By Fr. Mario Antonio Villegas Baclig, SDB
HISTORY has recorded the words of American General Jacob H. Smith, in retaliation for the Balangiga massacre in 1901: “The interior of Samar must be made a howling wilderness.” The continued clamor for the Balangiga bells attests to destruction wrought on the island. A century later, the island of Samar continues to remain a wilderness, because of Nature’s fury by way of typhoons, as well as Nature’s glory in the form of lush virgin forests, deep unexplored caves, and wide unconquered rivers. In fact, the name “Samar” comes from “samaran,” or wounded, in reference to the many rivers cutting across the island.
The Salesian priests, Frs. Pedro Porio and Felix Rotor, were the pioneers of Don Bosco’s presence in the island. In those days, travel from Cebu meant a whole day’s journey into the “wilderness.” Sent by the late Fr. Peter Zago, SDB, they embarked on the journey, arrived in Borongan in October 1992, and took residence in the old Gonzales house, a stone’s throw from the cathedral. Fr. Zanissi, a veteran Canossian missionary in Samar, had generously donated this piece of land to the Salesians. Salesian Brother Stephen Giubergia followed later. By 1993, the Don Bosco Training Center was in operation.
The pioneering priests celebrated Mass regularly in the Santisima Trinidad Chapel in Barangay Bato, taught catechism in the public school, and went from house to house organizing basic ecclesial communities. The young, they invited for the Youth Encounter (Virac model), which became the backbone of their youth ministry. In time, they enlarged the chapel in Bato and built a training center in Catian.
Today, Borongan is a wilderness no more! It is a city, complete with shopping malls and coffee shops, and the latest digital gadgets. Travel time to Tacloban is easily three hours on a first-class highway through the towns of MacArthur and Balangiga. Even the ancestral home of Eugenio Daza, architect of the Balangiga battle, has been conquered by Jollibee. Bishop Crispin Varquez, DD, heads the diocese that is blessed with more than a hundred priests.
The fruits of twenty-five years of Salesian presence are just as evident.
The Don Bosco Training Center leads the way in contributing to the growth of many young people, in partnership with the government agency TESDA. Several trainees finished the one-year course in Borongan, did additional training with Bro. Elmer Rodriguez in Makati, then returned as instructors. They have moved on to greener pastures. Joel Ablay from Giporlos now works in Southampton, United Kingdom. Llan Alea Claro is now with Accuform Fabricators, Dasmarinas, Cavite. Jessie Asebias from Bato now works in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.
Michael Ganaba from San Gabriel did his OJT at the Isuzu Motors in Makati. Later, he was sent by the company for further training in Japan. At present, he works in Westlock, Alberta, Canada. Ismael Esposa is employed by Toyota Motors in Al Sayer, Kuwait. Rene Rivera joined the Armed Forces of the Philippines. The list is long.
In Borongan itself, graduates have become successful entrepreneurs. Tomas Diga, a graduate in the basic welding course, is an inspiration to many. After typhoon Ruby, he reported for work in the welding shop where he was employed, only to be told that there was no longer work for him. He gathered the little savings he had, borrowed from an aunt, and put up his own shop in Borongan. It was a big gamble, but today, he is able to assemble at least three tricycle cabs every month, each worth Php 48,000. He has five employees. He has gained a name for himself in the city. Tricycles proudly carry his trademark—TJ for Tomas and his wife Jennylin—and the many innovations he has introduced. He remembers basketball and Fr. Porio: “Mabigat kung maglaro!” Likewise the little chapel where they would pray. He has four children, one of them an Auxilium member in the Youth Center. To the present trainees, he can say: “Magseryoso kayo sa training.”
Gino Ganaba took up motorcycle and small engine repair and now has his own motorcycle repair shop in Maydolong. “Para walang amo. Pantay-pantay lang. Kung gusto mong magsara, OK lang.” He began with the little savings he had. “Dahan dahan lang. Mababa ang singil ko, kaya medyo mahina ang kita. Pero marami ang customer.” He can handle even ten motorcycles a day, from the simple task of engine tune up to a complete engine overhaul. “Kailangan sigurado ang quality. May disiplina. Kailangan talaga ang disiplina sa trabaho. Ito ang sekreto ko: dapat honest ka sa customer. Gusto kong baguhin ang pananaw ng mga tao, na mayroong mga mekanikong maayos at tapat.” He is already planning to move on to a busier town of Balangiga so that he could serve more customers. What he can never forget are the prayers in Don Bosco every afternoon.
The Don Bosco Youth Center has spearheaded the Salesian charism by opening its gates to children and youth for these past twenty-five years. There are sports and music activities, scholarship grants, summer camps, and the daily recitation of the Rosary. Bro. Alex Abelgas is the only Salesian who has been teaching ordinary children how to play the accordion. Maxine, Anielyn, Mariel can already carry a tune for cultural programs, while the beginners Irish, Gelyn, Tanya, and Mickaella take turns to practice on donated accordions. Fr. Julius Sanchez has brought in saxophones, keyboards, bandurias, and guitars, and spends the afternoon teaching the children.
Raprap (for Rafael) is a Grade 10 student who discovered and developed his musical talents in the youth center. He comes from a family of five. He plays the keyboard and any other instrument he can get hold of. He leads a band of young musicians—among them, Plangplang, Bonbon, Liklik, Moymoy, Sedsed!—with his leadership skills developed through the many youth programs. Karla, Clemarie, and Lyca are the budding singers.
After the super typhoon Yolanda, Don Bosco Borongan shared in the task of rebuilding damaged houses of the people. Working hand in hand with the diocese, it organized thirty-five teams of carpenters, who built almost seven hundred houses in the adjoining areas.
Danny Basilia of Barangay Balobo recalls how, with his six children, they had to live outside for some weeks. “Barong-barong muna. Halos walang natira sa bahay dahil sa hangin.” He was fortunate to be among the beneficiaries. “Libre ang lahat. Hindi kami makakabahay nang ganun.” Almost a hundred houses were built in Balobo, and Danny was among the carpenters.
Aileen Bajado proudly points to their house, now improved and enlarged. “Sirang-sira ang bahay namin. Kaya sobrang saya namin na nabigyan ng bahay. Tumulong pa kami sa pagbuo. Ngayon, may negosyo na ako, tindahan. Walang tulo ang bahay. Titulado ang lupa. May munting palayan pa kami sa likod,”
Last October 8, 2017, Bishop Crispin Varquez, DD, graced the celebration of the 25th anniversary of Don Bosco Borongan with his presence. He blessed the chapel of Mary, Help of Christians, and St. John Bosco, and presided over the Eucharist. People were also glad to see once more several Salesians who worked in Borongan through the years.
St. John Bosco is always at home with the young and the poor. For their sake, we can proclaim: “Wilderness no more!” The horizon looks bright for many more years of Salesian presence in Borongan. In fact, the path is leading further on, hopefully to Palanog in Tacloban City.