyard, and the fi rst person Lourdes met was Salud Puzon, now 88 years of age, who has been active in the parish since 1939. She told me how she was fi rst introduced to the Sodality of Our Lady by the Columban Sisters when she was in high school. The Sisters also asked her to teach catechism to the primary school children. In 1943 the parish priest brought the Legion of Mary to Lingayen; it was the fi rst presidium in the Philippines outside Manila. The Legion fl ourished for many years, with numerous groups of adults and youth. Now there is only one group of elderly members. However, Salud is undaunted. She told me that the basic ecclesial communities now do much the same work as the Legion used to do. For her, the bases continue to be covered despite all the changes she has seen.
She and her friends told me about parish social outreach initiatives. In 1947 the parish primary and secondary school was established, and in 1960 college level education was added. It is now called St. Columbans Academy. The Lingayen Catholic Credit Cooperative was founded in 1964 and was declared the most outstanding cooperative (nationwide) in 2001 by the Cooperative Development Authority. It now has signifi cant fi nancial assets and over 8,000 members. In 1971 a parish clinic was started for the indigent, but since the local state hospital opened a few years ago the clinic does little more than hand out free or low cost medicine to the poor.

Natividad Crisostomo, a companion of many years of Salud in the parish community, was also active in religious and social issues. She told me of her work as a teacher at St. Columbans Academy where she met her husband, Fernando. She showed me her house built of local hardwood over 100 years ago, long before the days of air conditioning; her pride and joy is a shrine to the Sacred Heart in the sitting room of her home. Fernando died 17 years ago and had been active in the parish community. He donated land to the Columban bishop, Harry Byrne, for a building to be used for the apostolate to the Aetas, the indigenous peoples who lived in the nearby hills of Zambales Province, Fernando’s home territory.

If I could meet two such people coincidentally in the space of an hour, I am sure there are many more I did not meet, others who might have told me more about how the Columbans of years past helped them form a vibrant parish community that gave witness to the Gospel in a variety of ways. Nor did I meet the many parishioners of other parishes in Pangasinan that were subsequently staffed by Columbans. Lourdes took me to where Columbans worked in six other towns along the road from Lingayen south west to Zambales Province – Domalandan, Labrador, Sual, Dasol, Eguia Dasol and Infanta.

One Columban continues in Labrador, one of the poorer 5 parishes of the province, and we met briefl y as I was whisked from place to place. Fr. Jim Sheehy, despite being over 80 years old, continues to lead a busy parish. He had no advance warning of our visit as we did not have his phone number, nor did I know we were heading his way until the morning we went. Being Palm Sunday, Fr. Jim had been busy about many things since 6:30 a.m. Then he had a house blessing, and later a family came looking for a baptism, and after that a parish group was getting their act together to go camping, and then Lourdes and I arrived with two friends plus a driver. Fr. Jim insisted we stay for lunch, and showed us the church, especially the Stations of the Cross that had been renewed by a parishioner who had recently returned from a visit to the U.S. They begin with the Last Supper and end with the Resurrection. He talked about the parish cooperative and other projects that are helping neighbors use their talents productively and so improve the family income.

As Fr. Jim continues his work, alone, I know I met a contented and lively missionary priest in the Labrador parish house on Palm Sunday 2010. He is the last Columban to be appointed to Pangasinan Province and will be the last man out.