|present page: Theotokos Parish Church and Monastery
"For everyone who asks receives,
and he who seeks finds,
and to him who knocks it will be opened."
Pilgrimage at the Theotokos Monastery|
in Cataiņgan, Masbate (April 1999)
by the Very Revd. George Vladimirou
(at that time Chancellor of the Metropolis of Hong Kong and SE Asia,
now Metropolitan of Zimbabwe, Africa).
It was a great blessing for me when His Eminence asked me to accompany him on his trip to the Philippines to visit Manila and to meet with Cardinal Sin regarding His All Holiness the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew's trip in March 2000.
We also visited the Theotokos Monastery in Cataiņgan. I was so happy as I knew Fr. Vincentius and the nuns through the mission magazines I had read in the early 90's. Now it was God's will to allow me to go and visit them in person. After a successful meeting with the Cardinal, we left the next morning very early (5 am) for Masbate. The flight was short, however the plane was very small and there was no air-conditioning. So by the time we reached Masbate, we were soaking wet.
Masbate is an island in the south part of the Philippines, close to the tourist-frequented island of Cebu. Masbate is called the capital of the islands. It is a beautiful place where you see virgin nature full of cocoa, coconut, mango, papaya and many other kinds of trees. The airport terminal building is just two rooms: one for departures and one for arrivals. We were welcomed by Father Vincentius and Mother Theodoti. The excitement of the warm welcome was spoiled when we were not able to find one of our suitcases containing the liturgical items and the gifts for our brothers and sisters there. After a long discussion with the airline staff, we found out that the suitcase was left at the Manila airport because it was too heavy and there was not enough space on the plane to load it. We explained to them that we needed it as soon as possible but because there is only one flight to Masbate daily, nothing could be done till the next morning. They promised that they would do their best to deliver it then. We were not as worried about our personal belongings as we were about the gifts. Although I knew that I would not have any clothes to change into and I was already uncomfortable from sweating, I was still excited having met Mother Theodoti and Father Vincentius and being on Masbate.
The visit of His Eminence Metropolitan Nikitas was an historic event as he was the first Orthodox Bishop who ever visited the Orthodox community there. Not one Bishop had visited there before. Not even an Orthodox priest had ever visited them since they established the Orthodox Church in Masbate. We started our visit with a breakfast hosted in the home of a teacher who supports the Monastery, although she is a Catholic. Everybody in her family was very nice to us, and they did their best to offer us warm hospitality and made us feel at home. Then we visited the Catholic Bishop of Masbate. The young Bishop Baylon greeted us warmly, and we spent some time there before driving on Cataiņgan.
The road was paved recently so it took us only two hours to drive there. Before, the drive took four hours under very bad conditions. Most of the way was by the seaside. The beauty of the nature was something fantastic. A tropical island with no tourists at all and not spoiled by western influence. Everybody greeted us with the characteristic warm Filipino smile. Suddenly the rain started. In just a few minutes, the whole place was soaking wet. Finally we made it to our first stop, a small village a few miles before Cataiņgan. There some 20 Orthodox faithful waited for us. Everyone was so excited as it was the first time in their life that they were seeing an Orthodox Bishop. In that village, we visited an old woman who was 95 years old. She wanted to see an Orthodox Bishop before she dies. She was not able to speak because of her emotion. Metropolitan Nikitas blessed her and we continued our way to Cataiņgan.
By the time we reached the temporary Church (the permanent one was destroyed last year by the "El Niņo" weather phenomenon), we were welcomed by more than 100 faithful waiting for us with flowers and leis made with jasmine and orchids. Everybody wanted to receive a blessing from the Bishop. Many people came to me as well. The order of our Church says that in a Bishop's presence the priest never blesses. However, we did not follow this tradition, as everybody wanted to receive my blessing as well. We entered the little church, and the people sang the Doxology in "Greek". It was unbelievable. The melody was so sweet. Everybody was singing, even the children. After the Doxology they sang the National Anthem of Philippines, and the Bishop spoke to them. Everybody was so happy. Many times they had been mocked by the local people that their faith is imaginary as nobody ever went there to support them.
The Orthodox Church was established in Cataiņgan through the spiritual strength of Father Vincentius, who used to be a Catholic priest. He found out through books about Orthodox Church and learned more by correspondence. Father Vincentius met the Bishop of New Zealand and was ordained an Orthodox priest some 10 years ago. He spread the word about Orthodoxy in the community, and the church has grown to almost 300 members.
After the Church service, the nuns offered us a light lunch of local cuisine. Sister Agnes was in charge of the kitchen and she prepared delicious food. In the meantime, sisters Fidelis and Esther offered us the well-known Orthodox and Filipino hospitality. After the lunch, Metropolitan Nikitas had a meeting with Father Vincentius. I spend some time with Mother Theodoti and Sister Fidelis, talking about the history of the Church there and the needs of the convent. Then Larry, an Orthodox young boy who acts as an acolyte in the church and helps the nuns and Father Vincentius, sang some songs for us with the accompaniment of a guitar. Later on, Sister Esther who has a beautiful voice joined us and she also sang a couple of Christian songs. It is amazing how beautiful the voices of the Filipino people are.
The sun soon set. Although electricity exists there, it only works during the day - sometimes. At night, there is always a blackout. So we were surrounded by darkness. There was a local feast in town. However, you could not see anything, as there was darkness everywhere. Before we went to bed, we read the Apodipnon (evening prayer) under the light of the moon. We praised God for the great blessing He gave us by our being there.
As my little room was by the side of the convent, I was awakened very early (2.30am) by the voices of the nuns singing in their convent chapel the "Orthros" (Matins). The melody was so sweet and I stayed awake to listen to them. O God, how gracious you are! The Sisters found out that I am a cocoa 'nut' and they prepared a fresh cocoa drink for me in the morning. I told them that I was listening to their melodies all night and they became very shy. Mother Theodoti came back from the airport with good news. Poor Mother! She went back to Masbate once more. She left the convent at 3am and came back at 9am. They had found the suitcase. After we distributed the gifts we had brought for them, I rode on a "tricycle" (local mean of transport) and visited with Larry some local Orthodox faithful in order to inform them that the Metropolitan would be visiting them. They were so excited. The heavy rain started again. By the time the Bishop ended his visits, we were once again soaked through. Nobody enjoyed the feeling. However, we enjoyed so much the time that we spend with those people who had learned the Orthodox faith and tradition through books and the efforts of Father Vincentius and the nuns. We took many photos, as I wanted to have a picture with all these lovely people. Their houses are so simple but full of Christ's love and spirit.
Then we returned to the Monastery and visited the destroyed church, the little farm that the nuns look after and the area where they bake bread and some cakes. The old church was made with bamboo and the roof with palm leaves. That is why El Niņo had destroyed it. Father told us that for a long time the people attended the services there while they were holding umbrellas. They need more than US$20,000 to reconstruct the church with cement walls and ceiling. His Eminence promised them that he will raise the money as soon as possible. (The temporary Church is actually in the nun's small, one-room bakery that was recently constructed.)
In the little farm, the nuns have some chicken, pigs, birds and white pigeons. The pigeons are for sale as there is a tradition in the Philippines to give freedom to a pair of white doves during a wedding ceremony. The people prefer to buy the doves from the monastery as they feel that they are more blessed. They also bake and sell bread and cakes. Their products have a good reputation in the local area.
As my sister-in-law in Cyprus was ready to give birth to a new baby, I wanted to call my family to find out how things were going. There is only one telephone in town, and it is very difficult to get an overseas line, as you have to go through the operator in Manila. So Mother Theodoti drove me on a dirt road to a place 20 km away in order to reach a place where I could use a cellular phone. On our way, a heavy rain made our effort more difficult. The landscape once again was extremely beautiful. It was just us, nature surrounding us and God, God the creator of all things. Finally we arrived at our destination and I made my call to my family to hear the good news: My sister-in-law had given birth to a healthy girl.
At 5 pm, the Divine Liturgy in honor of St. George began. I was not able to reach the church in time because of the heavy rain. However, when I arrived I saw that the church was full of faithful who came to attend the first Hierarchical Liturgy in Masbate: children, young people, adults and elderly. All together with one voice they were singing the Great Doxology in Greek and then the rest of the Liturgy in Cebuano (the local dialect) and English as well. The Metropolitan and I were very moved emotionally. Nobody talked during the service. The whole congregation was focused in chanting and praying. Nobody sat during the Divine Liturgy. Every single person received Holy Communion.
After the Divine Liturgy, the people organized in the kindergarten hall a reception in honor of the Metropolitan's visit and my patron Saint's Day. Everybody prepared food and they set up three large tables full of all kinds of delicious local food. The dinner was followed by a fiesta organized by the community and the kindergarten school. The school is run by the nuns who educate more than 50 children. We were welcomed by the president of the community, then they all together sang a welcome song and the children gave their own presentations. Everything was so beautifully organized and their love and faith permeated the surroundings. The feast ended with the speech of His Eminence and the national anthem of Philippines.
In his speech, Metropolitan Nikitas promised that we will visit again the community soon; that he will send a young teacher to spent a couple of weeks with them; that he will cover the expenses of the priest and the nuns to travel to Manila for the visit of the Ecumenical Patriarch. He also promised that he will do anything possible to support them in any way. It was a fabulous and a very emotional evening. It is tremendous what Father Vincentius and the nuns have succeeded in doing these past few years and how they managed to establish and make the community grow. A community filled with simple and faithful people. My heart was full of various feelings.
The next morning, I was so sad that we had to leave this place. The nuns were up very early to say good bye and to ask us to visit them again and not to forget them. How can we forget these people? They are already in our hearts. By the time we said goodbye to everybody at the airport, I felt as if I was leaving Paradise. I was very sad. I wanted to stay there. On the small island of Masbate where the Orthodox Church has its presence under the spiritual guidance of Father Vincentius and the support of Mother Theodoti and sisters Fidelis, Esther and Agnes and the faithful of so many local brothers and sisters, we had witnessed 'living Orthodoxy'. I thanked our Metropolitan for taking me with him on this pilgrimage, and I thanked our good God not only for that blessing that he gave me but for His Greatness, His forethought and His philanthropy. I have visited many mission areas, however, the experience that I had in Cataiņgan was unique, tremendous and unforgettable! "Who is so great a God as our God? Thou art God who doest wonders".
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