The Redemptorists of Tacloban City
Close relatives and friends of Fr. Edwin Bacaltos are happy to know that the head priest of Our Mother of Perpetual Help parish in Tacloban City is in Cebu City for a much needed rest after the brutal encounter with Supertyphoon Yolanda (international name: Haiyan).
The Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer also known as the Redemptorists runs the Perpetual Help parish in Tacloban City. In the aftermath of the supertyphoon, the lovely church nestled in a somewhat wooded area in Calle Real, close to a hospital, fast food chain and other commercial establishments became a sanctuary for hundreds of families displaced by the killer typhoon.
The gargantuan task of taking care of the dead and living fell on the shoulders of Fr. Edwin Campos Bacaltos. A native of Cebu, he grew up and studied in Davao City. He is a cousin of Sibonga town mayor Lionel Bacaltos and according to another cousin, Louie Nacorda, Fr. Edwin has always kept his ties with Cebu-based relatives very close despite his itinerant vocation.
It took almost three days before Fr. Edwin’s relatives got word that he and companions were safe and sound. As words of utter relief, consolation and encouragement streamed back and forth from Tacloban to the outside world, the next thing people heard was Fr. Edwin telling national and international media how he survived and dealt with the tragic loss of human lives.
The catastrophic situation was shocking beyond words: Tacloban reduced to rubble, thousands of dead bodies strewn in front of the church and near the shoreline and thousands more buried under the debris of collapsed buildings and houses.
As he spoke a week into the tragedy, hundreds of dead bodies wrapped in plastic bags lined the streets, waiting to be collected and buried in a mass grave. In the meantime, food supplies were running low while looting and stealing became rampant.
There are no words to describe how one grapples with physical and emotional trauma on the personal level, but faced with thousands of survivors who lost everything and then come up to ask if God really exists is the heaviest hurdle even for a senior priest like Fr. Bacaltos.
To this, the good priest offered no theological response, except provide care and assistance and assure the victims that God loves his people even in the midst of extreme suffering.
Nowadays, the number of displaced families taking temporary shelter in the Redemptorist church has dwindled – from close to 400 to 285.
I came to know Fr. Edwin in 2006 during the centennial celebration of the Redemptorist congregation in the Philippines. The center of the golden jubilee celebration was held in Cebu City. The milestone generated plenty of stories and as then rector of the Perpetual Help parish church in Cebu, the good priest who was very helpful would coordinate with me in production concerns and checking facts and figures.
Fast forward to 2012, I landed in Tacloban City to produce the documentary of the highly successful Perpetual Help Credit Cooperative which was established by the Redemptorists in the late ’60s under the guidance of Fr. Flan Daffy.
Tracing the co-op history meant interviewing the parish priest, who happened to be Fr. Edwin Bacatos. When I met up with him in the parish convent, he told me that he welcomed the new assignment because it was more “suwabe” (moderate or laidback) compared to his responsibilities in Cebu City. Little did he know it was just a short respite because a terrible disaster would hit Tacloban in less than two years.
Among the historical data I gathered from Fr. Noel Gartlan, who served Tacloban in the ’60s was the severity of typhoons. The priests would open the doors of the church to allow for strong winds to pass through and prevent glass windows from breaking.
With the church wide open, people living in stilt houses near the shorelines would rush to the church for temporary shelter. When the bad weather subsides, they just go back to the shorelines to rebuild their houses as if nothing happened.
The charism of the Redemptorists, as lived by their founder, St. Alphonsus Ligouri is to make a difference for the poor and the abandoned. Seeing widespread poverty, Fr. Flan Daffy and his companions mobilized the community to set up a self-help organization.
The social action work of the Redemptorists in the late ’60s is underlined by the positive impact of the Perpetual Help Credit Cooperative (PHCCI). Starting with just less than P5,000 in capital, today the elite cooperative has more than P1 billion in assets and tens of thousands of members.
The operation of the enterprise is now removed from the parish. I hope co-op officers and members will recover soon and resume their mission because co-op services are needed now more than ever.
The road ahead for Tacloban, Eastern Samar and northern Cebu will be extremely difficult. The challenges triggered by urban migration and climate change have changed the equation but with the help of committed servants like Fr. Edwin Bacaltos who stayed with the people, I have no doubt our people will rise again.