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Fr John found himself at home in the Philippines

Earlier this year, Mill Hill Missionary, Fr John Doran, spoke with Missio Scotland’s Communications Officer, Gerard Gough, in depth about his life and time spent on mission. Continuing on the latter theme, Fr John talks to us a little more about his time in the Philippines.

FIVE of Fr John Doran’s seven years in the Philippines were spent on a small coral island called Semirara, which—when he arrived there—had a population of 3000 and was located in the central west region of the country. On a world map it appears as three dots between the islands of Panay, Mindoro and Palawan.

Like every mission, Fr John explained that it was both ‘challenging and amazing’ and that within a short space of time there, he began to feel at home. However, due to his relatively young age—he was 28—both he and indeed his superior felt it might be more on the challenging side.

“The Mill Hill Missionaries’ Superior told me: ‘You’re too young for this, but we have nobody else. Go for three months and then come back and let us know if you can stick it.’” Fr John recalled. “I can remember replying: ‘If you send me, I will stay and the only way I’d come back is in a coffin.’ But he insisted that I should only make my decision after the initial three months, which I did.”

Although every mission brings with it its own challenges, Fr John was fortunate, in a sense, that he would be travelling to a country that had a rich Catholic history.

“Most people were Catholics, the old Spanish missionaries having planted the faith years before,” Fr John explained. “Holy Week involved everyone, and liturgies were bursting with life and drama.

“The Philippines were discovered by Ferdinand Magellan in 1520 for Spain and was later named after King Philip II of Spain—he of Armada fame! It is still over 80 per cent Catholic. Five per cent are Muslim—as a result of the Malacca Sultanate—five per cent are native religious and five per cent are Protestant.

“Empires come and go. Two Hindu trading empires from India and Indochina left their mark, as did the Ming and Sung dynasties of China. The Spanish stayed for 300 years until they were forced out. The Americans quickly followed in 1900 and then the Japanese invaded during World War II. Their cruel four years in charge led to the deaths of 12 Mill Hill Missionaries—six at the hands of the Japanese themselves and six at the hands of Filipinos.

“Mill Hill Missionaries had arrived in the country in 1907 to fill the gap left by the Spanish priests who were expelled by the Americans.”

Fr John stated that ‘in some ways, it was what I’d imagine living in the 16th century to be like,’ as he landed in the country in the 1970s. He became the third resident priest there after Fr Zomeralijk (Dutch) and Fr Daberto (Tyrolese), both of whom were Mill Hill Missionaries like him.

“Back then, there were no roads, no running water, no electricity and no phones of any kind,” he said. “There were no real shops, no market, no hospital, no doctor or dentist. A district nurse was resident for roughly six months a year. That was it.

“We had a little cash, but there was little to buy. We had a goat, a few chickens and started a piggery with six sows and a boar. We had a few banana trees and coconut trees too. Our sandy soil only provided us with peanuts, cucumber and radishes. We made our own bread.

“Added to all that was the fact that there was bad blood between two leading families on my island—one of Spanish descent and one of Chinese descent—and they were all my parishioners!”

As the son of a docker and being from Merseyside, it’s hardly surprising that one of the many things Fr John could come to enjoy while in the Philippines, was being able to use his own parish boat to visit parishioners on the islands.

“For three of my five years on the island, I had a boat called MV Stella Maris, which was decorated with an anchor and a star,” he said. “It was some 29 feet and nine inches long, with a 10-horsepower engine, outriggers and a crew of three. My helmsman, Suelo, was the master, another Filipino, Jun, was the engineer and I was GDB—general dogsbody as we’d say back in Liverpool!

“The Stella Maris was sea-going and, despite its small size, was remarkably sea-worthy and reliable. We could take two or even three passengers in heavy weather and up to six (plus the three crew) in calmer weather.”

Despite being far from home, like all missionary priests and religious, not only did Fr John make friends in his new home, but he also received assistance from far and wide too—including the US, UK and Ireland—and speaks highly of these lay missionaries who spent time with him.

“As the American saying goes: ‘God is a good guy, if He can’t come Himself, he will send someone.’ And he certainly sent people to me—two US Peace Corps members, Glen from Michigan and Jerry from North Carolina. Fr John Ambrose MHM—a veteran Irish missionary—joined me for six months too.

“Tom O’Neill from Clydebank—who was a fitter, a fireman and generally a man of many talents—came out for two years to share life with us. Tom put in electricity and we found water and sunk two wells, one for us and one for our garden. We built a sea wall of boulders as well.

“If two people are living alone on a desert island for two years they end up either becoming best friends or trying to kill each other! Mercifully, Tom and I are still friends with one another some 43 years later!”

While a missionary’s aim is multi-faceted and varied, bringing the faith to people, growing the faith and leaving a legacy of faith are perhaps their key duties. While the faith was present in the Philippines, there is no doubt that the Mill Hill Missionaries have managed to spread the faith throughout the country and leave their mark on the Church there.

“I was followed by other Mill Hill Missionaries including: Fr Cas Rietbergen from the Netherlands and Fr Max Pereira from India/UK, Brother Duncan from the UK and others,” Fr John said. “Our Bishop, Cornelio de Wit, was a Mill Hill Father and became our Superior General in 1982.

“Mill Hill now has local missionaries working in the Philippines. One of them, Fr Rex, is the nephew of the Mayor of Caluya. Caluya and the Semirara Islands are looked after by the priests of the Diocese of St José in the Antique province. There are now plenty of local vocations, including the first priest and first sister from the island!”

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