Yolanda victims lean on faith to move on

Story by Arlene Burgos and photos by Fernando G. Sepe Jr., ABS-CBNnews.com

Posted at Nov 07 2014 05:17 PM | Updated as of Nov 08 2018 12:02 AM

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Residents join a procession in remembrance of their loved ones who perished during super typhoon Yolanda.

TACLOBAN, LEYTE – One said he took fuel from parked vehicles in car shops to fill up a motorcycle’s gas tank to drive away. Another listed down distant relatives as residents of a neighboring barangay to collect relief funds.

But they mention these acts that may have been unacceptable under normal circumstances in the same breath they explain how their faith in God helped them cope with typhoon Yolanda last year.

In areas like Palo in Leyte, Tacloban City and Basey in Samar, which were among those inundated when the strongest typhoon to make landfall hit, people did what they had to do to survive.

A year later, parishes are reporting a spike in numbers of church-goers in these mostly Catholic provinces. When asked, church-goers say they do not understand why the Yolanda tragedy happened. They just continue to believe in God, and even more strongly now.

The church as ‘hub’

In San Joaquin, a village badly hit by Yolanda in Leyte’s municipality of Palo, people have been coming in droves to the small church, said barangay chairman Papoose Lantajo.

The San Joaquin parish has been functioning as a community hub since Yolanda. Its damaged hall was a meeting place for residents. Evacuees sat and slept on its broken pews. Its yard is a burial ground with 371 plots for the hundreds who perished from the typhoon.

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Relatives honor their departed loved in a mass grave on the lawns of the San Joaquin Church.

At least a thousand died in Palo, the highest for all of Leyte’s 42 municipalities, the Leyte province said in its recovery plan submitted to the Office of the Presidential Assistant on Rehabilitation and Recovery (OPARR). For all of Leyte, there were 4,744 who died.

“Lahat kami rito na may casualty, lagi kaming nag-uusap sa simbahan. Lagi kaming nagde-decide as a community,” Lantajo said.

The 48-year-old community leader and his Palo compatriots had to dig through the debris left by Yolanda in search of their loved ones.

He was able to retrieve the body of his 77-year-old father after four days, and only after they had fished out hundreds of other bodies.

“Unfair. Bakit ang tatay ko wala?” Lantajo recalls asking God. But his working relationship with the San Antonio parish helped him to quickly get back to his faith.

“Pagkatapos ng Yolanda, magagalit ka sa Kanya… Pero sino ang lalapitan ko? Ang mga tao, tinanggap ang nangyari… Ang mga dating hindi nagsisimba, nagsisimba na,” he said.

One of those from Palo, Leyte who momentarily questioned what happened was Lilia Olajay, a 77-year-old mother who lost her youngest daughter and 2-year-old grandson.

“Sabi ko, Lord, bakit Mo ako sineyb? Na-save mo ako, bakit ‘yung dalawang mahal ko sa buhay kinuha Mo? I was thankful na na-save ako and yet I complained. Hindi muna ako pumasok ng simbahan,” Olajay said. “Medyo lumayo ang loob ko. Pero humingi rin ako ng sorry.”

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A relative lights a candle at the memorial for typhoon Yolanda victims at the Palo Cathedral


In her loneliness due to the death of loved ones after Yolanda, Lantajo hung on to her faith. She went back to hearing Mass, visited and prayed for her deceased kin every day.

Many other people did this.

In Tacloban, 20-year-old student Ralph Dacatimbang said he has moved on from the tragedy, believing this is what his mother, who died after being swept away by water, would have wanted.

“Kailangan mag-struggle. Sabi ng Mama, lahat ng nangyayari may purpose,” he said.

He said it is important to pray fervently and solemnly. “Kung hindi mo iyon gawin, hindi ka maka-recover,” he said.

Tacloban “suffered the greatest damage to housing and settlements among all cities/ municipalities in the country with 30,513 totally damaged and 23,718 partially damaged houses, accounting for 5 percent of the total damaged houses at the national level,” it said in its recovery plan submitted to OPARR. In its tally for the first anniversary of Yolanda, it said it had 2,474 casualties.

The city, along with Palo, are expected to receive Pope Francis on January.

Major repair and renovation are being done on the Metropolitan Cathedral Archdiocese of Palo although there is no confirmation that the church is part of the Pope’s itinerary when he goes to Leyte.

Many church-goers in Palo and in smaller churches like San Joaquin are hoping they would at least get a glimpse of the Pope.

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The interior of the Palo Metropolitan Cathedral being rushed in time for the visit of Pope Francis in January.


People also gravitated toward the church in San Antonio, a village in Basey which, along with Marabut, is the worst-hit town of Samar. The province reported 245 deaths, 2,433 injured and 30 missing people in its recovery plan submitted to the OPARR.

“Nagpunta muna kami sa church… Naglinis muna… Paunti-unti, nagtulungan,” said Adeliza Bacasno, a 59-year-old teacher, about the San Antonio de Padua Mission Center in Basey.

The church was destroyed by Yolanda, along with nearly all houses in Basey. A week after the typhoon, people went to hear Mass on a torn-down church. A year later, people are halfway into rebuilding it, refurbishing it to fit a community plan hatched in 2004 to improve the church.

Al Ellema, a 46-year-old engineer who volunteered to design the church reconstruction, said the efforts to raise funds started in 2010. But priests, churches and other people as far as California, USA became aware of San Antonio’s situation after Yolanda hit.

Ellema admits the typhoon may have been a “blessing in disguise” for the community’s dream to have a better church.

“Naging mabilis ang response sa panawagan na tulungan ang simbahan,” he said.

Parishioners like Bacasno are happy; she said she has never even dreamed she would see this kind of improvement on their church.

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Catholic devotees sing in devotion during a mass at the San Joaquin Mission church in Basey, Samar.


It was not only the physical church of San Antonio that is fast rising from destruction. Father Rex Ibañez, who has been serving the Basey area since 2011, said he saw resurgence in people’s faith after Yolanda.

There are more church-goers immediately after the typhoon, and the number is growing even a year after.

“After Yolanda, nabuhayan ang mga tao… Kahit sino ka, may learning… This is the most powerful (thing to lean on),” Ibañez said.

The challenge for his parishioners is how to restore their lives and how to continue after the typhoon, he said. In this regard, people say they rely on their faith.

Shampoo Tabuac, a 39-year-old transgender woman, admits she is not an active church-goer. After Yolanda, she prayed more and started going to church more frequently.

“Parang second chance na namin. Nasabi ko nga, siguro, inano ng Diyos para lahat ng tao magbago. Baka may gusting baguhin sa akin,” Tabuac said.