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SVD marks centennial year in Abra
by Nardz Prodigal

As the City of Baguio takes pride in celebrating its centennial year with various events prepared, the Province of Abra, now with many unpalatable and sometimes funny monikers, will likewise be marking a significant event of its own silent history a few days ahead of the city’s centennial festivity and a few years before it commemorates its centennial foundation day as a separate political unit.  
Societas Verbi Divini

On Aug. 21-23, 2009, Abra will play host to an unusual big conglomeration of the Roman Catholic Church hierarchy. The Society of the Divine Word, the so-called Divine Word Missionaries or the SVD (Societas Verbi Divini) congregation, will observe its 100th year of missionary presence in the Philippines.
“Witness to the Word” is the general theme of the centennial celebration with the following objectives: “We remember, we rejoice, we renew.”

The centennial will be celebrated by a set of meaningful activities spread in three successive days in the provincial capital town of Bangued, also the seat of the cathedral or local church head.

There will also be activities in the town of Peñarrubia, the so-called portal to the lowland and upland Tingguians because it has so far preserved a tinge of the indigenous Tingguian practices, culture, and way of life despite its urban proximity and geographical location.

Celebration will also be done in San Isidro where the seed of the SVD mission was sown thru the zealous efforts of the first two SVD missionaries who were sent to the Philippines, Fr. Ludwig Beckert (Fr. Luis) and Fr. Johannes Scheiermann (Fr. Juan).  

The SVD congregation together with the Holy Spirit Sisters or Servants of the Holy Spirit (SSpS) and the Servants of the Holy Spirit of Perpetual Adoration (SSpSAp, i.e. Congregatio Servarum Spiritus Sancti de Adoratione perpetua) or Pink Sisters as we know them, were all founded by St. Arnold Janssen, a German priest from Steyl, Holland. Each one, however, now has a distinct constitution making one and the other autonomous.

A strict teacher of natural science and mathematics in a secondary school, St. Arnold Janssen felt the need to work for missionary animation in his country by helping and assisting in the work of the mission. St. Janssen worked at a time when the Church was suffering from setbacks due to anti-Catholic laws which led to the expulsion of priests and religious and to the imprisonment of many bishops.

In the course of his work both as priest and a teacher, he saw more and more the great need for Germany to have a society for missionaries. During said chaotic situation, he proposed that some of the expelled priests go to the foreign missions or at least help in the preparation of missionaries. Many raised their eyebrows on such a gigantic initiative, but he took it as a challenge and an inspiration to help the missions by attending to their needs and personally involving himself in the missionary responsibility of the church. With great faith, he founded the Society of the Divine Word on Sept. 8, 1875. 

His first SVD missionaries were sent to China on March 2, 1879.  One of these was Joseph Freinademetz, now a saint like the SVD founder himself. The latter looks like Chinese in his pictures because he more than imbibed the Chinese character thru inculturation to the maximum. 

The celebration
The municipality of Peñarrubia, Abra will play host to the first major event on the first day (Aug. 21) through an indigenous welcome ceremony. The activity will certainly form part of a colorful past to reminisce on the part of the early SVD missionaries whose spiritual zeal and deeply rooted sense of sacrifice were extremely put to the test. SVD missionaries faced the violence of many people, especially among the Tingguians, who literally opposed and resented Christianity. The early missionaries even during the Spanish regime and their lay assistants encountered difficulties traversing the mountainous terrain of Abra or the mighty Abra River. But they suffered more with the unfriendly reception of the early settlers whom they referred to as pagans. They were addressed as such because of their indigenous ways of practicing their beliefs in the Supernatural, the “spirits,” and other cultural practices. However, indigenous practices or ceremonies are being observed and performed even up to this day together with religious or Christian rites or with certain adaptations. Native instruments, choreography, and chants are now used to spice up and make today’s religious rites meaningful. 

A Thanksgiving Mass shall follow the next day (Aug. 22) at the St. James the Elder Cathedral in Bangued, Abra to be presided over by no other than the Apostolic Nuncio to the Philippines, Archbishop Edward Joseph Adams. It might be coincidental that an American Apostolic Nuncio will be leading the said Eucharistic celebration because an American, Denis O’Daugherty, then bishop of Nueva Segovia, asked for the SVD intervention in Abra. O’Daugherty’s successor, James Carrol, also an American, personally accompanied the first two SVD missionaries to Abra via the unpredictable Abra River by riding two bamboo rafts which the Abrenios now popularly call as rakit.

Before the arrival of the SVDs, Abra was politically annexed to the province of Ilocos Sur and ecclesiastically belonged to the Diocese of Nueva Segovia. It was under the guidance of the Spanish Augustinians who decreased in number and later on left the place to only a minimal number of Filipino caretakers who speak Spanish. The Spanish Augustinians’ exodus was said to be due to illness and the outbreak of the Spanish-American-Filipino war as well as external attacks of the “pagans” who viciously resisted foreign subservience.

A cultural presentation at night at the Divine Word College of Bangued gym will certainly tell more of these hostile and funny encounters. The Divine Word College of Bangued is the only Catholic college in the province established and run by the SVDs. 

On the third day, Aug. 23, Sunday, a Centennial Mass shall be celebrated at the Our Lady of the Pillar Parish Church in the town of San Isidro. The first Filipino SVD Superior General, Very Rev. Antonio Pernia, SVD shall lead the solemnity in the company of other SVD confreres and friends, the Abra clergy to be led by Bishop Leopoldo C. Jaucian, SVD, DD, national and local government officials, and other dignitaries and the public. Certainly, the occasion shall be graced by other religious brothers and the Holy Spirit Missionary Sisters or SSPs, who arrived in the Philippines in 1912.

San Isidro is the place where the first two SVD missionaries set up and embarked on their missionary journey after an exhausting first-time travel on horseback from Bangued and a fainting rakit ride from Vigan (Banauang) together with Bishop Carrol and Fr. Bartolome del Espiritu, then Bangued parish priest. This makes San Isidro the seedbed of the SVD mission in Abra and in the Philippines.

SVD evolution
Tayum, Abra was their first mission station where they built their convent near the historically famous Sta. Catalina Church. The said church has a big and beautiful pipe organ installed at the choir loft and is functioning up to this time. Its tower has a reservoir that supplies the water needs of the compound. 

San Isidro is where the work in the vineyard of the Lord began. A church made up of indigenous materials was erected through voluntary community work.
Fathers Luis and Juan made joyful regular visits to the communities to administer the sacraments while learning the local dialect. However, Fr. Juan died allegedly of typhoid fever, placed in a locally made wooden casket, and buried at the San Isidro cemetery on Jan. 4, 1910. This led Fr. Luis to do the work single-handedly until the arrival of four more SVD missionaries to take the place of Fr. Juan.

More priests followed and more mission areas were entrusted to the SVDs. Another hard blow took place when six of its priests were exiled to the Unites States and another brother to Germany.

The exiled SVDs returned to Abra in 1921 and pioneered the missionary work the following year in Occidental Mindoro. It put up a permanent residence in 1924 in Manila with a Catholic Trade School and took over a major seminary in Vigan from the Jesuits in 1926. In 1929, Fr. Wiliam Finnemann was ordained Auxilliary Bishop of Manila. He was killed, however, by the Japanese Army in 1944 in Mindoro when he was appointed Prefect Apostolic of the diocese. The entire island of Mindoro was entrusted to the SVDs in 1934 as a Mission Territory. Christ the King Mission Seminary in Quezon City opened in the same year. The following year, Colegio de San Carlos in Cebu was assigned to them and it became a university 13 years later. This occasion led the SVD to extend its presence to Visayas and Mindanao.

The first Filipino SVD was ordained in 1936 to be followed by six more in 1938. Their seminary formation, however, took place in the United States. The first Filipino SVD missionaries sent to a foreign nation, Indonesia, were Rev. Emmanuel Villaruz and Fernando de Pedro in 1951. The former is an Abrenian from Pilar (a part of San Isidro parish then) who died after returning from a long missionary stint in Indonesia. He served as parish priest in different parishes in Abra. Several Indonesian priests are now serving the Cordillera including one murdered in Kalinga a few years back.

Other Abrenians and tribal Cordillerans followed suit; they became priests, brothers, and nuns. Christ the King Seminary in Quezon City serves as a college in the study of philosophy while the subsequent study in theology is done in Tagaytay. The SVD house in Sunnyside, Baguio City serves as a multi-purpose building for all attempts towards religious renewal or retreats.  

The SVD-run seminaries made Filipino priests widely read and well-known as well as great men in other vocations both in public or private capacities.

The mark of SVD
In Abra, not very long ago, all white foreigners were commonly referred to as priests and addressed as “Apo.” And all priests were known to be SVDs even if they belong to a different congregation. Other congregations were alien to the people. While helping build churches or chapels and schools, they also helped send poor but capable students to college. These students would later on replace the non-natives as catechists or teachers if the same did not change their status thru marriage to earn permanent residence in their areas of assignment. They also assisted the community construct infrastructure i.e. irrigation tunnel to make Manabo one of the rice granaries of the province and a local tourist spot. Another was made to irrigate vast tracts of rice fields in the municipalities of Tayum, Bangued, Peñarrubia, and now Pidigan. In the socio-economic sphere, the SVDs relentlessly helped in its economic growth and development. 

Radio stations DZPA-AM and DWWM-FM, the only radio stations surviving in Abra despite economic woes, are also SVD-initiated monuments that cannot skip the memory. These were put up to facilitate contact and communication among far-flung parishes. Schools were established in many parishes assigned to them to administer, particularly in the upland towns to include the lone Catholic college of the Divine Word College of Bangued. Many earned their basic education here to include a litany of prominent men and women who would make significant contributions to the making not only of Abra but also of the Philippines.  

The SVDs were also the first to manage St. Joseph Minor Seminary in Pidigan, Abra upon its establishment in 1960 following the SVD curriculum and formation approach. It also produced erudite if not good and famous men not necessarily of the cloak. It attests to the fact that many are called but only a few are chosen. Suffice to note, however, that the SVD indeed left an indelible mark in Abra’s revolving history and likewise in the Philippines. Many are either now members of the diocesan clergy or missionaries in various mission fields throughout the world or simply witnesses to the Word.

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:: SLU centennial: Wishfully looking forward, reverently looking back
:: Mayoyao's thanksgiving festival: Beyond a hundred years
:: Strawberry farms: Juicy future in doubt
:: A collation of other centenarians in Baguio
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:: English after a century or so

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