Dear Mom and Dad,
I’m now in the Internet cafe in Davao. I got your different messages that you sent throughout the last couple of weeks (i.e., they were waiting for me in my mailbox). As you might have guessed, I don’t have regular access to the Internet now that I’ve moved to Columbio. One of our priests has an office in Kidapawan, and he applied for a phone line back in October of last year. They told him it would take a couple of months…well, now it’s June of the next year, and he’s still waiting. At any rate, when the line is installed, he will hook up to the Internet right away, and he told me that I am always welcome to use it. Until then, we’ll have to settle for monthly (or so) communication as opposed to weekly. I expect to make a trip into Davao every 4-6 weeks. At the beginning of August, we PIME members will have our annual retreat in Manila, followed by a Regional Council Meeting. So I will be in Manila for about 2 weeks. That’s the next time you can expect to hear from me via e-mail: during the second week of August.
So, I’m getting settled in to Columbio pretty well. (By the way, you asked about the pronunciation; it’s Co-LOOM-bi-o.) Fr. Bruno Vanin, whose place I am taking, stayed with me for about one week, and now I’m on my own. The bishop of Kidapawan came to Columbio on June 19, and we had a formal installation ceremony, making me the pastor (technically, “mission administrator”, but for all practical purposes, it’s the same as pastor).
As I told you before, Columbio is kind of out in the boondocks, but the living conditions aren’t too bad at all. A new rectory was built just last year, and there is electricity and running water (not hot). I bought a couple of electric fans and am having screens installed on the windows (I use a mosquito net over the bed), so it really is quite comfortable. For food, lots of rice and fish, with occasional chicken or pork, and quite a bit of fruit (bananas, mangoes, papaya) While I’m here in Davao, I going to get a few other food items: canned goods, milk, cereal, etc.
Besides the village center, there are twelve “barrio” chapels that I’m responsible for. That’s relatively few compared to many parishes, which can have as many as 30 or 40 chapels. 9 of the chapels are visited monthly, and the other three, which are further away, are visited every three months. I’ve already been to a majority of the closer ones and one of the further ones. The Suzuki Vitara serves quite well, although some walking is required too, especially in the rainy season, which is just beginning.
For example, last Friday, I went to one of the further chapels. I would be about one hour away by car. I’m pretty sure that the Vitara, using the four-wheel drive, could have made it almost all the way, but I never got a chance to find out. About halfway there, a truck was stuck in the road. There were elevated rice fields on either side of the truck, and no way to get around it, so we (some of the parish team and I) had to walk. It took about 2 and half hours on foot, but it was still morning and not too hot. Coming back after Mass and lunch wasn’t bad either. I had been worried about the heat of the midday, but God is good, because it clouded up, and there was just the lightest drizzle of rain, so the sun was no problem at all.
The other obstacle to traveling with the Vitara are the several rivers which have to be crossed to get to the barrio chapels. Most are not very deep, especially now since the rainy season is just starting. But some have large, hidden rocks throughout, and since the Vitara is not very high off the ground, there’s a danger of hitting the bottom of the car on the rocks and causing damage. Last Sunday we faced one like that, and decided not to risk it. We left the Vitara and walked across the river. In this case, on the other side was what they call a “skylab” (I don’t know the reason for the name). They’re large motorcycles that serve as public transportation in the barrios. So rather than walking, we were able to ride the skylab to the barrio chapel, and afterwards it was to take us back to the river as well.
I mentioned above that I am on my own at the mission. Well, that’s not quite true. There are three high school students (2 boys and one girl) who live in the rectory as well. They come from some faraway barrios where there is no high school available. Besides having the chance to go to school, they are also the ones who take care of the cooking, cleaning, etc. in the rectory. Then there is also the parish team of lay people. There is a youth coordinator, (young man in his mid-twenties), who also lives at the rectory; a secretary and the Family Life coordinator. The last two are married women, but they spend a lot of time at the parish, often spending the night. There is a large room on the first floor (with its own bath) for the female student and the women when they spend the night. Just last Sunday, I added another member to the parish team; she will be the “Service” coordinator (organizing activities to help the poorer people of the area) and a kind of general assistant to me, including being a translator.
Why a translator, you might wonder? Because Tagalog is not really the language spoken by most of the people in the area. Everyone can understand Tagalog (or so they say) but in different barrios there different languages and of course the people feel much more comfortable in speaking their native tongues, of which there are at least three besides Tagalog: Cebuano, Ilongo (the most prevalent) and Ilocano. Besides all that of course, my own Tagalog is not perfect. The woman that I just hired speaks Tagalog, Cebuano, and Ilongo, and very importantly, English. So she should be a big help to me.
The previous priest here was fluent in all the languages and was able to celebrate Mass in the various chapels in the language spoken there. The people know that now the Mass will be in Tagalog, but I told them to feel free to mix in songs and readings in their own language. Maybe little by little I will be able to at least read the Mass in other languages, so only the homily would be in Tagalog. We’ll see.
So, things are going well. To be honest, during the first week, I was pretty intimidated by the whole situation. Realizing how weak my Tagalog is, and having had no previous experience in parish work, I wasn’t sure how things would go. But it hasn’t taken long at all to feel comfortable. I’m sure that there will be many challenges ahead, but it feels “right” here, and I’m really happy.
As I mentioned, the next time I’ll get online will be in Manila. The first week of August is our retreat, and I will arrive on the day it starts, so will not have time to go online until afterwards, that is the second week of August. I know we got kind of spoiled with more frequent contact, but we’ll have to settle for a bit longer times in between, at least until the phone line is available in Kidapawan. In the meantime, know that I love you lots, and miss you! Love, Steve