One priest`s mountaintop mission
Updated: May 30, 2020
This is the real Philippines. It`s in places like this mountaintop village where people like the Rev. Carl Schmitz deal every day with problems that the politicians in Manila only talk about.
Problems like living with Communist rebels who roam the countryside, constantly looking for food and potential recruits.
Problems like scratching an existence from craggy land and then coping when someone, somehow, steals the rights to that land.
Problems like dealing with cattle rustlers, evil spirits, sick pigs and the occasional drunken soldier.
”At times, it`s enough to bring the most stout-hearted man to tears,”
says the Rev. Schmitz, better known in these parts simply as Father Carl.
”Sometimes I feel I know what`s going on,” he says, ”and other times I wonder.”
A native of Chicago`s Northwest Side, Father Carl is a member of the Congregation of the Passion, a Roman Catholic missionary order with one of its two principal United States headquarters in Chicago.
He has spent the past 14 years on Mindanao, the unofficial heart of both the Communist and Moslem rebellions in the Philippines.
Before that, he was in Japan for 21 years. And before that, China was his home after World War II.
For the past decade, Father Carl has lived in the tiny mountaintop village of Bulol, 1,000 miles from Manila and 30 miles from the nearest big city.
On a good day, in a good four-wheel-drive vehicle, it`s possible to ford all the swollen streams . . . bounce over all the boulders . . . and climb high enough into the bamboo-covered Roxas Mountains to pull right up to Father Carl`s door.
Most of the time, though, most folks just walk. Walking is a way of life up here in the mountains–so much so that no one figures distances in miles or kilometers. Distances are calculated in the time it takes to walk from one place to another. A nearby village, for example, is one-and-40 away: an hour and 40 minutes` uphill climb.
The only vehicles anywhere around are the lumbering old truck the Bulol village captain uses to haul in supplies every so often and the jeep and truck Father Carl keeps parked behind his cabin for his staff.
At 69, Father Carl figures he`s too old to drive much unless he has to. He`d rather spend eight or nine hours a day climbing up and down some of the steepest mountains in the Philippines.
”It`s not the going up that gets you,” says the priest. ”I can go up these hills all day long. It`s the coming down that gets you. It`s rough on the knees.”
Father Carl lives and works among the Bilaans, one of the country`s 130 cultural minorities, or Tribal Filipinos, as they prefer to be called.
There are about 80,000 Bilaans scattered in isolated communities across Mindanao. Their name comes from the word bila, which means ”friend.”
Historically, the Bilaans are animists, believers in spirits. They revere one supreme being called Mele, but they worship and pray for the good will of many spirits.
Their concept of a supreme being makes the Bilaans receptive to Christianity and the work of missionaries like Father Carl, who says he baptized about 800 children and converts in 1986.
But winning converts seems at times to be an offshoot of Father Carl`s real job–helping Bilaans cope with many of the problems that plague nearly every Filipino outside the big cities.
The New People`s Army is one of those problems. As many as half of the 18,000 to 23,000 Communist rebels in the Philippines are believed based in Mindanao. The rest are spread out in all but a dozen or so of the country`s 73 provinces.
”Any place we go, there is an NPA,” said Fe Cardino, one of Father Carl`s assistants. ”Our people have become the buffer between the military and the NPA. They`re always in danger.”
Late last year, Father Carl persuaded eight rebels–five men and three women–to surrender, and arranged amnesty for them with the military.
Recently he has been trying to track down another seven who he heard wanted to give up but were afraid. The military across the Philippines has a spotty human-rights record, with surrenderees and prisoners sometimes being tortured and killed.
Father Carl said relations with the military in his part of Mindanao have been good since he finally persuaded them he wasn`t aiding the rebels, even though he comes in contact with them regularly.
”We`re up in the isolated mountains and they (the rebels) are up in the isolated mountains,” he said. ”We`re bound to come in contact with each other. But the NPA are afraid of me. They`re afraid I`ll try to talk them into surrendering.”
The NPA may or may not be afraid of Father Carl, but most people in the countryside unquestionably fear the NPA.
”The men who help me are afraid to go into those areas, but if I go with them, they lose their fear,” Father Carl says. ”They tell me they respect and revere Almighty God, who they can`t see, and the American priest, who they can see.”
Father Carl recently talked six non-Communists into surrendering. They were members of a cattle-rustling gang being hunted by the military.
”Cattle rustling is a very big problem back here,” says Father Carl.
”Usually, the ones who do it are just being manipulated by unscrupulous masterminds who make all the money and take none of the risks. This gang was being hunted down like mad dogs, and the bishop asked me if we could get in and help them out.”
Another of the day-to-day problems the priest has to deal with is land-grabbing.
During the 20-year reign of former President Ferdinand E. Marcos, rich land barons were able to circumvent the law, move in fences, foreclose on mortgages and manipulate leases to grab much of the land owned by unlettered peasants such as the Bilaans.
Now, Father Carl spends much of his time trying to find land for the landless and recover small bits of swindled property. He tries to persuade tribes with too few people and too much land to share with their neighbors –putting into practice the sensitive land-reform issues that only seem to get talked about in government circles in Manila.
In Bulol, a tiny community of 3,058 villagers, Father Carl and his assistants run a mission school for 580 students in grades 1 through 6. Some of the students walk four miles a day each way to attend classes.
They learn in English and, when they are graduated, all but a few go ”down there” to high school in Marbel, the nearest town, at the foot of the mountains.
Cardino, Father Carl`s assistant, says most students have little trouble keeping up with the standard of education of the ”lowlanders,” and some mission school graduates return after high school to teach the next generation of Bilaans.
She says she doesn`t know how much it costs to educate each student.
”We work here, giving with the right hand and not knowing what the left hand is doing,” she says. ”Whatever money comes in we pour in, and when it runs out we pray, `Lord, send us some more.` ”
However, 300 students receive a steady income of $10 a month from the Christian Children`s Fund in Richmond, Va., and Cardino`s aides already are processing the paperwork for a few more sponsorships.
That money, by far, is the biggest cash inflow into Bulol, where villagers scrape by at subsistence level by making charcoal and raising corn, coffee, bananas, seasonal rice and a pig fodder called Ipil-Ipil for sale to the people ”Down Below.”
Geronimo Nelmida, village captain, says the average income probably is around $12 a month for a family of 10. That is low, but hardly surprising in a country where the average income nationwide is $60 a month and where 70 percent of the population lives in poverty. Nelmida was a longtime Marcos supporter who came to Bulol 34 years ago to set up the first mission school. A non-Bilaan with a high school education and a few months` study in a Manila seminary, he married a Bilaan woman and never left.
He watched the village change from the days when it was literally in the jungle to now, when he has to import sacks of cement to meet new and unexpected demands from his people. ”Because of changes in education, people have started wanting tombs to bury the dead,” he said. ”In the past, the bodies were just covered and taken away. Now we have to build a new road to the cemetery and new tombs for the bodies.”
Changes are visible, too, in the children who spend endless hours running around piles of corn kernels drying in the sun. Many of them speak English well, and the boys all have learned how to make corn-shooting bamboo pop guns they call ”Uzis” in honor of the Israeli firearms that command such respect in a country at war.
”Most of our people are just 30 years out of the jungle,” says Father Carl. ”You look at them, and they look like anyone else. But they call the shots.
”We`ve seen enough of ugly Americans. What we want to do is help them perpetuate themselves ethnically so they don`t go down the drain.”
After 10 years of work, does Father Carl think he`s accomplished that goal? ”I never really stopped to think what I`ve accomplished,” he says after a long pause. ”But I guess, by the grace of God, I`ve been able to help many, many people.
”That`s enough, I guess.”