Davao: The Frontier Society and the Initial Efforts of the PME 1910-1945

Abstract / Excerpt:

At the turn of the century, Davao was veritable frontier society that invited the intrepid and the adventurous. The plantation economy which the Americans started and which the Japanese transformed into an export industry had created an abaca boom in the 1920's thus further opening up the territory as more and more settlers came to abaca or coconuts in homestead grounds all over Davao. The in-imigration continued even after the price of abaca began to decline in the 1930's.

Full Text

Chapter Two


The Frontier Society

          At the turn of the century, Davao was a veritable frontier society that invited the intrepid and the adventurous. The plantation economy which the Americans started and which the Japanese transformed into an export industry had created an abaca boom in the 1920‘s thus further opening up the territory  as more and more settlers came to farm abaca or coconuts in homestead grounds all over Davao. The in-migration continued even after the price of abaca began to decline in the 1930‘s. The in-migration was also officially encouraged by the Commonwealth Government under Manuel L. Quezon whose administration passed the Colonization Act of 1935 to restrict Japanese expansion in Davao.
As a frontier society, Davao in the twenties exuded a kind of openness and egalitarian exuberance not found in more established and formal communities. There was something about the frontier that inspired great expectations, even as the amorphous and largely inchoate conditions posed seemingly insurmountable odds. The frontier has been known to breed the spirit of individual entrepreneurship which is the economic pull of migration forces.
The National Land Settlement Administration was the first among the various agencies to be created by the Philippine government to attract Christian settlers from Visayas and Luzon. The emigrants to Mindanao enjoyed a number of concessions. The cost of transportation and subsistence from point of origin to destination in Davao or Cotabato was paid by the government or the plantation owner with whom the emigrant was contracted for employment. The cost was moreover, not deductible from his wages. The government also transported free of charge the emigrant’s family if the latter wished to join the emigrant, as a further encouragement for permanent residence and settlement. Government assistance was provided in securing titles to homesteads.
The campaign for Mindanao migrants did not overlook the role the media played and “success stories” were prominently played up in newspapers. An example was the newspaper write-up on Montano Vargas, a P30 a month clerk in the Bureau of Agriculture who resigned from his job in order to came to Mindanao in 1916. Vargas arrived in Davao with only P60 in his pocket. His work experience however, enabled him to land not one, but two jobs in only a short time. He secured a position as municipal-treasurer and later, as post master. In two years, he was able to purchase 150 hectares of land and his monthly earnings were P150 from his hemp, P50 from his coconuts, and P85 from his duties as secretary-treasurer and post-master of the town of Davao.

     After the 1930‘s even when the price of abaca had already declined, emigration to Davao continued with an annual influx of about 10,000 Christian Filipinos. The prosaic statistics however, failed to describe the various repercussions of the demographic phenomenon. By the end of 1936, the Christian Filipinos comprised nearly half of the total population of Davao. Consequently, the Muslims and the other non-Christian Filipinos had become a minority in their own land. Most of the Christian migrants were dependent on Japanese employers. In spite of government assistance and encouragement the average Christian migrant who was a laborer dependent on a daily wage could not accumulate enough savings to purchase land on his own right. Many remained subsistence income earners.
The one aim of the American administration in the Philippines during the first two decades was to induce the natives to settle in fixed communities along the coast. The biggest problem at the inception of the abaca industry was the shortage of farm labor. “The pagan tribesmen were frightened by exploitation, the Moros preferred to fish, and the Christian Filipinos preferred to work for the military or civil government. The exploitation of native labor was inevitable. The ignorance of both Muslim and non-Muslim natives made them easy prey of unscrupulous Americans, Japanese, Europeans, as well as Christian Filipinos. A Spaniard in Davao boasted that he would not do business at less than 100% profit. Chinese and Christian Filipino traders would by all the rice from the natives and would sell them back the same commodity in times of scarcity at 100-150% profits. A planter’s wife asserted that they were making over 100% profit in their store and obtained “wild labor” for almost nothing. In many places, a day’s wage was a can of salmon that cost twenty centavos.
This heterogeneous collection of foreigners, Christian Filipinos, Muslims and non-Muslims in the Davao frontier was the context for the renewed evangelization  of Mindanao at the close of the American period. The estates and the plantations were gradually evolving distinct communities and necessitated some form of social organization. The former Jesuit parish priest of Davao, Fr. Gisbert carefully assessed the situation and concluded that the estates and plantations were extensive enough to accommodate priests, as well as laborers.

The Coming of the PME Fathers

     The Foreign Mission Society of Quebac, Canada, founded by the bishops of the Province of Quebec in 1921, was still very young when it sent  its first missionaries to China in 1925. Until 1925 it had only two missions: Szepingkai in Manchuria and Lintong in Eastern Mangolia, all in Northern China.
The first request for P.M.E.s for the Philippines was made in early 1932 by Archbishop Michael O’Dohetry of Manila who heard about the works of a Canadian secular priest, Fr. Ulric Arcand. He was interested in having Canadian missionaries work among the Chinese in Manila. Through Sister Marguerite Marie, a Missionary Sister of the Immaculate Conception who was going to Canada, he addressed a request to the Foreign Mission Society of Quebec. But the answer was negative due to lack of personnel. In 1934 Bishop Luis del Rosario of Zamboanga made the same request but with a stronger determination to obtain the help needed.

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     The Diocese of Zamboanga was erected on April 10, 1910 comprising all of Mindanao and the Sulu Archipelago. Previous to its erection, the province of Zamboanga, Cotabato, and Davao had been governed ecclesiastically by the Diocese of Jaro. The rest of Mindanao Church was under the Diocese of Cebu. The first bishop of Zamboanga was the Most Rev. Michael J. O’Doherty, D.D.. His successors were the Most rev. James P. McCloskey, D.D., Most Rev. Jose Clos, S.J., D.D., and Most rev. Luis del Rosario, S.J., D.D. On January 20, 1933, the diocese of Zamboanga was divided by Pius XI into two. The diocese of Zamboanga proper included the southern and western part of Mindanao, the Sulu archipelago and the island o Cagayan de Sulu. The other diocese in Mindanao was the Diocese of Cagayan de Oro which included the province of Surigao, Agusan, Bukidnon, Misamis Oriental, Misamis Occidental, Lanao and the island of Camiguin. Most Rev. James T.G. Hayes, S.J. D.D., became the first bishop.
Thus, the entire island of Mindanao was at the time divided into only two dioceses. Bishop del Rosario had only a few Jesuit priests to cover the large territory of the diocese of Zamboanga. So, he decided to look for additional missionaries. In 1934 he went to the United States but without success. He proceeded to Montreal, Canada, where he contracted he Foreign Mission Society of Quebec. Canon  Avila Roch, superior general of the Society, was moved by the spiritual needs of the diocese of Zamboanga, and the General Council of the Society agreed to send missionaries. The territories proposed were Sulu, Cotabato , and Davao. The Society opted for Cotabato with its Christian minority living in the midst  of a large tribal and Muslim population. The first group of missionaries was scheduled to leave in September 1935. Fathers Louis Pageau and Roland Brulotte from Manchuria were chosen to head this group.

     However, the plan agreed upon by the Society and Bishop del Rosario met with juridical problems in Rome. The Society, as a missionary society, was under the jurisdiction of the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith, whereas the Philippines, as a Catholic country, was under the Consistorial Congregation. For this reason, the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith did not approve the work of the Society in the Philippines. After an unsuccessful attempt to have Cotabato fall under the Propagation of the Faith because the great majority of its population were non-Catholic, Bishop del Rosario approached the Pope himself. In April 1935, upon recommendation by Pope Pius XI, the Congregation of the Propagation  of the Faith granted permission to the Society to go to Cotabato while reminding it of its important commitment to the Church in China. Because of the somewhat reluctant permission given and the urgent needs of the Chinese missions entrusted to the Society, the Philippines plan did not materialize before 1937. By then, the Society was hesitating between Davao and Cotabato.
In February 1937, Bishop Louis Lapierre, PM, Apostolic Vicar of Szepingkai, Manchuria, came to Manila for the International Eucharistic Congress. He was asked by the Society to inquire more about the Philippines, especially Davao and Cotabato. Msgr. Lapierre came to see Davao by himself. He was much impressed by the situation of the Church in Davao which had only seven Jesuit missionaries and no local clergy. In spite of the great needs  of priests for the two diocese entrusted to the Society in China, he strongly approved of the coming of the PME Fathers to the Philippines. After conferring with Msgr. Guglielmo Piani, then Apostolic Delegate to the Philippines , he recommended Davao. On April 2, 1937, the Society notified Bishop del Rosario that it would send five priests to Davao by October of the same year.
The first group  of PME Fathers was composed of Frs. Clovis Rondeau, Clovis Thibault, Conrad Cote, Omer Leblanc and Leo Lamy. They arrived in Manila in October 1937. They were welcomed by Bishop del Rosario, Fr. Louis Morrow, secretary to the Apostolic Delegation, and two Canadian priests already working in Luzon, Frs. Arcand and St. Arnauld. They stayed in La Ignaciana, a Jesuit house, in Sta. Ana, Manila. For a good number of years the PME Fathers, who came to replace the Jesuits in Davao,were accommodated upon their upon their arrival in Manila by Jesuit Fathers.
After a few days in Manila, the PME Fathers left for Davao on the “SS Bisaya”, a small passenger ship. The ship stopped in Cebu and Zamboanga and arrived in Davao at the end of October 1937. The Mayor and a delegation welcomed the new missionaries. Then the group proceeded to the San Pedro Church where Bishop del Rosario presented them to the faithful.
While studying Cebuano and being gradually initiated to their new apostolate, the PME Fathers stayed with the Jesuits at the San Pedro convento.  They will never forget the then Parish Priest of San Pedro, Fr. Tomas Puig, S.J. He was a holy man, much loved by the parishioners, and some kind of an apostolic giant. Although quite old, he would still visit all the barrios of the parish as far as Malita several hundred kilometres from Davao.

          A few months after the arrival of the PME Fathers in Davao, the superior of their group, Fr. Clovis Rondeau, fell ill and had to be sent back to Canada. A new superior, Fr. Joseph Geoffroy, was appointed, and he arrived with the second group of young missionaries in November 1938. This second group was composed of Frs. Maurice Michaud, Lionel Labelle, Joseph Dupuis, Yvon Guein, Paul-Emile Lahaye and Leo Poirier.
Although there were already eleven (11) PME Fathers in Davao, it was decided by Bishop del Rosario and the superior of the Jesuits, Fr. Hurley, that the Jesuits  would stay one more year in Davao to give more time to the Canadian missionaries to adapt and prepare themselves for their new ministry. Two Jesuits, however, Fr. Villa, already old, and Fr. Reyes could go. In March 1939, three PME Fathers were sent to the East Coast with a view to replacing the Jesuit Fathers by the end of the year. Fr. Guerin to Caraga; Fr. Dupuis to Baganga and Fr. Leblanc to Cateel, Fr. Lahaye was sent to Mati to help Fr. Lanmy, PME, who was already here.
At the end of 1939, Fr. Clovis Thibault became the Parish Priest of San Pedro with Fr. Leo Poirier as assistant. Fr. Lionel Laballe was appointed director of the St. Peter’s High School, and Fr. Conrad Cote was entrusted with the opening of a new parish in Kingking.
By the month of December 1939, the Jesuit Fathers had left Davao for Zamboanga. The Jesuits who had been in Davao for 75 years left a people who had loved and respected them. The PME Fathers will always remember how the Jesuits had been so helpful to them in their period of adaption.
In January 1940, the third group of PME Fathers arrived in Davao: Frs. Robert Lemay, Roland Hebert and Andre Pigeon, who left a few weeks later for their respective assignments in Caraga, Cateel and Baganga.
What was it like in those days of new arrivals? Let two of the PME Fathers who arrived in 1940 share their experiences almost fifty years later: Fr. Andre Pigeon and Fr. Roland Herbert.

Fr. Andre Pigeon:
I tried to learn Visayan in twenty years. Fr. Geoffroy was teaching us. Davao City had very few streets. I remember Oyanguren street. I found it very beautiful, it was bordered by acacia trees. The bodegas in Oyanguren street were filled with copra. It was the first time i smelled copra, and it was a strange smell. San Pedro was also a very busy street with many stores. I remember it had an ice cream factory. I was assigned to the parish in the east coast town of Baganga. We certainly had a pioneering spirit. We were eager  to start new things. Of course, we had many difficulties, especially in travelling. The people must have found us strange with our French Canadian accent trying to speak in Visayan. Yet, we did not hesitate; we started speaking Visayan right away. Baganga had many Christians. I remember the most difficult part of our work was responding to sick calls, to bring the sacraments to those danger of death. Very often, we had a difficult journey to make into the mountains to responde to the calls, but we always responded and the people appreciated our efforts.
Regarding food, most of our food at that time was canned goods we brought to Baganga all the way from Davao. Both Baganga and Caraga were coconut producing areas. Our rice in Baganga came mostly from Cateel. We did not eat any vegetables. The people had backyard gardens for vegetables, but they did not sell any vegetables.

Fr. Roland Hebert, P.M..E

          My first assignment was to Cateel to join Fr. Leblac. It was difficult because there was very little activity in the parish. Very few people came to Mass on Sunday. We felt a little lost. We tried to organize many things, but nothing much happened. I remember going to a barrio once, and the people asked us what were we doing there. They thought we were wasting our time. Slowly, we introduced the teaching of Catechism in the public schools made some headway.
The big change came with the war. Many of the people from Davao City filed to the east coast, and many suffered a great deal from the hardships. The Church was fillled then, mainly with people from Davao City. When the people from Cateel saw all these people, even the men going to Mass, they gradually also started coming to Mass. This changed the feeling about getting involved in the Church.
The fourth group was composed of Frs. Eugene Ouelet and Gerard Campagna who arrived in November 1940 and Frs. Jean Bernard Bazinet, HEnri Desjardins and Marcel Turcotte who came in January 1941.
The last group to come to the Philippines before the war were Frs. Alfred Tremblay, Octave Rheaume and Julien Vezina. They arrived at the end of November 1941. These had a hard time reaching Manila. Because of fear of an oncoming war, the Dutch ship on which they were travelling was ordered to sail to Surabaya, Indonesia. The priests were left there but finally found a French ship which brought them to Manila. When the war broke out they were immediately sent to the East Coast. They reached Caraga where rested for three months and adapted themselves to the tropical climate of the Philippines. After this they went to their assignments: Fr. Tremblay to Cateel, Fr. Rheaume to Baganga, and Fr. Vezina remained in Caraga.
The PME Fathers continued the pastoral work of the Jesuits and started opening up  new parishes. Mati, which had been opened in 1937, but soon closed because of the departure of the priest for Zamboanga, was reopened in 1939. Kingking was founded in 1940, and Santa Cruz in 1941.

The War Years, 1941-1945

     World War II suddenly interrupted the missionary activities. On December 8, 1941, Japan declared war on the United States. That very day, the war started in Davao. At 6:00 A.M., about 20 Japanese planes bombed the small Sasa airfield and the military installations in Matina. This unexpected attack spread terror and consternation in the city which had practically no defenses. In a matter of days the city became deserted people fled to the provinces or to the mountains.
When the war broke out, there were 19 PME’s and one Filipino military chaplain in the Davao area. Fr. Geoffroy, the PME Superior , was in Davao Penal Colony with Fr. Lamey who was sick. There were four priests in Kingking: Fr. Lahaye and his assistant Fr. Turcotte, Frs. Pigeon and Ernest Jasmin, both convalescing. The latter was a missionary from China who had come to Davao for reasons of health. There were also four priests in San Pedro: Frs. Thibault, Oullet, Cote and Bazinet. Aside from these PMEs, there was a Filipino priest, Fr. Jesus Ambulo, a military chaplain. In the south, there were two in Santa Cruz: Frs. Poirier and Leblanc. Fr. Campagna was alone in Malita. Finally on the East Coast there were Fr. Hebert in Cateel, Fr. Dupuis and Lemay in Baganga, Frs. Guerin and Desjardins in Caraga, and Fr.Michaud in Mati. Since Canda was among the allied nations fighting Japan, the Canadian missionaries were considered enemies, and most of them were taken prisoners by the Japanese.

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     On December 20, 1941, at dawn, Japanese ships appeared near Samal Island and shelled the Santa Ana wharf and later that morning landed in the vicinity of the pier. The priests in San Pedro and the RVM Sisters of the ICC evacuated to the mountains and crossed the Davao River at Ma-a. The sisters decided to go to Bukidnon and the Fathers to Cateel. They reach Cateel on January 25, 1942, after more than a month hiking thru the jungle. After recuperating from hunger, exhaustion and their ulcers, they scattered as follows: Fr. Thibault went to Caraga, Frs. Oullet and Bazinet to Baganga, while Frs. Cote and Labelle remained in Cateel. In August 1942, the Japanese made their first patrol to the East Coast and brought back with them to Davao Frs. Thibault and Vezina from Caraga and Frs. Oullet and Bazinet from Baganga. They left behind the Fathers i Cateel which was considered as a “no man’s land” because of the guerillos (resistance force) there. In one of his missions to Compostela (from cateel), Fr. Labelle was caughtby the Japanese and brought to the concentration camp in Matina. The four priests in Kingking did the same.
Fr. Geoffroy, being older, was much respected by the Japanese and was allowed to remain in San Pedro with Fr. Lamy who was seriously ill. Fr. Jasmin and Fr. Andre Pigeon were also transferred to San Pedro for reasons of health. A few months later, upon the request of Fr. Geofrrey, most priests prisoners in Matina were transferred to the San Pedro covenant. A time came when there were 25 priests living there. Aside from various places in Mindanao. They were joined by Bishop Luis del Rosario, Fr. Alfredo Paguia, SJ, his vicar general, Fr. Garcia, a Spanish priest. These three were not prisoners.They had came from Zamboanga to take charge of the ministry upon learning that the Canadian missionaries had been placed in a concentration acamp and could no longer perform pastoral work. The priest prisoners could not solemnize marriages and could not go outside the church compound.
In December 1943, all foreign missionaries in Davao were sent to Manila and placed in the University of Santo Tomas which had become a concentration camp. Fr. Geoffroy remained in Davao until July 1944 when he was sent to the Los Banos concentration camp.
The remaining priests working on the East Coast were not made prisoners by the Japanese at the beginning of the war. They stayed in their respective parishes till 1944. By then they had to surrender or be killed. Instead, they fled to the mountains in different groups and lived with natives avoiding the movements of the Japanese troups. Some went to Agusan. They would meet occasionally after walking hundreds of kilometers, some barefooted. They continued to minister to the people as much as possible, and when the war  ended they returned to their respective parishes.
Four priests died during that period among them Fr. Lamy who died of malaria in San Pedro. Fr. Desjardins disappeared mystriously while on his way from Manay to Caraga. The two priests in Santa Cruz, Frs. Poirier  and Leblanc, met violent deaths at the hands of the Japanese soldiers. At the outbreak of the war they had fled to the mountains with the people. Later the Japanese took them prisoners in Pikit, Cotabato, and massacred them on the way to Davao.
At the end of the war, the PME Fathers who had been concentrated in Santo Tomas went home to Canada except Fr. Clovis Thibault and fr. Gerard Campagna who came back to Davao and resumed their parish work. Those who went to Canada returned in January 1946 with three new recruits: Frs. Florian Roch, Denis Cossette and Maurice Cote.

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Source JournalTambara
Journal VolumeTambara Vol. 4
AuthorsNo Authors Specified
Page Count7
Place of PublicationDavao City
Original Publication DateDecember 1, 1987
Tags Davao, Initial Efforts, Tambara, The Frontier Society

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