Rising from the Ashes

By Fr John Keenan

The author is a Columban priest who celebrated the Golden Jubilee of his ordination to the priesthood last December and is from Ireland. Apart from some years working in Britain he has been in the Philippines since 1966.

Parola Compound, Tondo, Manila, is one of the largest shantytowns in the Philippines.  It is in the capital, Manila, on a long stretch of low-lying land between the Pasig River and the busy North Harbor Shipping Terminal.  It is the home to some 4,000 families.  On 2 March 2015 a fire, which started from an unattended flame, swept swiftly through the whole area devouring everything in its path.

Because the fire spread so rapidly the residents were lucky to escape with the clothes on their backs.  Amazingly, not one life was lost. Fire trucks could do little but hose water from outside since the shacks were haphazardly built with no proper streets; only narrow footpaths that zig-zagged between the houses. By the time the flames died and the smoke began to clear all the houses had been destroyed.

Fr Keenan distributing pandesal after Sunday Mass in Parola

As I made my way there soon after the fire I did not know what to expect or what to say. To my great surprise I was met by an enthusiastic community gathered in their burned-out chapel anxious to have Mass celebrated even though all that remained of the chapel, the altar, seats and statues, was a heap of cinders.   I have rarely taken part in such an impressive Eucharist.  The singing and joyful participation was truly uplifting. They were praising and thanking God that no lives had been lost. 

One of the people said, ‘As long as there is life there is hope and with God’s help all obstacles can be overcome in time. Even though we have lost everything, we are alive and that is what matters.’ To say something like that at a time like that certainly was a great act of faith.

After Sunday Mass in Parola, after the fire

Government agencies offered to relocate many of the families from the water’s edge to nearby provinces but because wages for laborers and tradesmen are low and the cost of travel expensive, many have preferred to stay in Parola, even though living conditions are terrible.

Waiting for Sunday Mass in Parola, after the fire

The shacks have been re-built and the narrow laneways are again full of activities. The voluntary labor of the Christian community members has partially restored their chapel and it remains a work in progress with the support of Fr Jeremiah Adviento, the parish priest.  The chapel has been re-roofed and as well as regular Sunday Mass, other activities such as meetings and catechesis take place.

Shantytown fires are not uncommon in the Philippines. Because of its size and destructiveness the one in Parola was a terrifying experience for those who had been forced to make their homes there. Economically they may be close to the bottom of the social ladder. But when it comes to resilience and faith in God and in each other they surely must be counted among those near the top.

You may email Fr Keenan at: johnakeenan@yahoo.com and find him on Facebook: John A. Keenan.

This video was made by Columban Fr Hector Suano, now based in Taiwan. He used to celebrate Sunday Mass in Parola.