Sunday, June 9, 2013

Selling out Filipino cultural heritage and history -- the Archdiocese of Ozamiz sets its sights on the ancient acacia trees of the Parish of the Holy Rosary in Oroquieta City


While relaxing at my parents-in-law's home in Cebu, my wife requested me to read a newspaper article that I found to be disturbing, disheartening, disappointing, and maybe even portending the way that the Catholic Church is going to exert its power in Mindanao and the Philippines in general.  The title of this article, printed in the June 3rd edition of the Philippine Daily Inquirer (pages D1 and D2, LifeStyle Arts & Books) and written by reporter Mozart Pastrano, is "Commercialization Threatens Historic Mindanao Church Plaza."  Specifically, the article states that the Archdiocese of Ozamiz wants to cut down the ancient acacia trees that line the front and sides of the Parish of the Holy Rosary in Oroquieta City, Misamis Occidental, Mindanao, in order to give way to build a commercial zone that will include a Jollibee fast food restaurant and a First Valley Bank.  According to the Daily Inquirer article, Archbishop Jesus A. Dosado has given the Holy Rosary parish an ultimatum:  give the Archdiocese of Ozamis P50,000 per month, or the archdiocese will cut down the acacia trees in front of the church and sell the church grounds to profit from Jollibee and the bank.  The reason for this demand for money is to cover the medical costs of priests (many who are elderly or nearly elderly) in the archdiocese. The original figure Archbishop Dosado demanded was P75,000 per month, according to the Daily Inquirer, although the Archbishop offered no further comment to the reporter.    The article also states that the parishioners were made to raise millions of pesos recently to support a church beautification project, which was not wanted by the vast majority of the parishioners.  In effect, the millions of pesos were wasted for frivolous superficial and unnecessary beautification of the church’s façade (including but not limited to a 1 million pesos sound system) – millions of pesos which could rather have been wisely allocated to budget for the medical needs of the priests.

So why do I even care about a parish grounds and some old trees half way around the globe from where I live, and why am I blogging about this?  Why can’t I just accept Jollibee parked on the front lawn of the church and look forward to my next sarsa float and crispy 2-pc bangus with rice (Oroquieta already has one Jollibee, by the way)?   I have two main reasons:  

1) This is my wife's home parish in her home town, and the grounds of this parish, including its acacia trees are as much an integral and critical part of Oroquieta's heritage, culture, and history as any other historical landmark in Oroquieta.  Cutting down the acacia trees and destroying the church grounds to put up a Jollibee and a bank is to me and to my wife's family as offensive and insulting as would be scraping off all the trees and beautiful landscaping in front of the Provincial Capitol building in Oroquieta to construct an on-site car dealership.  This parish is the beating heart of a large and vital community that's been dear to me since my first visit in 1996, two years after my wife and I were married, and its hallowed grounds and acacia trees are inextricably linked to the heritage, culture, and history not only of the parish, but also the Oroquietanian community in the Philippines and abroad, and even to the history of the Philippines as a nation.  As a little girl, my wife played the part of an angel at the annual traditional Easter time celebration of the “Hugos” [the hoisting of ‘angels’ singing ‘Alleluia’], suspended and hoisted from these grand and ancient acacia trees.  Over the last 125 years or so, thousands of native little Oroquietanian girls did the same thing, and the Oroquietanian diaspora transplanted throughout the Philippines and all over the world will consider those acacia trees and that church grounds as something uniquely special and irreplaceable.  This is a precious memory, tradition, and cultural/religious heritage that is now in jeopardy of being lost forever, never to be experienced again by future generations.  Innumerable baptisms, funerals, and other religious and civic ceremonies passed through these doors and under these trees, and the prayers, hopes and fears, joys and sorrows of thousands of individuals and an entire community were witnessed by this acacia grove. These trees and this parish grounds bore direct witness to an incident during the Philippine-American War maybe about 1898 or so when Filipino soldiers under General Rufino Deloso attacked Americans stationed in the parish convent in a dawn raid. 117 Filipino soldiers were killed on the church grounds in this attack when the Americans defended their forces with artillery aboard a troop transport ship anchored on the nearby shore, and were buried behind the church.  Somewhere deep within the living wood grains of these ancient and gnarled acacia trees, it’s possible there are concealed shrapnel fragments from those artillery shells of 114 years ago.  This same grove of acacia trees witnessed better times 40-some years later first when President Manuel Quezon came ashore in Oroquieta shortly after escaping Corregidor, and then when the Americans came and camped nearby again – this time not as heavy-handed imperialists, but as friends and brother-in-arms fighting and dying side by side with the Filipinos to liberate the Philippines from the horrors of the Japanese invasion.  

2) I care about this issue because I feel that if this lack of due process from the Church does not get nipped in the bud by the power of the people now, there is no telling when it will stop.   It sets a precedent.  Where in the Philippines will this process of commercial assimilation go the next time, and to what extent/magnitude will this process of commercial acquisition go with the next parish? Will they be contented with just cutting down the trees and selling the land to commercial entities, or will they want more from the next parish, perhaps posting advertisements on the sides of the church?   Chopping down these acacia trees and selling out to commercial interests now is likely a signal of things to come.  Does the lack of forethought and fiscal/moral responsibility justify an easy land grab for commercial purposes?  Is this a message telegraphed from the Church and the Archbishop that this is the new mandate, the new edict, the way things are going to be? I understand and sympathize that funds are needed for the medical costs of priests, especially those who are becoming elderly – it’s a tough economy worldwide, and health care costs of the aging population is a major issue in every country.   But I really think that this is the wrong way to address this, and if this proposed “solution” is actually executed, it sets an ill conceived, poorly thought-out precedent for future resolution of budgetary problems in other dioceses.  There has to be a better way than selling out and selling off Filipino heritage to commercial interests.   Why were the parishioners recently pressured and “hit up” to fund a superficial (and unwanted) beautification project when these funds could have been wisely earmarked for the health needs of the priests in the archdiocese?

The people of Oroquieta and the parishioners won't just sit down and take this desecration of their church (grounds) by the Church – they are not, and a petition letter with over 10,000 signatures as well as vigorous opposition from many in the community is in progress.   People around the world have made the mistake numerous times over – selling off our heritage, our history, our hearts and souls, to make a quick profit from commercial development.  Americans have done this numerous times, and it almost happened again recently at a hallowed Civil War battlefield site on which blood was shed to preserve the nation.  It was almost sold to the giant commercial retailer Wal-Mart (which is similar to an SM hypermarket or Robinson’s supermarket).  I surely hope the same won’t happen in Oroquieta.  

I’ll close with a quote from the famous American naturalist and wilderness preservationist from the 1800’s, John Muir:

“A few minutes ago every tree was excited, bowing to the roaring storm, waving, swirling, tossing their branches in glorious enthusiasm like worship. But though to the outer ear these trees are now silent, their songs never cease. Every hidden cell is throbbing with music and life, every fiber thrilling like harp strings, while incense is ever flowing from the balsam bells and leaves. No wonder the hills and groves were God's first temples, and the more they are cut down and hewn into cathedrals and churches, the farther off and dimmer seems the Lord himself.”
John Muir, My First Summer in the Sierra

Holy Rosary Church, Oroquieta City, Misamis Occidental, Philippines
Aerial view from steeple/belltower of Holy Rosary Parish, Oroquieta City.  Courtesy of Philippine Daily Inquirer.


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