There Is a Christian Community!
Way back in 1983, I was sent as a lay missionary to the United Kingdom under the auspices of the Columban Fathers in the Philippines. The purpose of the program was to share our experiences of the Philippine Church with the English Church and be able to get some of their "churchness" in return. For centuries the Philippines was a receiving church. Now there is the opportunity to be a sending church.
When we first arrived in Britain, someone exclaimed "So, you are now a missionary!" My reply was "I have been a missionary a long time,"because for me a missionary is a person who helps in the spread of the Gospel of Jesus. I'd been involved in my home parish in passing on the faith/spreading the Good News both in the schools and parishes in the diocese. I was also a part of a group training lay leaders and giving Basic Bible Seminars both in my home parish in Castillejos, Zambales, and in St. Joseph parish, Olongapo City. I was also involved in the rehabilitation of prostituted women in Olongapo City. I worked with the Columbans and Benedictine Sisters long before I joined the Columban Lay Mission Program. So what is the difference?
Ah… this time, I am in a foreign country. There were three of us; Zosing Mecasio from Mindanao and myself from Zambales came together in 1983 after some preparatory course at Asian Social Institute in Manila. Amparo Abalos from Pangasinan came to Britain a year earlier. We were the pioneers. Our initial contract was three years renewable for another two years maximum – no salary, only a personal allowance of £100.00 a month.
The British Church was not ready to accept us, not even some of the Columban Fathers. The program had a rocky start. "Why don't you go to another third world country" was a welcome greeting of an old parish priest in the north of England. Some priests were even blaming Columban Fr. Sean McGrath, who was the Director in Britain that time, for bringing us to Britain "too soon." But his answer was "If we do not start now we will never start at all." The Columban Lay Mission Program was his brain child. It took time before we finally found a placement.
When we first arrived in Britain, someone exclaimed “So, you are now a missionary!” My reply was “I have been a missionary a long time,” because for me a missionary is a person who helps in the spread of the Gospel of Jesus.
We were helping at the Far East Magazine office before I was assigned in the Parish of Our Lady of Fatima in White City in London's west, then at the parish of St. Gabriel in the city's north doing parish work like preparing children for First Holy Communion, helping in the preparation of youth for the reception of the sacrament of Confirmation, giving talks to parents of children for baptism, helping in children's liturgy, helping in the preparation for adults who want to be received in the Catholic Church, and organizing house Masses to enable neighbors to know one other and worship together in their homes.
Later, I was assigned in East London for the Deanery of Newham based in East Ham. This time my job was mainly to work among the Filipinos living there. "Get inside the church through the back door." I encouraged and got the Filipinos to be involved in church life and in the choir. I introduced bayanihan, babysitting, among the Filipinos, so they can go to work. Coffee mornings were also introduced. I organized cultural and religious activities like those we have in the Philippines. So the Filipino Night was born. It starts off with a Mass where readings and songs are all in Filipino, and a fiesta of Filipino food, then a program showcasing our literary, singing and dancing abilities. When a Filipino priest in not available, we would invite any priest who had worked in the Philippines to say the Mass. I also introduced the Simbang Gabi, the night Mass, followed by a salo-salo, grilled food. We also held raffles with prizes donated by the public. Proceeds went to a project in the Philippines. All these activities helped the Filipinos get integrated in the life of the parish.
I had so much culture shock, the weather, the food, the accent, the vocabulary, the unwelcoming attitude of co-workers. Someone once said "They are as cold as their weather" referring to the people. Sometimes, I think they are afraid of females, or the color of our skin and the fact that we are from a developing country or sometimes I suspect that they are afraid that we might take over. Church here is priest-centered, whereas it's lay participation centered back home in the Philippines. But with determination and help from above, I survived!
After my contract as a Columban Lay Missionary was finished, I continued to get involved, this time mostly helping Filipino Overseas Workers. I did this with the help of my husband Patrick. In those days, there were many Filipino domestic helpers accompanying their Arab employers to London. Many of them are victims of sexual, physical, and emotional abuse; some were not getting their wages at all. They were sent to me through the Philippine Embassy or the Filipino chaplaincy. We tried to help them.
When Patrick and I moved to the Republic of Ireland, we settled in a village called Killargue. It is part of the town of Dromahair but nearer to Manor hamilton in County Leitrim, not far from Sligo. Here I also gave support to Filipinas married to Irishmen.
In 2002, Filipino nurses started flocking to Ireland and England. So we thought it's good to extend my apostolate in this area, to introduce them in the community, and let our presence be felt and be welcomed and integrated. The idea of a Cultural Day was conceived, and with the help of the village leaders we had the fi rst Irish-Filipino Cultural Day. It was held in the village hall. It was like a fiesta! The morning was a display of arts and crafts of Ireland and the Philippines. The Philippine Embassy in London contributed materials for the occasion. We also had a taste of Irish and Filipino food. In the afternoon, we had Mass celebrated by Columban Fr. Bobby Gilmore, Director of the Migrant Center in Dublin, and joined by our two local priests.
In his homily, Fr. Bobby who was assigned formerly in Mindanao spoke about the benefits of migration and the importance of the welcome and acceptance of the migrants by the host country. He inspired us to be missionaries in our own way. The offertory procession was symbolic of the two communities. The Philippines and Ireland share many values and cultural traits. Finally, we had a program of songs, dances and playing of musical instruments to show our literary and musical abilities. We had the tinikling, a traditional Filipino dance, and Irish dances. This was attended by representatives of the local and provincial government. It was also graced by the Consul of the Philippines in Ireland. Five Columban Sisters came to show support and many nurses came and even people from a nearby province came. As Patrick said, "I want to put Killargue in the map." Everyone enjoyed the event, and I can say it was a success. The local media was also very helpful.
These are just a few of my activities. Despite the difficulties, I really enjoyed walking along with people. I hope my little story can be of inspiration to others. The late Cardinal Sin visited my work place when he visited London and said, "Where there is a Filipino family, there is a Christian Community."
In 2016, I had a chance to stay in London for Christmas after I canceled my flight back to Cookstown, Northern Ireland, because I was unwell on the day of my flight. Thus I had the chance to meet up with friends. I visited White City, my fi rst mission assignment back in 1983, which to my delight, Filipinos whom I saw still recognized me and my work with them after more than 30 years! I also had the privilege of gracing the Simbang Gabi at East Ham, a project I initiated in East London now copied and practiced in most parts of London and other UK parishes. I was asked to say a few words after Mass, and I was able to tell the crowd how we started and thanked them for continuing it. I'm sure God used my illness to experience the joy of mission again. That was my Christmas present!
Maria Elena Venzon-Wood was a Columban Lay Missionary in Britain from 1983-1988.