THE STORY of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate in the Philippines is one that tells of the Lord’s loving kindness. It is a story of surprising growth and development after much sacrifice and suffering. It all began with a certain Fr. Ulric Arcand, MEP (Foreign Mission Society of Paris) who providentially met the missionary bishop of Zamboanga, The Most Rev. Luis del Rosario, S. J.
Their conversation got around to the ever growing need for priests in Mindanao. From the time he had been installed as Bishop of Zamboanga on June 4, 1933, he had worked ceaselessly to get missionary congregations to come to his aid. Fr. Arcand thought he had the answer to the bishop’s problem. He told the bishop of a Missionary congregation, the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, and its vast mission in Canada. Fr. Arc and had known the Oblates as specialists in pioneering works, especially under trying conditions in Mindanao. On March 14, 1939, an official invitation was made by the Holy See asking the Oblates to accept the mission in Cotabato and Sulu. And on the 25th of the same month, the congregation answered in the affirmative. A new mission began to unfold…
The Superior General chose Fr. Gerard Mongeau, OMI, a French-Canadian, to be the superior of the new mission. At the time of his appointment to this new post, he was the superior of the De Mazenod Scholasticate in San Antonio, Texas, U.S.A. Fr. General expressed confidence in the new superior to meet the challenge that would await him and his companions in this new mission. Fr. Mongeau began his recruitment work by giving conferences to scholastics and novices and to other Oblate groups in order to arouse as much interest as possible in the Philippine mission. He spoke about the need and the attractions of Cotabato and Sulu. Then there was the great news that three Oblates from the Franco-American Province, Frs. Emile Bolduc, Egide Beaudoin, and George Dion, and three from the first American Province, Frs. Joseph Boyd, Cuthbert Billman and Francis McSorley, would join the team to pioneer in the mission.
THE EMPIRE PROVINCE of Cotabato located in the southern part of Mindanao is the largest province in the Philippines. It is approximately the size of Belgium. On a predominantly Christian country, Cotabato and Sulu are the exceptions. The two civil provinces have been recognized as Muslim provinces. The climate is generally characterized by slightly pronounced wet season from May to November. Another notable characteristic is the high relative frequency of very cloudy or overcast days. Farming, fishing, and forest production are the major occupations.
Cotabato is very rich for farming, particularly the basic crops of rice and corn. The province is called the rice granary of the Philippines. This is one of the reasons why Mindanao, particularly Cotabato, is known throughout the country as the “Land of Promise”. Sulu archipelago located in the southernmost tip of Mindanao remains a predominantly Muslim territory. Sulu and Tawi-Tawi are very exotic provinces. Jolo is the busiest and the largest island in the archipelago.
Before the advent of Catholicism and Spanish colonization of the Philippines in the 16th century, Islam had already gained a strong foothold in the southern parts of Mindanao. The early stages of Islamization in Sulu, Cotabato and Lanao are propounded as having followed a pattern similar to those in Southeast Asia. As early as the 16th century, the Spanish expeditions mainly manned by Christianized Filipinos from Luzon and the Visayas were sent to Muslim south in order to establish sovereignty all throughout the Archipelago of the Philippines. The Moros of the South resisted all these Spanish expeditions to preserve their independence and to protect their Islamic heritage and culture.
During the establishment of Spanish fortifications in Cotabato and Jolo, the Spanish Jesuits managed to build Catholic missions, for the first time, in Moro land. This was the beginning of the Christian community in Jolo and Cotabato. When the first group of Oblate Fathers arrived in Cotabato and Sulu, they found two or three Jesuits in the mission field in 1939. As described by Fr. Francis Hullweg in a report to Fr. General in 1939:
“Sulu Province… Those islands are the real home of the Moros. In the whole province are about 5,000 Catholics, mostly of the island of Jolo. According to the old census the population was 250,000.”
“Cotabato… In this province, the Philippine government is encouraging immigration. About 600 to 800 immigrants are arriving every week from other islands. The population, it is estimated, has increased to over 300,000. Of these, approximately 100,000 are Moros, 100,000, pagans, and 100,000, Catholics…”
The first group composed of Frs. Mongeau, Beaudin, Bolduc and Dion landed in Manila on September 25, 1939. By a happy coincidence, it was Fr. Dion’s 28th birthday.
The second group made up of Frs. Boyd, Billman and McSorley. They arrived in the Philippines on October 26, the same year. When the provisions for the new missions was bought, Frs. Mongeau and Beaudoin, and of course Fr. Arcand set out on the final leg of their missionary journey to Jolo and Cotabato.
The first batch of OMI missionaries first landed in Zamboanga. Bishop Luis del Rosario was there to welcome them. The next stop in the missionary journey was Jolo. Bishop del Rosario, S. J. installed Fr. Bolduc as Pastor. This event is significant, because Fr. Bolduc was the first Oblate Parish Priest in the country, and of course, first in the new Oblate missions. Fr. Dion who was to follow later was appointed assistant pastor and Fr. Billman was given a wandering assignment, traveling around the islands in the Sulu Archipelago ministering to the handful of Christians who were to be found there. Frs. Mongeau, Boyd, McSorley and Beaudoin were to belong to the community in Cotabato. Fr. Mongeau, the superior, assumed the role of Pastor in the town of Cotabato, while Fr. Boyd was to take care of the settlements along the southwestern coast of the province. Fr. McSorley was to cover the entire Koronadal Valley area where he would work mainly with the new settlers who were pouring in there by the hundreds every week. Fr. Beaudoin was to devote his attention to the needs of the people in and around Midsayap as far as Kidapawan.
In the next few years, that is, till World War II broke out in December 1941, eleven other missionaries were received from the U.S. In 1940, Frs. Baynes, Gordon, Laquerre, Quinn, Sheehan, Drone and Bro. Braun came to beef up the original seven pioneers. Then in 1941, Frs. Burke, McMahon, Sullivan and Clancy arrived in the Philippines in spite of the war clouds beginning to build up on the horizons.
The increase in manpower allowed a bit more permanence to be established in Cotabato and Sulu. The OMI apostolate in the Philippines began to unfold...