The Philippines has the second highest percentage (83%) of Catholics of any country in Asia – with only East Timor having more (96%). It is an island nation, with over 7000 islands, of which approximately 2000 are inhabited.
Bayombong is the capital of the province of Nueva Vizcaya, on the main island of Luzon, to the north of the capital Manila. The first Catholic mission was established here in the 18th century, and since 1969 it has been the seat of the diocese of the same name. Since 1898, the mission was in the care of the Scheutist Fathers, or CICM Missionaries (Missionaries of the Immaculate Heart of Mary), as they are better known today. They finally handed over responsibility to the diocesan priests just before the great millennium of 2000. Today there are 26 diocesan priests and eight religious priests in the Diocese of Bayombong, ministering to the 400,000 or so Catholics in its 20 parishes.
The Parish of Saint Damian of Molokai in Ambaguio is one of the newest parishes in the diocese, having been established only in 2013. Ambaguio lies in the remote northwest of the diocese, in the Mount Pulag National Park. It was only recently that the first road was built here, connecting the town with the provincial capital Bayombong, and motorcycles and vegetable trucks are the main and generally accepted means of transportation by which this town of a little over 10,000 can be reached.
The people of the region belong to the ethnic groups the Kalanguya and Ifugao, who live principally by a form of slash and burn agriculture. Fertile fields of vegetables, with tomatoes, ginger, cabbage, carrots, beans and sweet potatoes, provide the people with a modest living, and the sale of this produce on the markets of the provincial capital is bringing a slow economic upturn to the area.
Father Gerard Bouckaert, a CICM missionary from Belgium, was born in 1943 and is the first priest of this parish, which also includes six outstations. This tireless missionary has set himself five principal goals, which underlie all his pastoral work:
- Promoting and strengthening the Catholic faith
- Strengthening the local basic communities
- Formation of the laity
- Welfare of the indigenous peoples
- Maintaining their cultural identity
The need for a church as the principal center of parish life is self-evident. Its central location will be the spiritual wellspring for all the efforts and activities of the community. The sacred Liturgy gives shape, meaning and inner coherence to all the plans and projects undertaken.
The patron saint of the community is Saint Damian the Leper, the famous Belgian saint who gave his life ministering to the lepers on the island of Molokai. He is a clear symbol of the unity and cooperation that can be achieved through faith and sacrifice, and he gives a personal face to the missionary spirit of this young parish. A small piece of his coffin is preserved in a shrine here, which is expected to draw many pilgrims to this remote town in the mountains.
The little wooden chapel originally built by the community is now half eaten by termites and has long since grown too small for the growing Catholic congregation. In January this chapel was to be demolished to make way for a new, larger and more permanent building in stone.
The community is very committed to raising the money for the necessary building materials, but it is still beyond their means. Father Bouckaert has turned to ACN for help, and we have gladly promised $31,000.
Will you help Father Bouckaert build this new church and shrine in honor of Saint Damian of Molokai in the Philippines? We are sure he will remember you in his grateful prayers.
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