COLUMBIA, Missouri—For six years, Rene Tacastacas juggled his time as a student and as a priest in the United States.
He read the Bible and his university books and, besides celebrating Holy Mass and ministering to the faithful, he was participating in class discourse or conducting research for his dissertation.
“The experience was very enriching,” Fr. Tacastacas said of the time he was pursuing a doctorate degree in rural sociology and at the same time organizing, in remote Missouri villages, Catholic communities where he became well-loved.
His devotion to his studies and his vocation has brought blessings. In May, he received the Outstanding Graduate Student Service Award upon his graduation from the University of Missouri-Columbia. The annual award is given to a graduate student who brings the ideals of the academic community to the world outside the classroom.
Tacastacas was parish priest of the remote town of Titay in Zamboanga Sibugay. After naming him vocation director, his Jesuit superiors sent him to the US in 2005, in the belief that he could contribute more to the Jesuits’ commitment to education and research if he pursued further studies.
“I needed… the know-how…to pursue rural development, especially involving work with small farmers in the countryside,” agreed Father Rene who, by that time, already had a master’s degree in sociology (1996) on top of a management engineering degree (1986) from the Ateneo.
When he flew to Missouri in August 2005, Tacastacas’ mission was clear: study hard so he could help in the Jesuits’ mission to assist Filipino farmers. Tacastacas specialized in food and agriculture.
In his first few weeks in the US, he spent his time celebrating private Masses or attending those celebrated by other priests. But there was something missing.
“It made me feel empty and lonely at times,” he recalled. So Father Rene talked to the vicar-general of the Archdiocese of Jefferson City and volunteered to substitute for any priest who was not available.
Soon, he was being sent to remote villages in Missouri, and he found his purest joys as a priest and as a student in the far-flung communities.
Tacastacas would drive out of Columbia on weekends, the trip sometimes taking several hours. It was exhausting but also fulfilling for him to visit American farms, as he had long been interested in agriculture.
At the farms, he played around with the machinery and gained first-hand experience in American farming that helped him put into shape his doctoral research’s focus on small vegetable farming.
The dissertation sought a model to link small-time vegetable growers in Bukidnon with big fast-food chains. Tacastacas hoped the link would provide farmers sustainable livelihood.
“Getting to know the farmer-parishioners allowed me to view my studies as primarily directed towards helping small farmers back home,” he said.
“There was no disconnect between my priesthood and my being a student,” said the Jesuit, who said Mass for parishioners in small towns, some with populations of less than a thousand.
His graduate courses mostly involved class discussions. The priest made sure he read assigned materials before class. He also joined his classmates in group study sessions.
“Studying away from your home country is never easy and simple,” Tacastacas said, as he had to adjust to a different culture and also had to endure homesickness. He turned to the Filipino community in mid-Missouri for “support during my studies, for companionship and for plentiful Filipino foods at parties and gatherings.”
Father Rene celebrated Mass for the growing community of Filipinos in Columbia composed mostly of doctors and nurses. Columbia has some of America’s top-ranked hospitals. The University of Missouri-Columbia also operates its own hospital.
Filipino parishioners enjoyed his homilies which, aside from reflections, were filled with humor. One of his jokes was about how, when he first arrived in the US, he ate doughnuts that were really hard. He found out later that these were bagels.
His last parish before graduation was at Brunswick, a small town about 90 minutes away from Columbia, where he stayed for about six months. His enthusiasm not only encouraged more parishioners to attend Mass but also revived moribund community organizations.
To show their gratitude, the parishioners contributed funds to support his ministry with small farmers in the Philippines.