The following was written by Fabienne de Geofroy, a correspondent from the Philippines.
If the number of patients is lower than what we experienced in the pre-Covid years – because the health authorities are always afraid of large gatherings – the work remains intense, especially for opticians who have been wildly successful.
Our Moldavian surgeon, Alexandru, could practice his art on the excision of a few lipomas and Dr. de Geofroy assigned the dental extractions to himself: he had to “give a dream smile” to a 13-year-old girl. But between a smile without teeth and a smile with spoiled teeth from childhood, my heart is torn! The children always have a lollipop in their mouths which replaces fruit, which is too expensive for these poor people from the slums.
Apart from common diseases in the Philippines such as diabetes and high blood pressure, doctors have diagnosed cases of tuberculosis, scabies, and schistosomiasis – a parasitic disease common in areas with unsanitary waters.
A three-year-old child arrived with a heart defect that required surgery. The same is true for a young 35-year-old widow and mother of a 5-year-old child with a peritoneal tumor complicated by ascites [excess fluid in the peritoneal cavity].
In accompanying two young girls to their home, we took a short tour of the neighborhood which allowed us to discover the state of things, even if the traditional habitat of huts on stilts retains a charm that has been lost by the few concrete blocks or corrugated sheet constructions that replace them after the climatic disasters.
Our two young friends’ house is a miserable hovel among so many others, where a father and his 6 children live. The mother left to earn bread for the family in Saudi Arabia as a domestic worker, like many Filipino women. She hardly ever comes back and her 15-year-old daughter has to replace her at home.
If the school is free, the additional costs (the report card for example) must be bought and remain too expensive for them. These young people would need sponsorship in order to acquire a job that would allow them to get out of the vicious circle of poverty that often leads them to prostitution, at worst, if not to expatriation, at best.
Families are then deprived of a father or mother and the eldest find themselves, very young, in charge of their little brothers and sisters. Ten percent of the Filipino population moves abroad to support their families. At the beginning of the afternoon, we have leave the place in order to reach Cantugas, where we will establish our quarters for two days with the Mamanwas, an aboriginal tribe with whom Fr. Timothy Pfeiffer opened a mission in 2020.
Among the Mamanwas of Cantugas
After two hours of driving towards the north of the Surigao peninsula, we reach another forgotten village, that of the Mamanwas. This nomadic aboriginal tribe was dispossessed of their ancestral lands, beautiful forested mountains rich in resources of all kinds bordering the splendid Mainit Lake. They were the object of the covetousness of the “people of the cities.”
So, the tribes were moved and resettled by the government a few decades ago. They were installed in hovels made of concrete blocks and were granted some cultivable land on the plain dominated by the land of their ancestors. Perhaps it is to ease their conscience that government laws have decreed that it is now necessary to “preserve their tribal identity and culture”!
The result of these contradictory policies and ideologies was immediately perceived by our nurse Yolly. These poor people are kept in ignorance, lack of schooling, and spiritual darkness. This was a brake on evangelization, because the ecclesiastical authorities complied for many years. Although the latter, after long legal battles, have allowed the Mamanwas tribe to regain ownership of their ancestral lands.
When Fr. Timothy Pfeiffer opened this new mission in 2020, following a providential encounter with certain members of the tribe, he had to face a complex situation explained to him by the Datu (tribal chief) of the village. The desire deep to receive the teaching mixed with the fear of the displeasing the civil authorities which would inevitably lead to the loss of government support.
The Covid crisis added to this and brought a very severe confinement because the local authorities were frightened by the arrival of “foreigners” and their travel which required constantly producing passes. A little backtracking will help to understand the presence of this mission in this remote place.
One evening in December 2019, in the capital of Mindanao, 300 kilometers south of where we are, Father Tim saw some suspicious shadows moving in the back of his church in Davao. He discovers some beggars seeking asylum who were being pursued by the police because begging is forbidden in town.
They wre Mamanwas who came down from their village of Cantugas to seek help this Christmas season. Fr. Tim listened to their story, filled their hands with rice and sweets, and their hearts by talking to them about the Good Lord and the Blessed Virgin, giving them miraculous medals and… he promises them he would go and visit them.
This providential encounter then launched him into a missionary adventure with the zeal and determination that we know of him. Taking with him his catechists from Butuan and the faithful and indefatigable Yolly, a permanent member of ACIM-Asia, nurse, and catechist, Fr. Tim was not long in honoring his promise. And in February 2020, Yolly was able to settle in the village and start her work.
But the Mamanwas are wary of “city people” because they do understand that their ignorance has often encouraged these types to deceive them. Despite many obstacles, Yolly managed to gain their trust through patience, by conforming to their way of life, living as simply and as poor as they, trying to solve their daily problems, and taking care of their bodies.
So without haste, with gentleness and perseverance, she prepared their souls to receive grace. Then, two years later, around Easter 2022, Father Tim was able to baptize about twenty people, adults and children. It should be noted that these aboriginal peoples were little evangelized during the time of the Spanish missions, because the Franciscans in the 17th century and the Jesuits in the 19th century found them “difficult to convert”!
They had then preferred to turn towards the inhabitants of the more receptive plains. Father Tim, however, found some remnants of Catholicism, taught before the “cultural preservation” laws. He had to face paganism and its virulent followers who forbade him access to the communal courtyard after the first Mass he celebrated there. Protestant sects do a lot of proselytizing and their financial means allow them to attract people.
But the Datu and his wife, taught by Yolly to pray the Rosary, remain faithful to her Sunday recitation according to the promise they made to Father Tim. The welcome given to the volunteers on Tuesday evening September 13, the Marian procession which opened the mission immediately after their arrival, followed by dozens of enthusiastic children overflowing with joy is proof that never was it heard that anyone who fled to the protection of Our Heavenly Mother was left unaided.
Two years ago the children and many adults in the village did not know how to kneel, put their hands together and pray. Walking behind the statue of Our Lady of Seven Sorrows through the village pathsm the children were singing the Ave Maria at the top of their voices in Latin and in Visaya. In the evening, at the little welcome vigil, these “forgotten kids” of the world, dark-skinned, with eyes glowing with gratitude, simply asked us to “give them a hand to lead them to other tomorrows.”
Listening to them sing this well-known song that their catechists had translated for them into the local language and learned for us, we understood that for them and for their people, a golden light was finally shining at the end of the road.
The morning Mass was celebrated under the roof of the first building of a complex that Father Tim plans to build and which will include a chapel, the first foundations of which can already be seen, as well as a catechism room. The dream of Bepi, Datu's wife, is coming true: many years ago, this woman, who lost her children to schistosomiasis, saw the Sacred Heart in a dream crying over the village and she thought that He was sad because the people of the village did not pray and had no place to honor him.
She had never been able to talk about this to anyone until now. She confided in Yolly and now, thanks to the donations collected during Lenten Rosa Mystica by the Dominicans of Fanjeaux, a chapel is coming out of the earth! Generous donors will still be needed for the beautiful project to be completed.
More than 150 patients showed up at the reception table for consultation this morning. No lack of work in sight. The consultations will take place in the school, which will be closed for these two days. The majority of the children had decided not to go there because of the mission. It's the event of the year! The director gave them leave...
In addition to the usual pathologies (diabetes, high blood pressure), they had to send a small three-year-old child to the emergency room for an acute asthma attack and two pregnant women for pre-eclampsia. Two home visits were made: one to a school mistress’s daughter, 27, who was born premature and went blind following hyper oxygen therapy. She was having regular convulsions without treatment, and will be sent to a neurologist by the mission. The second to a man in his sixties, with heart failure and difficulty breathing.
The consultations allow us to see that the vast majority of women receive free contraception, and that some have undergone tubal ligation. What Fr. Couture and Doctor Dickès feared 20 years ago is unfortunately coming true: “reproductive health” is being put in place.
Jean-Pierre Dickès had made, at Fr. Couture’s request, a lecture tour in the faculties of medicine in 2004, in order to alert health professionals to this great danger. This tour was at the origin of the Rosa Mystica Missions.