PEOPLE OF HOPE
by: Fr. John Keenan, SSC
The author is a Columban priest from Ireland who first came to the Philippines in 1966. He is based in Manila.
The village of Parola, Tondo is a shanty-town where the Pasig River and Manila bay waters meet. It has been five years since it was completely gutted by a huge fire.
The aftermath of the fire in Parola, Tondo in 2015 (Photo credit: “STAR/Edd Gumban” )
No one is sure as to how the fire started but since the houses are closely-packed, they were completely destroyed, along with the community chapel and everything inside it. Fortunately, 20,000 people escaped with little more than the clothes on their backs. Though many of them were small children, elderly and infirmed people, no life was lost.
One woman said, “As long as no one died, we are grateful.” This was expressed joyfully in the vibrant liturgies celebrated in the aftermath.
Since the government made no effort in reconstructing the area and making the streets fire-breaking and accessible to fire engines, people began rebuilding their shacks little by little. Unemployment is high and wages are low, yet they gradually improved their humble dwellings.
Now, the houses are restored up to four storeys of small one-family rooms linked by very narrow stairways. Because of overcrowding, residents have to live in sub-humane conditions. There is also a lack of recreational facilities.
Living in this kind of environment naturally brings many deaths. Wakes are frequently held along the narrow pathways, since the houses are too small. Often, the grieved family cannot afford the funeral expenses, so the neighbours play cards for the winners to share the money with the family until enough is raised. That is why some wakes last for a few days or longer.
Frs. Tim Mulroy and John Keenan visiting the area
The chapel, in honour of St. Ezekiel Moreno, has now been completely restored and served as the scene of inspiring liturgies and other community activities, such as feeding programs and regular meetings.
Frs. John Keenan and Tim Mulroy with the Columban Students, (L-R) John, Lydio & Mark, in the restored chapel
Fr. John Keenan blessing the dead
Every Sunday morning, I go to this place along with four of our seminarians to celebrate Mass with the people and to visit the sick and the housebound. After visiting the families, the seminarians meet with the youth and try to organize them into a cohesive youth club. These children are very talented, all they need is facilitation and guidance. It is all in accordance with Pope Francis’ call to go to the peripheries of society and the poor.
Visitation of the sick is part of the regular routine in Father John’s ministry
The seminarians gain much from their exposure to such poverty and deprivation. The people’s innate belief in God enables them to look to the future with hope for better days ahead. That dream is slowly being realized.