Remembering The Columban Fathers

By Ma. Nimfa Penaco-Sitaca

Judge Ma. Nimfa Penaco-Sitaca of the Regional Trial Court of Misamis Occidental was last year named Most Outstanding Judge in the Gender Justice Awards project launched in December 2003 by the Philippines Center for Women’s Studies (UP-CWS), the UP Center for Women’s Studies Foundation, Inc, and the National Commission on the role of Filipino Women (NCRFW). She lives in Ozamiz City.

The light on the lampstand –  today,  that is how I think of the Columban Fathers who  crossed oceans and seas from Australia, Britain, Ireland, New Zealand and the USA to labor in distant mission fields -  the vineyards of the Lord,  in undeveloped Mindanao.   

As a child growing up in Ozamiz City, I didn’t think of the difficulties the Columbans had to cope with – the culture, the climate, the noise around them, and a hundred and one other things that only they knew.  They were very much part of the landscape of my childhood – they were in school, in church, out in the streets, in our homes, and even in the bug-infested movie-houses that my family and I frequented.

They were so much fun – they entered the classroom and brought the sun with them.  The priests didn’t teach but their visits provided the highlight of the school week.  Quizzing us or just spending time and ‘monkeying around’ with us, they revealed through the twinkle in their eyes (green, blue or grey - and brown!) their genuine love of children.    And how did they speak such good Visayan? Today, my memory of their flawless Visayan and their knack for finding the perfect Visayan word is the bar to which I try to measure up when I prepare a talk in the vernacular.

Pacing the empty church with breviary or rosary in hand, sitting still before the Blessed Sacrament or waiting and sweating long hours in confession boxes, they showed me and my generation how it was to love the Master and the work He had given them to do. 

Bishop Patrick Cronin, first Bishop of Ozamiz and later Archbishop of Cagayan de Oro,  Father Cornelius Campion, Fr Michael Breen, Fr Seán McGrath,  Fr Seán Lavary, Fr Aodh O’Halpin – they were the priests of my childhood and teens on whose sermons and homilies my generation grew.  They were all Irish but Father Joseph Shih, a diocesan priest from China, also worked with them 

Then as I was finishing college, along came Fr Kevin McHugh. He was tall and lean and 27, and so unlike all the Columbans I had known.  He wasn’t the kind who would pat our heads or humor us.  In fact, he hardly smiled and when he opened his mouth, it was to ask why things were done one way when they could be done another way - his way. Subtlety was not a virtue with him - he was very pointed and direct.  As spiritual director of the Legion of Mary praesidium I was in, he was forever telling us that we, as Legionaries, could and should change the hearts and minds of our relatives and they way they did things. As in-charge of catechism, he took his duties very seriously, following us catechists around, and we worked in constant fear that our efforts were never good enough for him, which was, of course, not true. It was, therefore, an unforgettable moment when, after quizzing my class which I was getting ready for First Communion, he strode out to tell our catechism supervisor that he had finally found a good catechist, and that was, ahem, me!   

Not long after, I left Ozamiz to study and work in Cebu. Sad to say, there were no Columbans there. I learned from friends back home that Fr McHugh was still breathing down their necks, setting standards that were too difficult to reach. Much later, I learned that he had been assigned to the heart of a predominantly Muslim area in Mindanao where he stayed for many years.  Sometimes, I would read in the papers that a white priest had been killed in Cotabato and my heart would freeze, afraid that I would read his name. Coming back to Ozamiz, I never met him again in more than 30 years, but inquiries about him revealed that he was doing very well in Lanao del Sur and that he was – surprise - very much loved!  So much loved that when he got sick and had to be transferred to be nearer his doctors, people in his parish went around with long faces for years, pining for him and mourning his absence.

One summer, not long ago, I found myself with my family staying just a stone’s throw from Malate Catholic Church, Manila.  Going in, we found a white priest celebrating Mass.  After he had read the gospel and the people settled down to listen to his homily, he moved a white-board up front and with a pointer in hand, started to teach and preach. As everyone listened fascinated, I was remembering Fr McHugh who taught and preached with so much élan, and realized it was Fr McHugh, alive and in person! Mass over, children swarmed around him to kiss his hand as he walked down the church aisle, while parents stood by, smiling at him.  I thought, wow, this priest is as loved as he deserves!  I waited till everyone had removed themselves from the aisle before tentatively calling his name.  It took him only a few seconds to recall my name, despite the years and the pounds.  

Since then, I have kept in touch with Fr McHugh, whom I now call ‘Father Kevin,’ and have got to know and understand him better. I saw the back-breaking work he does in Manila despite a pacemaker. Listening to him deliver a homily at the nuptial Mass he celebrated at my daughter’s wedding recently, forty years after I had first seen him,  I saw he was still as fiery as ever -  afire for his Master and the work he was doing. I think people today are more discerning than we were in my time – they instantly take Fr Kevin to their hearts.

Truly, our lives in Ozamiz were richer because of the Columbans who came our way.  Grown-up, we came across more Columbans – Fr Gerard Markey, Fr Joseph Murtagh, Fr Seán Coyle, Fr William Carrigan, Fr Francis Baragry and Fr Aedan McGrath - whose lives of service illumined, marked and spoiled us. It was tough going for our poor diocesan priests – they had to make an arduous climb to the top floor of the building of our hearts which we had reserved for the Columbans. Reaching it, they waited a great while before we would open our hearts to them.

It has been years since the Columbans left us. My children hardly know any. I know, however, that the light of the Columbans continues to burn on a lampstand for all to see and that others will keep the lamp burning after them, because of them.


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