During the 70’s the Tondo area on the outskirts of Manila was a huge squatter settlement with 300-350,000 inhabitants. The ancient parish of Tondo (Santo Niño), with three diocesan priests, had been established at the time of Spanish colonialism to service the port area. In 1970, two new parishes were erected and one was entrusted to PIME. It was located in an area called Magsaysay Village and was named San Pablo, to commemorate the visit of Pope Paul VI to Manila in November of 1970. Just in time of his arrival, two PIME priests went to the new parish: Frs. Bruno Piccolo and Joseph Vancio. They settled in a small house. They started to visit the families and were warmly welcomed. The people in Magsaysay Village, for lacked of space, lived practically on top of one another, with no order, no streets, no running water, no open spaces for the children to play. The area was divided into six “blocks” of houses or huts and there were fierce rivalries among these neighborhoods which, often, ended with people wounded or murdered. In some ways, the PIME Fathers in Tondo faced the same challenges as those in Santa Cruz: people divided in various groups. As in Santa Cruz, the missionaries opted to identify with the poorest, and committed themselves to helping them with the involvement of all the faithful. The “Zone One Tondo Organization” (ZOTO) was established to engage in work of development and assistance. Through community organizers, the people were led toward solidarity and collaboration in common projects. Fr. Gigi Cocquio, parish priest in 1973, recalls:
“Fifteen days after the formation of the Parish Council, there was a food crisis: it was impossible to find rice in the city. The government sent trucks protected by the military, which in many areas sold the rice at exorbitant prices. But in Tondo, we never saw any at all. A number of us went to the municipal hall, where many others were gathered to make requests in the name of this or that group. But really everyone was out for himself. There were 70 of us, and we went directly to the rice distribution office. There was a bit of tension, and then we explained the plight of thousands of squatter families. In two hours, rice was assigned to us.The results of this action went beyond the rice. The people understood that unity is strength, but in order to attain unity they have to overcome the old rivalries among the blocks. A day later, the 70 who had gone to the municipal hall held a meeting, joined by many others. For once they had something to discuss and a reason to fraternize. We had never been able to break down the barriers among the different blocks, but now they were dissolving little by little, as common interests and commitments increased.”Solutions to other problems came in the same way. Close to a hundred people went to the municipality to request the installation of pipes for running water. In the beginning they were an irritation, but then the authorities began to recognize that even the poor of Tondo were part of Manila, which at that time had 5-6 million inhabitants, of which 1.2 million were squatters. In August 4, 1974, the mayor of Manila went to Magsaysay Village and immediately gave the order to extend running water to the squatters, with many public faucets.”
The influence of San Pablo parish in Magsaysay Village went well beyond its borders and touched even those who did not go to church. On November 27, 1974 the three zones of Tondo organized a protest march in which about 5,000 people participated. Fr. Cocquio and Fr. Vancio were held for several hours by the police. In Lent of 1975, a “Way of the Cross” was held in the city streets, highlighting the suffering of victims of injustice. Arguments and accusations followed. In April of the same year, a petition drive was launched for the release of the opposition Senator Ninoy Aquino, who was on a hunger strike. There were two episodes which eventually brought about heavy accusations against PIME priests in Tondo. The first was the strike at La Tondeña distillery located in Velasquez Street and part of the Parish of San Pablo. This enterprise employed 800 workers, but every two months 500 were let go and new workers brought in. At the request of the workers themselves, the Council of the Christian Community (a social organization of the parish) intervened in October of 1975. The parish of San Pablo worked to sustain the struggle, and staged protests. The police prepared a list of “subversives” and the first name on the list was Fr. Gigi Cocquio. The second incident happened a short time later, when Fr. Cocquio was joined by Frs. Francesco Alessi, Peter Geremia and Albert Booms. In December 1975 the World Bank approved and financed a project for the “development” of the squatter area of Tondo. In the central area and along the sea shore, there was a plan to build the municipal hall, other offices and residences for the wealthy. Thus began the demolition of the squatter area. The police came every day, destroyed the huts, gathered the squatters with their few possessions into trucks, and transported them many kilometers away. In January 1975 the squatters of Manila met together in the “Committee of the Poor Against the Demolition.” Twenty of their representatives, accompanied by four bishops, were received by the President’s wife, Imelda Marcos, who was considered the prime mover behind the demolition. They were able to gain a hearing, but the authorities continued to believe that the priests in San Pablo Parish were behind the protest movement of Manila’s squatters, especially since the other parishes of Tondo were remaining quiet. On January 24, 1976, Frs. Francesco Alessi (PIME Superior) and Gigi Cocquio (Parish Priest of San Pablo) were arrested by the police and little more than five hours later, they were put on an Air France flight directly to Rome. PIME’s Superior General mons. Aristide Pirovano (former bishop of Macapa’, Brazil), who was visiting the mission areas in Mindanao, returned immediately to Manila. He met with representatives of the Bishops’ Conference and they published a strong protest over the expulsion of the two priests. Then mons. Pirovano went with the papal nuncio (Bp. Bruno Torpigliani) to speak with Defense Minister Juan Ponce Enrile. They reached a compromise: PIMEs suspected of political activities would not be deported, but they could not stay in Manila. However Fr. Albert Booms, an American citizen, was deported a few months later, on November 20, 1976. There was no justification given for the three expulsions. PIME priests did not leave Tondo. There were a reshuffling and new men were assigned in San Pablo, Frs. Alessandro Brambilla, Roberto Contis and Giovanni Colombo and Bro. Giovanni Arici. The parish, then, was divided in two areas: the first around the chapel of Santo Niño in Velasquez Street and the second around the Parish Church of San Pablo in Jacinto Street. PIMEs distanced themselves from any political issues but Tondo was already heavely infiltrated by anti-government political movements and, at the same time, by deep penetrating agents of the the military and national intelligence agency. The post-deportation was not an easy time to handle and eventually in the Regional Assembly of 1981, PIME , with the Regional Superior Fr. Egidio Biffi, decided to pull out its priests from Tondo and send them to Mindanao.
Tondo remained an experience to meditate. As once a PIME in the Philippines said: “For a foreign priest in the Philippines dividing his own life between Gospel and politics is a waste of time. Gospel is forever, while politics will just change in few months!”. On the other hand the Church of the Philippines, based on these ‘experiences’, in the following years, started the politics of resistance and opposition, the politics of joining hands to prevent more damages.