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Parish Priest: Msgr. Rolando dela Cruz


I. The Franciscan Era [1580-1894(?)]

The district now commonly known as Paco has its humble beginnings way back in the middle 1500's.  The area was just a swampy sitio, a place which the early inhabitants called dilao, after a bush which grew abundantly in the area and whose yellow roots were used for food coloring. In 1580, the early Franciscan missionaries recorded the organization and the founding of the town of Dilao, but due to the scarcity of priests at that time, it was placed under the supervision of the Santa Ana de Sapa mission, southeast of the newly formed district.The Franciscan annals describe Dilao as being located at the 1400 35' 55" latitude in a broad, flat and marshy expanse on the left side of the Pasig River, bounded by Pandacan on the North, Sta. Ana on the East Southeast, Malate on the South, Ermita on the West, and about 2.5 kilometers East Southeast of Manila, the capital city.  Pandacan, Malate, Ermita, just like Sta. Ana were parishes already previously established.The provisional shrine probably built around the 1590's near what is now San Marcelino, was entirely made of bamboo and nipa-thatched.  On the day of its blessing, it was dedicated to Our Lady of the Purification, making her the patroness of the first church of Dilao.  Rev. Fray Juan de Garrobillas was the first Franciscan priest mentioned in the records to manage the new Parroquia de Dilao.  In 1599, he had the bamboo structure demolished and erected a new church of adobe stones.  This church was completed in 1601 but was destroyed in 1603 during the Chinese rebellion.  Don Francisco Gomez de Arellano, Archdiocese of the Holy Cathedral of Manila, had it rebuilt in 1606.  This structure was, however, damaged by fire during the invasion of the English forces in 1762.   This last catastrophe convinced the Franciscan Superior Governor to move the  church farther inland. Its location near the Pasig River made it vulnerable to attacks from hostile visitors and its being located in marshy soil made it less accessible to the parishioners during the rainy season. He incorporated with two other small adjacent towns, Santiago in the Southwest and Peña de Francia in the Northeast, and relocated the expanded Village near where the present church now stands. To soothe the resentment of the parishioners from the annexed towns, the Superior Governor ordered that the new town be henceforth called San Fernando.  The people, however, found it easier to call the place by its old name of Dilao, hence the origin of San Fernando de Dilao. All this took place around 1791 when another provisional bamboo church was erected in the new site. In 1809, the new, zealous and tireless parish priest, Rev. Fray Bernardo dela Concepcion Perdigon, started the construction of a large and majestic stone temple with a wide transept. The solidly built church was completed m 1814 when Fray Perdigon was already consecrated Bishop of Nueva Caceres, Camarines Norte. Fray Miguel Richart took over the parish and in 1841 added a bell tower as strongly built as the church.  In 1842, he had the loudest sounding bell in the Islands forged to replaced the old bell which seemed too small for the new massive tower.  However, this church suffered extensive damage during the earthquake of 1852 but with the indefatigable spirit of the parish priest, it was quickly repaired and rehabilitated.It was also significant that at this time the parishioners developed a very strong devotion to the image of Nuestro Señor Jesucristo en el Sepulcro(Our Lord Jesus Christ in the Sepulchre) every Friday, but most especially during the solemn novena in His honor during the month of August.  The fervor with which the parishioners honored the image was so intense during the Friday services and the month of August that only one-tenth of the devotees could be accommodated inside the spacious church.  This devotion to the image of  the Nazarene in the Sepulchre in addition to the reported miraculous cures attributed to the image must have influenced the parish priest to make Our Lord in the Sepulchre the patron of the parish.Not too far from the Dilao parish was the hermitage on the eastern "boundary of the town on the bank of an estero dedicated toNuestra Señora de Peña de Francia. This adjunct, retreat was supervised by the Dilao parish since 1791 when it was annexed, to Dilao by the Superior Governor of the Franciscans. For the spiritual needs of the community in the area who found the parish church too distant, masses were said in the small chapel every Sunday and on holy days of obligation.  It has since then been named Capilla de Peñafrancia and in the 1890's it has been converted into an independent parish.Between 1893 and 1894, Fray Joaquin Segui had a convent made of strong materials.  It included a courthouse of stone but nipa-roofed and contained the town jail; a primary grade school classroom good for 120 children of both sexes also served as the residence of the teacher whose salary was paid by the local banks.


At around this time, Dilao had a population of about 5,300 souls living in approximately 1,100 houses made of wood or bamboo and nipa-roofed.  The parish consisted of seven barrios which included the original towns of Santiago, Peña de Francia and Balete.  The last parish priest mentioned in the Franciscan records of Dilao is Fray Carlos Tena who, with his coadjutor, ministered to their parishioners to the time the Franciscan Fathers go back to their originalmission area, the Diocese of Camarines.


II. The Transition Period [1894(?) -1908]

The Franciscan annals are silent after 1894 and do not say how long Fray Tena stayed in Dilao nor who succeeded him.  The next date about San Francisco(?) de Dilao is 1908 from the accounts of the Scheut Missionaries, more popularly known as the CICM or the Belgian Fathers.  How the parish was passed on from the hands of the Franciscans into the care of the Congregatio Immaculatae Cordis Mariae (CICM) can probably be gathered from the "Readings in Philippine Church History" by Fr. N. Schumacher, S.J.Due to the decrease of the number of religious sent to the Philippines from Spain and the anti-friar attitude of the local clergy and the Filipino laity, the country was "faced with an appalling lack of priests . . . The native clergy . . . not very numerous . . . are poorly educated and mediocre moral stature . . ." Coupled with this was the misconception of parents that the priesthood was for those who are not intelligent enough to study law, medicine or other prestigious courses.  “Magpari ka na lang” was the advise to their so-so graduating son who without any vocation would enter the seminary.  But the greatest factor was that during this period from 1900 to 1903 most of the seminaries remained closed.With the desistance of the coming of the Spanish friars to the Philippines and the inadequate and poorly prepared native priests, about 900 parishes manned by the different religious orders were abandoned.  The intervention of the Spanish friars in the Islands as parish priests ceased to be important.  The Franciscans during this time numbered only 175 in the whole country.  One of the parishes abandoned must have been the parish of San Fernando de Dilao.


It was also during this dearth of priests that the Aglipayans and American Protestants encroached on the friar-held parishes in the diocese of Manila.  It is no wonder, therefore, that part of Dilao, specifically the area of Peña de Francia, which was farthest from the church, embraced Aglipayanism.  For the first time, the new bishops anxiously sought the help of religious priests from European countries other than Spain.  During the first decade, those who began to work in the Philippines included the Irish Redemptorists (CSSR), the Mill Hill Missionaries of Holland (MHM), the Belgian Scheut Missionaries (CICM), the Sacred Heart Missionaries (MSC) also from Holland, and the Divine Word Fathers (SVD) of Germany.  The CICM Fathers worked among the non-Christian tribes in the Cordillera mountains in Northern Luzon and a few abandoned parishes in the Archdiocese of Manila, specifically Pasig, Cainta, Parañaque, Las Piñas and Paco.



III. The 76 Years of the CICM [1908 -1984)

When the Belgian (CICM) priests arrived in the Philippines in 1908, they took control of the abandoned parishes in the North, specifically the Ilocos region where Aglipayanism had already taken root, and the different mountain tribes in the Cordilleras.  The San Fernando de Dilao parish was also delegated to the CICM, the first one in the Manila Archdiocese to be entrusted to them.  Four other towns were to be adopted not long after, namely, Pasig and Cainta in the East, and Parañaque and Las Piñas in the South.Fr. Raymond Esquenet was the first CICM to be appointed parish priest of Paco by the Belgian Superior of the Order. He took over the management of the parish in October of 1908 with Fr. Maurice le Favre as his assistant. When they arrived in the parish they found that the last Spanish-built church in the present site was destroyed and completely burnt during the Spanish-American war of February 1899. So, for nine years the parishioners had no priest nor a church to go to.  This probably explains why the residents of Peña de Francia in the north-eastern part of the parish turned to Aglipayanism.  They had a priest to turn to and services to attend in a small chapel in the corner of J. Zamora and Canonigo streets (now Quirino Avenue Extension)!Fr. Esquenet realized the immediate need for a new parish church.  He at once planned to build a small stone/cement church and in the meantime he made use of a small chapel in Peñade Francia.  This name was later shortened to Peñafrancia.  It was also in this extension of the parish that he started a small school which held classes in the chapel during the week.  Every year an additional grade was added to serve the students who were being promoted until the first four primary grades were completed.When Fr. Esquenet was recalled and assigned to take over the parish of Lipa in September of 1912, Fr. Godofredo Aldenhuijsen was appointed to lead the Paco parishioners.  This marked the first seven years of his 42 years of service in Paco, interrupted only by his 12-year stay in Pasig and his two-year detention in the Los Baños concentration camp with other non-friendly nationals during World War II.By 1912, the church started by Fr. Esquenet was completed and services were now being held in the new church although classes were still being conducted in Peñafrancia.  Masses on Sundays 'and on holy days of obligation, and other ministrations like confessions and baptisms were still made available to the Peñafrancia residents.In 1913, Fr. Godofredo asked the Belgian Mothers (CMSA later known as ICM) in San Marcelino parish to help in running the school in Peñafrancia.  Two Mothers were appointed by their superior to commute every school day by carromata, a two-wheeled horse-drawn vehicle, and for 60 odd years the ICM Mothers served the school and the parish as social workers.When Fr. Godofredo was transferred to Pasig in September of 1919, Fr. Jose Billet  became the parish priest of Paco, a position he held for ten years. He had as his coadjutors Frs. Faniel and Verbeeck.  Finding it too inconvenient to administer a growing school quite a distance from the convent of Paco, he had a wooden school building of five (5) rooms constructed along Trece de Agosto Street on the North and along the Estero at the West of the present site of Paco Catholic School.  The students of Peñafrancia transferred to the new school building in the early 1920's. The year 1929 saw Fr. Billet being transferred to the Cordilleras in the Mountain Province where he eventually was ordained Bishop of the Diocese. On January 9 of the same year, Fr. Josef Ampe was named an interim replacement.  It was during his brief stay in Paco that the plans for a new church began and collections were made for its construction. In 1932, he was recalled to Belgium to teach Philosophy and Moral Theology in the University of Louvaine. He never saw his plans materialized and the church he envisioned completed in 1933.  March of 1931 marked the return of Fr. Godofredo to Paco after an absence of ten years.  He continued the weekly collections started by Fr. Josef Ampe and on August 23, 1931, the cornerstone of the new church was laid and construction was begun in earnest.  It is significant to note that this memorable day was the Saturday before the town fiesta on the 24th.  The building of the church was planned in two phases: in August of 1932 the nave and transept were completed and all religious services were held in the completed parts.  Galvanized iron sheets nailed to a wooden framework which reached up to the cupola, served as separating wall screening the work being completed in the sanctuary and the sacristy.  The blessing of the whole church on October 1933 was the final touch to the second phase.The old church started by Fr. Esquenet in 1908 and completed by Fr. Godofredo in 1912 was reconverted into four c1assroorns in 1932. A second floor was added to it to serve as the Mothers' convent and in May 21, 1933, they came to live permanently in the church-school compound without having to commute between St. Theresa's College in San Marcelino and Paco Catholic School.  They now numbered five and formed a community with a Superior, independent of the Mothers in St. Theresa's College.Between 1934 and 1937 two other constructions were completed.  A wooden structure was built between the right transept side entrance of the new church and the sacristy door (the side nearest to the old church) to serve as the permanent convent of the Mothers.  The second floor built for them on the old church was remodeled into four additional classrooms.  At the same time, a three-storey concrete building was erected right behind the sacristy of the new church and in 1934, Paco Catholic School accepted its first 13 students into the new High School Building, renamed the Sacred Heart Building (and now known as the Rev. Fr. Godofredo Aldenhuijsen Heritage Center).  From here on, every year a higher year would be added until the 1937-1938 school year, when these thirteen freshmen would form the first high school graduating class of Paco Catholic School.World War II broke out in December 8, 1941 and all schools were closed, but all other activities, religious and otherwise, continued normally as possible.  Paco Catholic School was allowed to re-open sometime in June 1942. July 1944 was a sad day for all citizens at war with Japan, Germany, and Italy.  Fr. Godofredo, being Dutch, was detained with other foreign nationals, priests, religious and other lay people in concentration camp in Los Baños. Fr. Jose de Bal took charge of the parish until the close of the war in 1945.  In September of 1944, when the first air raid on Manila by the U.S. Marine Air Force surprised the Japanese occupational forces, schools automatically closed again because the air raids became a regular event every morning at 7:00 A.M.  After the initial landing of General McArthur in Leyte, landings were also affected in l1ocos, Pangasinan, and Bataan, American forces advanced towards Manila almost without any resistance from the Japanese Imperial Anny.  They entered Manila and liberated the American detainees from the US Concentration camp while the Japanese retreated to the South of Manila determined to defend this part of the city. Paco Catholic School was partly occupied and made into garrison by the Japanese.  The twin spires of the church were converted into observation posts.  Barricades of barbed wires were set up in all street comers of Paco were manned by unshaven fierce-Iooking Korean sentries (Korea was occupied by Japan at this point in history.) Curfew hours from 5:00 P.M. to 6:00 AM. were enforced, Limiting all kinds of civilian movement.  It made Paco the main target of the American artillery fire --a block by block shelling strategy directed by an observation plane overhead.The cone-shaped towers of the church were the first targets hit by the .accurate shelling of the American batteries.  The bombardment was so thorough and devastating that if one were standing on the comer of Herran and Taft Avenue, he had a clear view of Paco Church seven blocks away.  Aside from the towers, the church roof made of galvanized iron sheets was almost completely destroyed, but the dome, except for some shrapnel dents, was intact; window panes were almost all shattered, but the massive doors were not too badly damaged; the rectory, the Mothers' convent and the Home Economics Building were burnt down. The original wooden school built by Fr. Billet was still standing but sustained three big shell holes in the roof; the three-storey concrete high school building survived the shelling and fire but was still serviceable and was scarred with shrapnel holes some of which are still visible until now; the second floor of the old parish church also suffered damaged but could easily be repaired.With the help of Engineering Corps of the U.S. Army, some kind of roofing was improvised to keep the parishioners dry during rainy mornings. The U.S. Army also built two quonset huts along Trece de Agosto which were later torn down to make way for the Holy Cross Building, a 3-storey structure which was dismantled in 1997 to prepare for the complete reconstruction and renovation of the school building along Trece de Agosto Street and the estero on the West side of the school campus.  The parish convent was easily repaired but the Mothers were temporarily housed on the third floor of the High School Building while their new convent was being constructed next to it towards the estero.In July 1945, Paco Catholic School reopened to admit about 1,500 students, the only school South of Manila to cater to the academic needs of the education-hungry studentry.  By the 1950's, the school population rose to more than 7,000 students; from the  mere tots that Fr. Esquenet gathered for his first class in Peñafrancia, Paco Catholic School became the largest parochial school in the whole world.In 1964, at the age of 71, Fr. Godofredo was relieved of his pastoral duties but he continued to serve the parish. Fr. Francisco Wittezaele was appointed to take his place and served for 9 years, during which time he introduced numerous innovations that were way ahead of the times. Three of these pioneering changes were (1) commentators and song leaders during certain masses on Sundays; (2) pre-marriage counselling for prospective couples; and (3) pre-Baptism lectures to parents and godparents.  These three activities are now pre-requisites in all parishes with Paco members of the Christian Family Movement serving as models to other parishes who wished to see the modus operandi used in execution of these projects. After nine years in Paco, Fr. Francisco was succeeded by Fr. Francis Libeer in 1973. Fr. Francis also served as Principal of Paco Catholic School.  After two years as parish priest, he continued being principal for four more years.  It was during his incumbency that the Paco Catholic School Choral Group was formed and gained fame in the Archdiocese.In 1975 a triumvirate took change of the parish, but one not one of the three was willing to take over the reigns of the pastorate.  The three priests were Frs. Jeff Demyttenaere, Theo Goosens, and Francis Gevaert.  For five years, the team functioned as one although Fr. Jeff acted more as the chairman of the group.  Then in April of 1980, Fr. Carlos van Ooteghem became the last CICM to take care of the parish.  He was recaIled from Pasig and served as pastor for four years.  With him the chapter CICM stewardship of Paco came to an end after 76 years, three-fourths of a century of dedication, of marvelous service, and a great growth in the ministry and educational achievement.


Even after his retirement, Fr. Carlos stayed on as coadjutor in the parish until his failing eyesight and deteriorating health prevented him from continuing his ministry.


IV. The Diocesan Turn-Over [1984 ]

In 1984, some parishes in the Archdiocese under the management of foreign religious orders were asked to cede their districts to Filipino priests of the same order or to diocesan secular priests.  In the case of Paco, the CICM Superior requested that they be relieved of their assignment in Paco to be able to meet the need for more manpower in remote mission parishes and Paco, having developed into a model parish was no longer a 'mission country.'  In effect, in June of 1984 Bishop Teodoro C. Bacani, DD, took over the supervision of the parish for eleven years.  It was during this time that the 90-year old structure built by Fr. Esquenet which served as the parish church unti1 1933, and later used as a two-storey school building/Mothers' convent, was converted into an air-conditioned multipurpose hall.  It was blessed as Karel Hall in honor of Fr. Carlos whose Belgian friends and co-parishioners contributed for its reconditioning.During his incumbency, Bishop Bacani had the basketball court shielded with a roof and the covered court was provided with a stage, complete with dressing rooms for performers.  The whole structure served to accommodate more people during seasonal celebrations like Palm Sunday and the Midnight mass on Christmas Eve besides giving the school a spacious open theater for its outdoor activities.  Bishop Bacani also had the Department of Religious Education (DRE) Office/dormitory torn down and rebuilt as the San Lorenzo Building, a four-storey concrete structure accommodating classrooms and the DRE dormitory in the upper floors, and serving as canteen on the ground floor.To be able to comply with the Diocese's dictum to bring the Church to the masses, Bishop Bacani introduced what he termed 'sectoral masses.'  During the early part of the turn-over, the parish was divided into blocks led by a block-leader; several blocks formed an area led by an area leader, and three-four areas completed a sector with a sectoral leader.  The parish had thirteen areas which were grouped into four sectors.  On the four Fridays before Christmas and the four Fridays of Lent, a mass was held in one particular sector so that during the year two masses were celebrated in sector.  The ceremony started with a procession from the Church to a designated spot in the sector.  Confessions were heard before the Mass and at 7:00 P.M. celebration of the Eucharist started.  After the Mass, the recession to the Church concluded the services.One of the obsessions of Bishop Bacani was his insistence on the use of San Fernando de Dilao instead of Paco, and his obsession has already spread to a great part of the parish. In 1995, Bishop Bacani was appointed head of a vicariate consisting of the parishes of Caloocan, Malabon, the western part of Quezon City, and the Northwestern side of Novaliches.To take his place, Msgr. Domingo A. Cirilos, Jr. who was then pastor of the Manila Cathedral was installed as parish priest of San Fernando de Dilao.  In less than a year after being named pastor Msgr. Cirilos commenced a gigantic reconstruction project.  To begin with, the communion rail in the church was knocked down and the sanctuary was retiled with light-colored glazed slab.  The whole church was repainted and gave the over-all effect of added brightness especially around the sanctuary.  In 1997, all the structures along Trece de Agosto (including the 85-year old Karel Hall) up to the estero and on the west side along the estero were demolished to make way for anew single four-storey building.  Where before there were four tired looking constructions of different designs which looked like ill-fitting jigsaw puzzle pieces, now, there is just one handsome and refined looking edifice, giving the Paco Catholic School skyline a new profile.  The stage in the covered court was also dismantled and a new one was built along the estero in an open air arena-style.During the past 400 years, we have had three different religious organizations which ran the parish.  Will this present order continue or will a new group be named as administrators?Only time will tell ...


By Bienvenido Valdes

With contirbutions from Reynaldo A. Mones 1971, Gabriel Ma. Angelo B. Cascante 1976 and Mr. Romulo Brazal