Folks laud OMI for 75 years of service to Mindanao’s Muslim, Christian groups PDF Print E-mail
Friday, 26 September 2014 12:58

The seemingly endless odds facing its missions and the gory tales of martyrdom of its four members never dampened the zeal of the Oblate congregation to keep on working for the needy southern Moro, Christian and lumad communities.

The OMI, whose pontifical base is in Rome, celebrated on Thursday the 75th year of its presence in the country’s south, a mission pioneered by seven foreign missionaries led by Gerard Mongeau, a French-Canadian priest from Quebec.

Thousands of volunteer lay workers and representatives of the Catholic communities from different barrios in Mindanao converged on Thursday in Midsayap town in North Cotabato to commemorate the historic arrival in the country of Mongeau’s group on Sept. 25, 1939.

The rosy 75-year history of the presence in the country of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, or OMI, is one written in blood, sweat and tears of its Filipino and foreign missionaries, some of them jailed by the Japanese during World War II on suspicions they were spies of American forces.

Many Oblate priests were also persecuted by the military in the 1970s for maintaining close contact with leaders of Moro rebel groups — mostly students of schools their congregation established — who dropped out to join the secessionist uprising.

Mongeau and his companions arrived in Manila by boat, the Empress of Japan, which departed from a port somewhere in the United States of America on August 15, 1939.

The seven Oblates then took over the missions of the Jesuits, in what were known in those days as the Empire Province of Cotabato, and in the Sulu archipelago.

After setting foot in Mindanao, Mongeau and his six companions, Egide Beaudoin, Cutbert Billman, Francis McSorley, Joseph Boyd, Emile Buldoc and George Dion, immediately started organizing communities of mixed Muslim, Christian and lumad communities in far-flung areas, some reachable only on horseback and carts drawn by water buffaloes.

The seven priests opened Catholic schools, admitting non-Christians and lumads until today, that became part of the influential Notre Dame Educational Association, which groups more than 100 academic institutions scattered in Central Mindanao and the island provinces of Sulu and Tawi-Tawi.

Maguindanao Gov. Esmael Mangudadatu, a friend of Cotabato archbishop and senior OMI member Orlando Cardinal Quevedo, said it was priests who first advised him to refrain from avenging the deaths of his wife, Genalyn, and several relatives that perished in the infamous November 23, 2009 “Maguindanao Massacre.”

More than half of the 58 people killed in the incident, the country’s worst ever election-related violence, were journalists.

“I adhered to the advice of my friends in the Catholic community and so there wasn’t any outbreak of a clan war between my family and the relatives of those responsible for the atrocity. They reached out to me to help defuse the tension then despite my being a Muslim,” Mangudadatu said.

Mangudadatu said a significant number of the beneficiaries of his administration’s Maguindanao Program for Education and Community Empowerment are Visayan and ethnic Teduray Christians in the first district of Maguindanao.

In separate statements, Tawi-Tawi Gov. Nurbert Sahali and his older sister, Rep. Ruby Sahali, both expressed gratitude to the Oblates for helping provide quality education to their Samah and Tausog constituents through the Notre Dame schools in their island province.

North Cotabato Gov. Emmylou Taliño-Mendoza, whose jurisdiction covers 17 towns and Kidapawan City where there are Notre Dame schools, said the Oblates helped build North Cotabato into what it is now today, a progressive province that splintered from the Empire Cotabato Province.

“We are very thankful to the OMI,” Mendoza said.

The OMI’s Philippine group has been relying for more than five decades now on its Oblate Media Ministry, which operates five radio stations in Central Mindanao, as platforms for “peace programs” calling for religious and cultural solidarity among the local communities.

The OMI has also been publishing in Cotabato City since 1948 the multi-awarded weekly community newspaper The Mindanao Cross, which educates readers on the diplomatic means of resolving domestic security problems and the relevance of preserving ethnic identities of Moro and non-Moro indigenous tribes.

Oblate Missionary Eliseo Mercado Jr., director of the Institute for Autonomy and Governance, said their missionary works in southern Philippines is one fraught with never-ending challenges, which fan what is for him “flames of devotion” in their hearts.

Mercado, who had served in Moro enclaves in Maguindanao, is presently engaged in various peace-building activities in Mindanao assisted by the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung of Germany.

“I feel so proud being an Oblate. There is closeness with people in areas where we serve. Our media (ministry) is known for bringing the Muslims and Christians close to each other,” said Cardinal Quevedo, Mindanao’s top Catholic leader.

Four members of the OMI have been killed in one attack after another, while performing missionary works in Mindanao. The killings never dampened the congregation’s zeal to serve the area’s poor and needy sectors.

The first Oblate martyred in the Philippines was Nelson Javellana, who was killed in an ambush on Nov. 3, 1971 somewhere at the borders of what are now chartered provinces of Maguindanao and Sultan Kudarat.

Bishop Ben De Jesus, head of the Jolo vicariate, was gunned down near the Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church in downtown Jolo, capital of Sulu, on Feb. 4, 1997.

The murder of De Jesus preceded the brutal killing of another Oblate priest, Benjamin Inocencio, also in a busy spot in Jolo on December 28, 2000. He was shot dead by a gunman armed with a .45 caliber pistol.

Oblate priest Rey Roda, who was born and raised in Cotabato City, was gunned down by Abu Sayyaf bandits in a bungled attempt to snatch him while inside a campus of a Notre Dame school in the island town of Tabawan in Tawi-Tawi on Jan. 15, 2008.

Two foreign Oblate priests, American John Bertelsman and Frenchman Yves Caroff, were kidnapped in separate incidents in Jolo and in South Upi town in Maguindanao, respectively, during the 1990s.

Bertelsman and Caroff both never left the country after having been rescued from their captors and went on with their missionary works until they died of old age.

The Oblate congregation was founded in the 17th century by a wealthy scion of the French aristocracy, the now St. Eugene de Mazenod (1782-1861), who, as an adolescent and, later, as a priest, had a deep passion for serving the sick and the impoverished French communities.

For being so attached to what were known then as the “rebellious poor” of France, De Mazenod earned the ire of his relatives and friends in circles of the French elite. He persisted despite their opposition, eventually became bishop of Marseille and, subsequently, founded the OMI.