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THE ARRIVAL OF THE FIRST SVD MISSIONARIES IN 1909
ECCLESIASTICAL DEVELOPMENT (1901-1925)*
In 1903, the ‘eremita’ (chapel) erected in Cagutongan by Capitan Marcelo Valeros in 1899 was transferred to the western side of the present plaza in the church square. The reason for this was that there were more people residing on that side of the creek. Besides, there was more space available on that side than on the eastern side. By this time, the Catholics of Cagutongan felt so much the absence of a resident priest, that they decided it was time they looked for one. They invited an Aglipayan priest (Sesinando Blancas) for religious services. But very soon they found out that they were mistaken in their choice. Not satisfied with him, they told him to quit and leave. At the same time, the protestant ‘Christian Mission’ made a start by selecting Villaviciosa as the base for its activities. Mr. Catalino Valera was the first local pastor.
When the hostilities between the Americans and the Filipino revolutionaries ended on April 30, 1901, Bangued got its pastor in the person of a Filipino secular priest, Rev. Bartolome del Espiritu whom the people called ‘Apo Ome’. He had a Licenciate in Sacred Theology. He was at once appointed the Vicario Foraneo (Vicar Forane)of Abra by the first American Bishop of Nueva Segovia (Vigan), Monsignor Denis O’Daugherty. In his capacity as Vicar Forane, Fr. Bartolome del Espiritu felt the obligation to look after the spiritual welfare of the Catholics of the abandoned Pilar Station. At least once a year he visited them in Cagutongan – especially on October 12, the feastday of the patron saint, Nstra. Sra. Del Pilar. He also visited them in the month of January. At times, he was substituted by another priest like on April 11, 1907 (Easter Sunday), by Don Miguel Florentino, who was then ‘cura interino’ of Tayum. For church services, the people paid the customary stole fees: for marriages P2.00 and P0.25 for baptisms.
Fr. Juan ScheiermannEverything seemed to go well. However, the people of Cagutongan felt it was not yet the real solution to their problem. The leaders reflected on their unsatisfactory situation. They came to the conclusion that a church lot should be donated. Petition papers were prepared and submitted to the Bishop of Vigan. It so happened that the landowners of the proposed church site – Sra. Sergia Bella de Pastores and Sra. Petra Bersamin de Palasigui, were willing to make the required donation. Hence, the petition papers were drawn up by six leaders of the place, namely Capitan Marcelo Valeros, Capitan Juan Benaoro, Don Daniel Busque, Don Alberto Agaloos, Don Juan Pastores and Don Ignacio Palasigui. With these deeds on hand, Capitan J. Benaoro and Don D. Busque went to Vigan one day in 1905 to approach the Bishop, personally asking him for a resident priest. The kind prelate listened fondly to the delegates. He dismissed them with the sincere promise that he, certainly, will ask for priests in Europe. About this time, the Bishop had incidentally heard already from the Apostolic Delegate, Msgr. Ambrosius Agius, OSB, of Father Arnold Janssen and of the Missionary Congregation he had founded. Therefore, without delay, he communicated with the founder of the Missionary Society in Steyl, Holland.
The shortage of priests in his diocese had impelled Bishop Denis O’Daugherty to seek ‘manpower-reinforcements’ already at an earlier date. He had turned to the Belgian Fathers at Scheut, Brussels, for help. The response was very favorable: Ten Fathers arrived on November 2, 1907. They were all assigned to different places in the Mountain Province except one, who occupied the parish of Tagudin, Ilocos Sur. But that was no solution yet to the situation in Abra. The Bishop then wrote to Rector Janssen on March 27, 1907, as follows: ‘I humbly beg your Reverence to send six of your priests to the province of Abra which belongs to this diocese of Nueva Segovia, and to come to succor to so many souls who are crying out for help. There is no one to help them, unless you do. In the whole of Abra there are still many pagans to be converted and many more Christians to be preserved in faith. The people are industrious, temperate and peace loving. Up to the revolution, Spanish Augustinians worked among them, but they left at the outbreak of the Spanish-American-Filipino War.’ Bishop Denis O’Daugherty was successful in his appeal. After long deliberations and consultations with his councilors in Steyl, Superior Janssen decided in June 1907 to send missionaries to the Philippines. Accordingly, he informed the Bishop of Vigan of the results of his consultations on August 3, 1907. Some negotiations between Rector Janssen and Bishop O’Daugherty still delayed the appointment of the first SVD Missionaries. However, these were finally ended on August 27, 1908.
In August 1908, Bishop O’Daugherty was appointed to the Episcopal See of Jaro, in the island of Panay. Later he became Bishop of Buffalo, N.Y., and finally as Archbishop and Cardinal of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He died in 1951. His successor in Vigan was his Vicar General, Msgr. James Carrol, also an American. When Father Arnoldus died on January 15, 1909, the new Bishop of Vigan received on January 26, 1909, the final assent from the new Superior General, Rev. Fr. Nikolaus Blum. Soon after, two SVD Missionaries arrived in Abra. In his answer to this information, Bishop Santiago Carrol expressed his sincere joy over these good tidings. He assured the Superior General that the support of the priests assigned in Abra is guaranteed in spite of the poverty of his diocese. On June 15, 1909, it was definitely known , who the first two SVD Missionaries for Abra were, namely Fr. Ludwig Beckert as Superior with a six-year-experience as missionary in Shantung, China and Fr. Johannes Scheiermann, a neopresbyter.
Father Scheiermann boarded a ship in Genoa on July 15, 1909, and two weeks later on July 31, Father Beckert took off from Tsingtao. The steamer ‘Buelow’ with Fr. Scheiermann arrived in Hongkong on August 10 at 12:00 o’clock noon. Five minutes later ‘Prinz Ludwig’ with Fr. Beckert on board arrived. After three days of stay in Hongkong they took course to the Philippines and arrived in Manila on August 15, feastday of the ‘Assumption of Mary into heaven’. Father Moral, a Scheutveld Missionary, met the two newcomers at the harbor and brought them in the evening of the same day to the Apostolic Delegate, Msgr. Ambrose Agius, OSB, who took them under his roof for four days. On August 19 at 2:00 o’clock P.M., they boarded a steamship for Vigan, where they took a ‘calesa’, a horse-drawn carriage, for the residence of the Bishop, who was overjoyed to see at last the long-awaited missionaries. The following day the Bishop himself accompanied the two priests personally to Abra to establish them in their mission station. At 8:00 A.M., they drove in two calesas from the Bishop’s residence to the Abra River.
Bullcarts with all the luggage had gone ahead. On the bank of the river, swollen with yellow-muddy water were two ‘balsas’ (bamboo rafts) ready, one for the three gentlemen and another for the cargo. Each raft was made of 20 peeled long bamboo poles tied together side by side, in the middle and at the end about 2 meters wide but in front narrower. In the center of the raft was prepared a bamboo platform – one foot above the floating poles –as protection against the water running over the poles in the rapids. Over the platform arched a shelter made of palm leaves. Its curvature followed the direction of the poles. That shelter served as protection against the tropical sun and rain. Each balsa was served by four ‘balseros’ (raftsmen) – with one standing on the narrower bow with a long bamboo pole in his hands to keep the raft away from the banks. Two men ran along the riverbank pulling the raft with a long rope. These two had a very hard work to do in the now and then occurring rapids. The fourth man at the stern did the steering with a bamboo and a wooden rudder. Such a ride on the river is a real drudgery.
One kilometer upstream, the river narrows. Rising mountains from both sides give an allowance of about 100m only to the width of the river. Towering 700m high, these mountains silently face the China Sea in the west. The river widens as it reaches Pidigan. Near Bangued, the capital of Abra, it becomes a fertile valley. The raft ride of the three clerics lasted from 10:00 A.M. to 4:00 P.M. All this behind them, the two missionaries greeted the land of their future apostolic work – a valley framed by hills and mountains, which stood there in beautiful greenery. They enjoyed the hot sun looking through the clouds. The parish priest of Bangued, Father Bartolome del Espiritu, met the new arrivals personally at the riverbank. The traveling party was lucky, for a vehement thunder-shower did not fall before they had found hospitable reception at 5:00 P.M. in the spacious, two storey high brickstone built convento, which the Spanish missionaries had erected a hundred years before this event. The Filipino parish priest, Padre Bartolome, heartily welcomed the guests in Spanish, of which Fr. Luis Beckert did not understand much. However, Fr. Juan Scheiermann, who had studied Spanish for two semesters in St. Gabriel’s Seminary near Vienna, Austria was able to converse with the good old ‘Apo Ome’. It is a custom in the Philippines to name and address the priests with their baptismal name. So Father Bartolome did not hesitate to address Father Scheiermann ‘Apo Juan’ (Mr. John) and Father Beckert with ‘Apo Luis’ (Mr. Luis), not adding their surnames.
The following day, (August 23), Bishop Caroll and the two missionaries celebrated Holy Mass in the big church of Bangued which measures 75m long and 16m wide. Completed in 1807, the church was of brickstone construction with over one-meter thick walls and with a roof of corrugated iron sheets. The main altar was a beautiful set up structure richly decorated and carved from the best kind of wood; the two side altars were the same but only smaller. In spite of the early hour, it was very hot inside the church, and young Apo Juan perspired heavily during his mass. After breakfast with rice and fried eggs, four ponies were saddled, the tallest of them for the bishop. The missionaries hit the trail, first through fields and then uphill into the jungle. Now and then they came into clearings, where huts of the natives stood. Near the barrio of Induyong, they had to pass through a bottleneck all full with knee-deep mud. At first, the ponies resisted and stopped through the dread mire, but they were able to reach the other end after this obstacle. Padre Bartolome, on his strong stallion, ‘Moro’, was always leading the others with the bishop following behind him and the two newcomers making their maiden trip on horse back. There was only one trail up and downhill in the direction to Pilar. Because there had been a lot of rainfall for three months, the soil of the trail in the lower spots had been softened and trampled by the heavy ‘carabaos,’ tamed water-buffaloes using the trail in going to the ricefields for plowing and harrowing. The soil had been made by them a tenacious mire dreaded so much by the horses. Going up and down the hills was not better either, because the wet soil had become very slippery. After some three hours of exhausting ride on horse back under such unpleasant conditions the travelling party reached a settlement, where houses were made of bamboo and covered with ‘pan-au’ (a certain kind of grass from the hills). Dalimag is a barrio of Pilar-Cagutongan. Cagutongan means stone field and is about 2 km from Pilar, a Spanish town which was burned in 1899. Some native boys on horse back were waiting here for the party so they can guide them to their destination. After one hour of continued difficult riding along the slippery jungle trail, they passed by the cemetery of Cagutongan. Apo Juan did not imagine then, that he would find here his last resting place after only four months. From here, a few minutes later, the tired horse riders came to the end of their trip. But what they saw now, was a group of only 20 simple native houses made of the lightest materials (bamboo and grass). In the center of this settlement they could make out the green plaza. To the right, that is, to the west, they saw a bigger grass roof. It was the very modest chapel of Pilar erected by the people of Cagutongan in 1903. Looking down upon a small and poor place, the new missionaries certainly felt a certain disappointment in their heart. They never had seen such a miserable estate. One of the Filipino guides rode hastily down the slippery trail to ring the church bell hung up between two wooden posts standing under a big acacia tree. The ringing of the bell was the signal for the people that the long awaited ‘misioneros’ had arrived. All the people – adults as well as children – left their houses and ran to the plaza. The four clerics rode down the slippery way and came to a halt beside the humble chapel. The elders of the village were also present like Captain Marcelo Valeros, Capitan Jaun Benaoro and Don Daniel Busque and many other men. The women and children were in attendance too. Everybody was eager to kiss the hands of the four clergymen according to the Christian custom here. Before they did so, they first said in their Ilocano dialect: ‘Agmano-ac man, Apo’ (Let me kiss your hand, lord). Then with the right hand (or also with both hands) they took the hand of the priest and kissed its upper side. The elders could not do enough in expressing their sincere thanks to the bishop for having given them missionaries. The latter could not talk to them in their language, but he made himself understood with a little of Spanish which Capitan Benaoro translated in Ilocano.
After the trip, the four clerics found themselves bespattered all over with dirt. All four, after having been on horseback for almost five hours, were hungry and felt exhausted due to the heat of the high noon. But a good lunch had been prepared already in the house of Capitan Marcelo Valeros. This good old man beamed with sheer happiness of the honor given to him by the rare guests. Since he had some big earthen jars full of sugarcane wine called ‘basi,’ stored in a dark partition on the ground floor of his house, he took pleasure in offering to each of the four distinguished gentlemen a big glass full of this tasty and intoxicating beverage.
The elders had also seen to it that the ‘salas’ (biggest room in the Filipino home) in the house of the blacksmith and two adjacent small rooms were prepared for Apo Luis and Apo Juan. These were intended to be their dwelling as long as they had no convent of their own. From that house they had only to take a few steps to the chapel. Msgr. Santiago Caroll and Father Bartolome stayed for about three hours and then returned to Bangued by 4:00 P.M. But before they left, the Bishop made the following short address to the people in English, while Apo Ome made his interpretation in Ilocano. The bishop said: ‘My dear people of Pilar, here you have now the new ‘Padres Misioneros’ you had urgently asked for. I hope you will give them what they need: lodging and subsistence. If you will not deal well with them and if you will not take good care of these missionaries who have come from so far away (from China and Europe), I shall recall them. If that would be the case, you will never get a priest anymore! And see to it that a bigger chapel be constructed soon…’ Like one body and in unison, the attentively listening people replied: ‘Apo Obispo (Lord Bishop), we will do all that you demand and expect of us.’ As a matter of fact, the people of Pilar kept their word. On the other hand, it was true, that in this country – being under so unfortunate conditions – nothing can be accomplished in a short time or in a fast way; and the people alone cannot succeed in everything. So the two neophytes realized that they had to assist with their means. However, the people started without delay to gather stones and other materials for a new and bigger chapel. The construction was begun in December and was finished after 10 months. Unfortunately, Fr. Juan Scheiermann saw only the beginning of the construction work.
The two new missionaries were left behind by the bishop to be with people they did not know and to face a hard start in their work. However, a true missionary optimism animated them. Their good spirit and cheerfulness were expressed by Fr. Luis Beckert in a letter he wrote on August 25, 1909 which said among other things: ‘I think, once the first hardships are overcome, we will have a fine work here.’ As evening set in, a strong down-pour of tropical rain broke the silence which was very normal for the rainy season. The ricefields have plenty of water for the recently planted and now growing seedlings. The time will come when the rains will stop to fall by October or November and the dry northwind will blow over the ripening crops.
The 27th of August 1909 was a Saturday. At dusk, the sacristans (altar boys) rang the bell for the ‘Oracion’ (prayer of the Angelus) as done daily, followed by a long ‘repique’ (a fast and rhythmical ringing) announcing the next day as Sunday to the public, on which a day a High Mass is due. Apo Luis as the first Superior of the SVD Mission in Abra was the celebrant. A pipe organ or even a harmonium would have made the mass more solemn! However, these were substituted by two violins, two guitars and even a contra-bass! The old ‘Maestro’ (choirmaster), Apo Valerio Blaza, was the conductor. The singers under his direction were Lazaro Agaloos, Jose and Manuel Blaza, Veronica Blaza, Melchora Palasigui, Filomena and Pastora Pastores, and Fausta Viado. The eight singers showed that they were well-trained. The two girls among them proved that they had really fine voices. In fact, it was a fine and joyful High Mass. The last one of this kind was celebrated on October 12, 1908, on the feast of Nstra. Señora Del Pilar by Fr. Bartolome del Espiritu. He did this once a year since 1904 and always delivered a good sermon.
The old chapel was indeed a very humble and small ‘House of God’. It measured only 50sq. – i.e. 10m long and 5m wide; the three-meter high walls were made of split bamboo. A grass roof rested on them. A plaiting of thin bamboo hammered flat covered the bare ground. The first dwelling of the new padres, the house rented from the blacksmith of Cagutongan, had three ‘windows’ facing the plaza. These were just square openings (not window-panes or shutters) provided with bamboo shades, which had to be pulled to cover the openings during the night and to give protection against the rain. The salas and the two small adjacent rooms had no ceiling and the roof was made of grass. The floor which was made of bamboo seemed to give way whenever one walked over it. The only table looked primitive – not well planed and therefore uneven. A simple kerosene lamp hang over it. In a corner of each of the two small rooms was a bed-stead, a bamboo plaited and hard couch. For the night, big mosquito nets hang over those simple sleeping accommodations as protection against the molesting gnats. The only door was formed alongside joined and nailed boards. The stairs leading out of doors consisted of some planks. It had two handrails. Downstairs on the bare ground below the upper rooms, was the ‘workshop’ of the blacksmith. It had an anvil on a big cubical log, bellows and forge. Standing erect, the bellows were made of two hollowed out logs. The boy assisting the master-smith moved up and down a round brush made of feathers in each of the two hollow trunks. In this way air was blown into the forge, in which one could see glowing charcoals, pit-coals being unavailable.
Right from the beginning, both missionaries rolled up their sleeves and made it their business to come into contact with the people of Cagutongan and in the vicinity of this center. For this, they did the most logical thing, which is learning the language of the people. Daily they diligently memorized words of the Ilocano dialect. The children in the neighborhood were especially helpful. Among them was a 15-year old lad named Jose Millan, a bright pupil of the public primary school in Cagutongan. This boy had already a good command of English language and could assist the Fathers quite efficiently as an interpreter. He was particularly useful to them especially when they went to visit the people in the nearby barrios. After one month of constant practice, the priests were able to deliver short Ilocano sermons on Sundays and to hear confessions. At the same time, they made a census to get faster and better acquainted with the people. In no time they were able to minister not only in the center but also in the barrios. On September 17, 1909, Father Beckert got the canonical books authorized by Bishop Santiago Caroll at the ‘palacio episcopal’ in Vigan. The fees for baptisms were then set at 6 centavos for each sponsor.
By the end of 1909, the whole Pilar Mission had about 4000 Christians and 1500 pagans. Hence, there was plenty of work to do. Father Juan Scheiermann was assigned to the southern half of the 22 km long Pilar area, while Father Luis Beckert took care of the northern half. By the end of October as soon as the rainy season was over, Father Juan made his first trip to the south six hours on horse back and celebrated Holy Mass in Villavieja under a shed made of palm leaves. The church, convent and school there had been burned or demolished during the revolution, ten years earlier. He stayed there in the house of an old man near the church ruins. He made another trip in November and again in December for the Christmas celebration.
old churchAt about this time, Fr. Juan so enjoyed listening to the customary Christmas songs and to the guitar-carolling of the boys and girls going from house-to-house in the evening hours. A special novelty to him were the multi-colored paper-stars hung up in the windows of the houses. On the days after Christmas, he also visited the villages in this Villavieja area to give an opportunity to the people for attending Holy Mass, for confessions and for receiving other sacraments. On New Year’ Day, while again in Villavieja for church services, he had chills. So, immediately after Holy Mass he made his way for home to Cagutongan. On his way, he wanted to mitigate his fever in the cool water of a brook under shady trees. But soon after that he shivered even more. At last he reached home in the evening – tired, feverish and sick. Apo Luis was very much alarmed. The next morning on January 2, he sent a special messenger to Bangued, where the only physician for the whole of Abra was. The physician was not available. The messenger returned with some medicine given by the parish priest, Fr. del Espiritu. The good old priest believed that Fr. Juan had thypoid fever. For Europeans, this was a very dangerous illness. On the third day, Father Juan lost consciousness, and the fever did not subside. He was given the sacrament of the sick. A few hours later he died, on January 4, 1910. His death was very depressing news in Steyl, particularly in St. Gabriel’s. The students of Theology who came after him were preparing themselves for ordination to the priesthood. It was to be held on February 6. Much heavier still was the shock to his beloved family at home and to his relatives. Father Luis lost his only one and zealous assistant. However, necessary preparations for the funeral had to be made. Supervising them, Fr. Luis found out, that there was no coffin for the corpse. But in such cases the people knew how to get out of the predicament. Capitan Benaoro had a dry trunk under his house. He ordered sawers to put the ends of the trunk on two wooden blocks. With a blackened and tightened cord, straight lines were marked along the surface of the trunk on which lines the sawers had to follow. It was a hard work for the two men handling the saw and drawing it horizontally to and fro. But soon one board fell off, then again another one, a third one…etc. Meanwhile, self trained carpenters were at work. With simple handmade planes they worked the boards, trimmed them according to the estimated length of the coffin, measured and adjusted, cut off some more bits until finally, by midnight, the coffin was finished. Because there was no paint, they drew with soot a black cross on the lid of the coffin. Then, in the convento, the corpse was clothed with violet garments. Father Superior Beckert, Bishop Santiago Caroll of Vigan, Vicar Forane del Espiritu and the people stood grieving at the bier of the young missionary. In the morning hours of January 5, Father Luis sang a Requiem High Mass for his deceased confrere. Hundreds of people came to pray for good Father Juan and to attend the funeral. After the Requiem Mass, a long procession of Christians and pagans brought the remains of Fr. Juan to the ‘campo santo’ or cemetery. Accompanied by the prayers of the Church, the mortal body of Apo Juan was entrusted to the hot ground. It was a touching farewell. Father Beckert wrote later: ‘Hardly any eye remained dry. I myself could no longer hide my tears; they were the first ones I shed since the death of my mother 22 years ago.’ The Bishop wrote to Fr. Superior General Blum: ‘A great loss, a great shock to me as it was, I am sure, to you, too. It was indeed a distinct loss to the Missions. Father Juan’s life was edifying; his death more so. He had left an excellent impression on the people and of the Missionaries of the Society of the Divine Word.’
After this event, Father Luis did all the mission work single-handed for half a year. On June 20, 1910, three young and new missionaries arrived in Manila. They were Frs. Bruno Drescher, Miguel Hergesheimer and Jose Stigler. As it was done ten months ago, these three traveled from Manila to Vigan then to Bangued on the same manner as those who came before them. Again they stayed in Bangued in the night of June 27 in the big convento of the parish priest. The bishop was not with them this time, but Fr. Superior Beckert was there to be the happy guide. On June 28, under a constant down-pour of rain, the four padres rode on horses to Pilar. Like the year before, it was a dreadful five-hour trip. Reaching the campo santo the party stopped for a short while to pray at the grave of Fr. Juan Scheiermann. After a few minutes, amid the pealing of the church bell, they arrived in Cagutongan at 2:00 P.M. They received a hospitable welcome in the house of the cross-eyed black smith. Since there was only one bed-stead meant for Fr. Superior, the three newcomers accommodated themselves for the night on the bamboo floor of the salas using the big mosquito net of the late Fr. Juan.
*An excerpt from Fr. Johannes R. Lange’s The Chronicle of Pilar, Villaviciosa and San Isidro, reprinted by The Ilocos Review (Volume 28 – 1999) to commemorate the 90th anniversary of the arrival of the first SVD missionaries in Cagutongan, now San Isidro, Abra. The Ilocos Review is an annual publication of SVD colleges and schools in Northern Luzon.