Fr. Dom Flores (working in Australia); Fr. V. Bartolome (working in US)
Photo taken in front of Arnoldus Library (from the file of Fr. Randy Flores, SVD)
TO SOME Filipinos, Abra will always be associated with two extremes: Stories of unending political violence and of slain rebel priest Conrado Balweg, a man of the cloth who returned to the path of peace and facilitated the creation of the Cordillera Administrative Region.
To 6,131 priests and brothers today, however, this landlocked province is the gateway to the Catholic Society of the Divine Word (SVD or Societas Verbi Divini), 100 years ago.
That gate has never closed, said Father Jerome Adriatico, SVD North Luzon provincial superior.
“Politics, the kind that promotes greed, must be reinvented here in Abra,” Adriatico said, quoting discussions among fellow SVD priests as to how the congregation hoped to end the province’s notoriety.
Adriatico helped lead the Centennial Mass at the Cathedral of St. James the Elder in Bangued, Abra, last month.
Bangued Bishop Leopoldo Jaucian said the Mass celebrated the first SVD mission station in Cagutungan, a community that evolved into today’s San Isidro town, which was established by Father John Scheiermann and Father Louis Beckert, a five-year veteran of the SVD missions in China.
Adriatico said it was the SVD’s “purposeful mission of creating a community among the Tingguians,” which remains its most powerful legacy.
“[Violence] is the nature of politics [in Abra and parts of Ilocos], but it was not like this [during the] early 20th century. SVD wants to bring back the sense of caring, the sense of unity [we helped develop with] the Tingguians,” he said.(photo file: R. Flores, SVD)
First SVD mission
The first SVD mission in the Philippines tailed by two years the 1907 Philippine mission of the Congregatio Immaculati Cordis Mariae (Congregation of the Immaculate Heart of Mary or CICM), said Adriatico.
But like the Belgian-led CICM, the SVD and other European Catholic congregations began sending missionaries to the Philippines in response to a plea made by local parishes that were confronting the end of the Spanish colonial period.
They were meant to serve northern Luzon parishes that were abandoned by friars who began to withdraw to the cities when Filipino priests under their supervision were recruited by the Aglipayan Movement (Philippine Independent Church), Adriatico said.
Abra has always presented itself as a historical case study of how colonial governments tried to pacify the Igorot people in order to get at the fabled gold in their mountains, said history professor Raymundo Rovillos, dean of the College of Social Sciences at the University of the Philippines Baguio.
Religion and the mission stations played a strong part in these efforts, he said.
Abra was visited by Augustinian missionaries as early as 1650, but it was in the last part of the 19th century when Spanish pacification efforts “became intense,” Rovillos said in his essay, “Technologies for Disciplining Bodies and Spaces in Abra,” in the Cordillera Review.
“Because it was the takeoff point for the official Spanish war against the Igorots, Abra became militarily and politically strategic,” he said.
(photo file: R. Flores, SVD)
Adriatico said what SVD intended to do when they took over the Spanish parishes was to remove the alienation of the Tingguian.
Balweg, despite his credentials as leading figure of the communist rebellion in Abra, had always been an important chapter of the SVD story because of his Tingguian roots, Adriatico said.
Balweg was one of the first two Tingguian priests to join the fold, and the SVD, according to American historian Gerard Finin, author of the book, “The Making of the Igorot.”
Finin, deputy-director of the Hawaii-based East-West Center’s Pacific Islands Development Program, said: “Although the SVD order could claim significant achievements in working with Abra’s ‘non-Christians,’ not a single highlander during the first 40 years of missionary work was accepted for theological studies leading to ordination as an SVD priest until Balweg and fellow Tingguian Tito Belisario in the 1960s.”
Adriatico said the rebel priest broke ties with SVD but had maintained a “deep understanding of community” because Balweg eventually fought for the so-called Igorot nation.