By Anna Pozzi

When the local bishop, His Excellency Pedro Bantigue,  called the PIME missionaries to Santa Cruz, the capital of the province of Laguna and a difficult reality also for socio-political reasons, he did so because he wanted to give strength and visibility to the Church in the most important city of his Diocese. Santa Cruz (75 miles from Manila) had around 60,000 inhabitants at the time, 40% of them Roman Catholics and 60% “aglipayani” (i.e. followers of an independent Catholic Church founded by Gregorio Aglipay). The majority did not attend any place of worship: educated people had moved away from religious practice, as the popular masses practiced a strongly superstitious form of Christianity. Although on paper it was a “Catholic” context, deep evangelization was needed. This is precisely what the first PIME Missionaries were dedicated to carry out: they organized catechism, a parish council, stimulated the laity to commit themselves, introduced a participatory liturgy, “cleared” the churches of an exaggerated number of statues and sacred images.

Aware that the Catholics had entrenched themselves in the city center around the monumental church of Spanish origin, leaving the suburbs to the “allepayani”, the missionaries decided to be engaged in social works for the poorest: distribution of food and medicine, a medical center with free healthcare, a popular bank with 500 members, support for families to send children to school. All initiatives that aroused warm, popular support but destabilized the “closest” among the faithful.

Fr. Peter Geremia has spent most of his life dedicated to the cause of social justice for the poor and the often forgotten tribal peoples.

In Santa Cruz, PIME introduced, among other things, grassroots communities. Fr. Peter Geremia, who arrived in the Philippines on August 21, 1972, writes: “In Santa Cruz I did not want to limit myself to the people of the center, the so-called ‘poblacion’, but also to reach the peripheral villages, the barrios. I asked twelve men in good standing to build an ‘apostolic group’ to plan and pray together, prepare the Sunday liturgy and then share it with the peripheral communities. We still did not call them that, but in fact they were the first ‘grassroots Christian communities’, which would then spread mainly to the South, on the island of Mindanao. Martial law unfortunately prevented the development of this methodology, because the most active individuals were immediately accused of subversion and were arrested.”

“Santa Cruz was for me a baptism of fire in an ecclesial and social context of radical confrontation between a tradition of façade and vested interests, on the one hand; and the need for change and authentic Christian life, on the other.” In 1977, when the parish of Santa Cruz was returned to the diocese, it can be said that it had been completely renovated.

Even during the tumultuous years of their presence in Tondo, in the heart of the Philippines capital, PIME left its mark. The area along the coast of Manila was an endless expanse of shacks with over 300,000 inhabitants; even today it remains a very degraded area. The ancient parish of Tondo was established at a time when the Philippines were just a Spanish colony; in 1970 two new parishes were started, one entrusted to the Augustinians and one to PIME. The latter erected in the poorest “block” of Tondo and named after San Pablo to commemorate Paul VI’s visit to Manila in November of that year. The first two members of PIME to be assigned to Tondo were Fr. Bruno Piccolo and Fr. Joseph Vancio who arrived in January of 1971.

They began to visit the people; they were quickly exposed to the misery of the shacks: a poverty dehumanizing for its filth, malnutrition, delinquency and endemic violence. The hovels were piled one on top of the other with no roads, no sewers, no running water, no parks or playgrounds. Moreover, the inhabitants or, rather, squatters, felt all the contempt of others upon themselves, with the result of living in resignation and fatalism: a truly missionary situation.

Even in Tondo, people were divided into various groups, each of which tried to “grab” the Church and its priests (i.e. they vied to draw the priests to side with them). The missionaries chose the poor; they were committed to helping them, trying to involve all the faithful in their commitment. Thus, the Zoto (Zone One Tondo Organization) was born. Its goals were to solicit awareness and action in helping the poor. It was an organization that extended to various parishes, including that of PIME.

Although he has been witness to some of the awful horrors and injustices that the Philippines have to offer, Fr. Peter has always managed to find the beauty here.

Through the “community organizers” we tried to direct the faithful towards solidarity and cooperation for common projects. In July 1973 the pastoral council of the parish was established with various committees: catechesis, liturgy, charity, but also those dedicated to social issues (water, school, health, electricity, etc.).

The Zoto project and the PIME parish begin to annoy certain people. With the martial law, introduced by the dictator Marcos in 1972, it had become easy to accuse foreign missionaries of instigating the people against the authorities; especially since the parish of San Pablo extended its influence to many who did not attend church and those outside its territorial boundaries.

In 1974, the hundred members of the parish council met with representatives of other groups of slums dwellers. This gathering gave birth to the Council of Christian communities, set up with a totally democratic structure (even the parish priest, Fr. Gigi Cocquio, was on equal footing with the rest). On November 27, 1974, the three areas of Tondo organized a protest march in which 5,000 people took part: Fr. Cocquio was arrested for several hours by the police along with Fr. Vancio. In October 1975, another clamorous episode happened: a strike was announced at the “La Tondena” Distillery where 800 people worked, of which only 300 were regularly employed, and the Council of the Christian community of Tondo intervened in support of the workers.

Shortly thereafter, the final straw would force PIME to leave Tondo, where Fr. Francesco Alessi, Fr. Peter Geremia and Fr. Albert Booms had joined Fr. Cocquio in the meantime. In December 1975, the World Bank approved a project to clean up the Tondo slums, following which the demolition of the shantytowns and the expulsion of the squatters from the neighborhood began. In January 1976, the Manila slum dwellers met in the Committee of the Poor against Demolition: Imelda Marcos, the president’s wife, received 20 of their representatives, accompanied by four bishops. Meanwhile, however, the situation of the PIME Missionaries precipitated because the authorities considered them the soul of the protest movement.

On January 24, 1976, the local superior of PIME, Fr. Francesco Alessi, and the parish priest of San Pablo, Fr. Gigi Cocquio, were arrested by the police and placed on an Air France flight to Rome. Fr. Geremia avoided arrest by hiding in a hospital; was not expelled, but he would no longer be able to operate in Manila and would therefore be sent to Mindanao. Fr. Albert Booms, an American citizen, was expelled a few months later, on November 20, 1976.