BOCAUE, Bulacan — Many people call it a “Korean temple” — an unmistakable ripple in a country swept by the waves of Korean pop music and television drama.
Tucked in a small barrio at the end of narrow alleys, across a patch of pond and sprawling greeneries, the towering pagoda-style structures are reminiscent of East Asian temples.
But the place is in fact a sacred shrine that once held the steps of a young man whose violent death would lay the foundation for Catholicism’s rise in Korea.
“Karamihan sa ating mga Pilipino, partikular dito sa Bulacan, ay hindi natin kilala si Saint Andrew Kim. At hindi natin alam na meron palang banal, talagang banal na nanuluyan sa ating lalawigan ng Bulacan, dito sa atin sa Bocaue,” said Filipino nun Sr. Rocel Peralta.
(Many Filipinos particularly here in Bulacan do not know Saint Andrew Kim. They are not aware that there was a holy man who stayed here in our province, here in this town of Bocaue.)
Sr. Rocel is a member of the Sisters of Saint Andrew Kim and it is now part of their mission to correct misconceptions about the place and to propagate devotion to the Korean saint.
Andrew Kim Taegon was only 16 when he arrived in the Philippines in the 19th century. Beheaded by the Joseon dynasty which outlawed Catholicism, he would rise to become the first Korean-born Catholic priest and South Korea’s patron saint.
A nobleman born in a family of Catholic converts, Andrew Kim decided to become a priest in a time of bloody persecution against Catholics.
When the missionaries arrived in Korea, they were surprised at the presence of a hidden Catholic community that thrived despite the absence of priests.
The missionaries then chose Korean men to study for the priesthood, including Andrew Kim and his companion Thomas Choe Yang-eop.
In search of a place to conduct their priestly studies, the group traveled to China, including Macau, and eventually, to Manila.
“So when they arrived in the Philippines, they were helped by the Dominican fathers in Manila,” Sr. Rocel said.
“Sa Maynila medyo nahirapan sila doon — medyo maingay, nahirapan sila sa pagkain, lalo't higit sa pakikitungo. So ang ginawa ng paring Dominicano sila ay inimbitahan na baka gusto ninyong lumipat sa aming kumbento sa Hacienda de Lolomboy.”
(They struggled a bit in Manila — it was a bit noisy, the food did not suit them, and dealing with many people also became a challenge. So the Dominican priests invited them to Hacienda de Lolomboy.)
Around 27 kilometers north of the capital Manila, the place is now a humble barrio still bearing the same name. The surrounding waters of the town of Bocaue where the place is located was a reminder of how Andrew Kim and his companions arrived aboard a galleon.
UNDER THE MANGO TREE
If the surviving letters of Andrew Kim and his companions were to be considered, the saint must have fallen in love with Lolomboy.
An intellectual who spoke several languages including Latin, French, Spanish, English, and Mandarin, he traveled to various countries, including as an interpreter to a French admiral. But he stayed thrice in Lolomboy — in 1837, 1839, and 1841.
In one of his letters, Andrew Kim described the area as a peaceful place conducive to study and meditation.
“Dito sa ating lugar ay maraming mangga at kawayan at sabi nung kanyang formator na pari, si Saint Andrew Kim daw ay nandun palagi sa ilalim ng puno ng mangga na iyon. Doon sya lagi nag-aaral at nagdadasal,” Sr. Rocel said.
(Here in our town, there were many mango and bamboo trees and his formator said Saint Andrew Kim spent a lot of time under the shade of a mango tree. He often studied and prayed there.)
The saint’s formator wrote in a letter originally in Latin: “Although we were quite well in Manila, we are still much better here. We are alone, no one disturbs us, and we do not interfere with anyone. We study as much as we want.”
But it was also in Lolomboy where Andrew Kim learned of horrific news that made him weep bitterly under the same mango tree that became his refuge.
“Isang araw siya ay iyak nang iyak dahil dito niya sa Lolomboy natanggap ang isang sulat na nagsasabi ng impormasyon na ang kanyang amang si Saint Ignatius Kim ay napugutan na ng ulo,” Sr. Rocel said.
[One day he wept his heart out. It was in Lolomboy where he received a letter informing him that his father Saint Ignatius Kim was beheaded.]
Aware that the same fate could befall him, Andrew Kim continued his vocation until his ordination as a priest in Shanghai, China in 1845. He returned to Korea determined to fulfill his priestly ministry only to be arrested, detained, and tortured. He was beheaded near Han River at the age of 25 — barely a year since he fulfilled his dream of becoming a Catholic priest.
“Nung tino-torture si Saint Andrew Kim ang laging tanong sa kanya, ‘Ikaw ba ay Katoliko?’ Sasabihin ni Saint Andrew Kim, ‘Oo, ako ay Katoliko!’ To-torturin na naman siya,” Sr. Rocel said, citing surviving documents pertaining to the saint.
“Hanggang sa huli, bago pa rin siya pugutan ng ulo, ‘yun pa rin ang tanong sa kanya. Are you a Catholic? Ikaw ba ay Katoliko? Ang sagot ni Saint Andrew Kim, ‘oo, ako ay Katoliko.”
(When he was being tortured, Saint Andrew Kim was repeatedly asked, ‘Are you a Catholic?’ Multiple times, he answered ‘yes.’ Until the end, until he was beheaded, he stood firm with his answer: ‘yes, I am a Catholic.’]
The mango tree that charmed the Korean saint did not survive, but its trunk became an altar where his statue now stood. Around it sprang chapels, a museum, and other structures honoring his martyrdom.
His companion, Thomas Choe Yang-eop, is still on his way to sainthood. He only stayed in Lolomboy for less than a month and continued his studies for the priesthood in Macau. After grieving the death of Andrew Kim, he continued ministering to Korean Catholics until he died of typhoid in 1861 at the age of 40.
In modern South Korea, Catholics remain a minority, but a 2020 report from the Vatican showed that the Catholic population gew by 50 percent in 20 years. Among thousands of Koreans who were killed during the periods of persecution, hundreds were already canonized and beatified. The latest was during Pope Francis’s visit in 2015, when he beatified over a hundred martyrs who died for the Catholic faith in the 18th and 19th centuries.
FOLLOWING ANDREW KIM’S STEPS
Growing up in Lolomboy, Sr. Rocel as a child did not understand the significance of their humble barrio to the throngs of foreign people that flocked to the shrine. Built in 1986 two years after Andrew Kim was raised to the altars of the saints by John Paul II, the future nun watched as the shrine developed through the years.
“Nakita ko kung paano umusbong itong lugar na ito noong bata pa ako na ito ay nagiging shrine. Hindi ko maintindihan, nakatingin ako sa bintana, ‘nay, bakit maraming bus, maraming tourist bus… nay, bakit ganun maraming foreigner,” the nun said.
(Since I was a child, I witnessed how this place blossomed into the shrine that it is now. I did not understand then, I was looking from our window, asking my mother why there were many buses and foreign tourists.)
Sr. Rocel recognized early her calling and became a Dominican nun. But a personal difficulty made her decide to walk away and leave her congregation.
Just as she was pursuing a career outside the nunnery, she started tutoring the Koreans who were staying in the shrine.
“’Yung aking mga day off ay nagsisilbi akong tutor nila sa English at Tagalog,” she explained.
“Alam ko na 'yung bokasyon ko ay parang isang binhi lang ‘yan na patuloy mong dinidiligan. Datapwa’t ako ay mayroong career ay kumbaga sa iyong first love meron kang hindi nalilimutan na alam mong meron ka pang dapat gampanan.”
(During days I am not working, I tutored the Koreans here in English and Tagalog. I knew that my vocation was like a seed that you continuously watered. Although I had a career, it was like a first love that you could not forget, knowing that you still have unfinished business.)
And so for the second time, at the age of 49, Sr. Rocel responded to God’s call, just like the saint who once walked the hallowed ground of her hometown.
“Kung hindi ko panghahawakan ito magiging parang walang saysay lang 'yung buhay na aking ginagampanan araw-araw. Halimbawa mabubuhay lang ako na isang madre lang na ayon lang sa aking abito pero hindi nananalaytay sa akin 'yung turo ng Panginoon na binigyan ng isang malaking halimbawa ni Saint Andrew Kim… Kung hindi mo nakita 'yung malalim na pagtugon ng pag-ibig at pagmimisyon, balewala lahat,” she said.
(If I will not hold on to this faith, then there wouldn’t be any reason for living. For example, as a nun, I would be living just for the sake of living according to my religious habit and the teachings of the Lord will be absent in me. Saint Andrew Kim showed a good example... if you don’t genuinely respond to love and mission, everything becomes pointless.)
Sr. Rocel is the only Filipino in the entire congregation of Sisters of Saint Andrew Kim, which is based in South Korea.
“Sinabi nung cardinal doon (sa Korea) na baka gusto ninyong alagaan at kupkupin ang Hacienda de Lolomboy o ‘yung Lolomboy na Shrine of Saint Andrew Kim para ito ay ganap na maging maayos at inyong maging kumbento. Kaya noong 2002 nagsimula na ang aming congregation na iayos ang lugar na ito,” she said.
(The Korean cardinal asked us to take care of the Shrine of Saint Andrew Kim here in Lolomboy so that it may become our convent. So in 2002 the work of our congregation started here.)
As custodians of the shrine designed by a Korean architect, Sr. Rocel and a small number of Korean nuns work hard to maintain the prayerful atmosphere that the Korean martyr once breathed.
“Ang mga nagpupunta dito ay hindi lang mga Koreanong Katoliko… Ang contribution na binigay ni Saint Andrew Kim, his legacy in their country, ay hindi lang pang-espiritwal o pangrelihiyon,” Sr. Rocel said.
(Those who visit here are not only Korean Catholics. The contribution of Saint Andrew Kim, his legacy in their country, is spiritual or religious.)
“According to the Korean embassy, they consider this place as the second reason why Korean-Philippine friendship is existing. The first one is when the Philippines sent soldiers during the Korean war. The second one ay yung pagkupkop natin kay Andrew Kim at kay Venerable Thomas Choe Yang-eop.”
(The second one is our sheltering of Andrew Kim and Venerable Thomas Choe Yang-eop.)
The swishing hanbok and the occasional flashes of cameras from the mostly young people trooping the shrine for photoshoots might be a stark contrast to what the place stands for.
But for Sr. Rocel, it isn't a problem.
Amid the glowing spotlight centered upon scream-inducing Korean idols and actors, Sr. Rocel hopes to find a sliver of space to introduce an “oppa” worthy of emulation.
“Actually, wala tayong itatapon sa kilos ng Banal na Espiritu,” she said.
“Pupunta dito karamihan meron pang dalang mga hanbok magpo-photoshoot… so ‘yun na ‘yung pagkakataon mo. Wala kang itatapon, you grab the opportunity to also catechize them. Turuan mo sila na ‘o, after ninyo po mag-picture daan po kayo sa chapel para po bigyan ng oras ang panalangin na sana sa lugar na ito ay you have a special encounter with God.”
(We consider every move of the Holy Spirit. Many people would go here to have photoshoots while wearing hanbok. We take it as an opportunity to catechize them. After taking photos, we would invite them to visit the chapel and spend a moment of prayer, hoping that they will have a special encounter with God in this place.)
Walking around the shrine, Sr. Rocel would often speak to visitors — students, couples, and even families — enthralled by the majestic features of the place yet oblivious to the story of the saint who found refuge there.
One by one, she introduces them to Andrew Kim, the holy life he led, and the significance of his death in Christendom.
“Nagpapasalamat pa nga ako kasi dahil maraming trending ngayon sa K-pop, K-drama, once they arrive here at nagsasabi ako tungkol sa history, especially about the Joseon dynasty, about how they were persecuted during that time, ano itsura nung bahay, pananamit ng mga Korean na nakikita nila sa Korean drama, ang blis nilang naka-capture,” she said.
(I am thankful for the popularity of K-pop and K-drama. Whenever the visitors would arrive here and I would tell them about history, especially of the Joseon dynasty about the persecution at that time, they easily recognize the houses and the dresses because they are already familiar with the K-dramas they watched.)
But unlike the blaring fanchants often accorded to modern-day idols, Sr. Rocel hopes the quiet yet formidable faith of a martyred young man who once relished her simple barrio would inspire more young people the way he did for her.
“’Yung mga kabataan natin ngayon ay very dynamic, very courageous. Ganun din si Saint Andrew Kim. Matapang din siya pero alam niya ‘yung pinaghuhugutan niya ng tapang. Alam niya kung saan papupuntahan ‘yung pagsisilbi ng kanyang tapang,” she said.
“Ganun din siguro sa ating mga kabataan, sa mga kapwa natin Pilipino. Meron tayong tapang pero merong dahilan 'yung pagiging matapang na ‘yun. May patutungkulan 'yung pagiging matapang na ‘yun. May pagsisilbihan 'yung pagiging matapang natin.”
(Today’s youth are very dynamic, very courageous. That’s how Saint Andrew Kim was. He was courageous but he knew the source of his courage. He knew the purpose of such courage. The same goes for our youth and our fellow Filipinos. We have this courage, but that courage must have a purpose. Such courage must be for something, a courage that serves others.)