Slain priest`s care missed by filipinos
When Rev. Carl Schmitz was shot to death five months ago, his obituary should have included the words ”Survived by 80,000 Bilaans.”
The Bilaans are one of 130 tribal minorities spread across the Philippines. Their name comes from the word bila, which means friend.
For the last 15 of his 70 years, Father Carl, as he was known, lived and worked among the Bilaans as a Roman Catholic missionary.
Last April 7, he was shot to death by Saguin Munday, a 27-year-old Bilaan who had known Father Carl most of his life. The priest had helped put Munday through school. He helped put Munday`s wife, Sarah, through school. And he married the couple in 1980.
Munday, who claims he killed the priest in a fit of rage, is standing trial for murder in a tiny provincial courtroom on Mindanao Island, 1,000 miles south of Manila. His case was recessed for a month last week and several other delays already scheduled could postpone a verdict until next year.
While the legal case plods along, many in the Bilaan community are physically hurting because of the death of the priest from Chicago`s Northwest Side.
”He had a big helping hand for all those years,” said Melba Jambangan, principal of Father Carl`s mission school in Bulol. ”He provided us education. He helped us with foods and medicines.
”Who else could have granted us such a beautiful opportunity?”
On the witness stand during the trial last week, Jambangan broke into tears when Munday`s defense attorney questioned her about her feelings toward Father Carl and the mission school.
She said she earned a little less than $70 as principal and admitted that she had trouble feeding her five children on that salary.
”But we could always turn to Father Carl for help or a loan when we needed it.”
Her story is the story of scores, maybe even thousands, of Bilaans who saw Father Carl as a friend and benefactor.
His death is a great loss to the Bilaans,” said Rev. Roberto Wapano, successor to Father Carl as head of the Bulol mission.
”There are about 80,000 Bilaans on Mindanao. Father Carl was their protector, their father and, many times, their financial savior.”
Father Wapano, known locally as Father Bitoy, said his predecessor used donations from friends and family back in Chicago to provide small but essential loans and gifts to the Bilaans, whose average income a village chief estimated last year at only $12 per month for a family of 10.
Fe Cardino, Father Carl`s assistant for the last 10 years and financial director for the mission school at Bulol, said money was always a major concern. But she said Father Carl always managed to find what was needed to help.
”We work here giving with the right hand and not knowing what the left hand is doing,” she said last year during an interview with The Tribune at the mission school. ”Whatever money comes in, we pour in. And when it runs out, we pray: `Lord, send us some more.` ”
Last week at the trial, Cardino said the mission would survive without Father Carl, but the priest`s loss would be felt for years to come.
”It is hard for some of the people,” Cardino said. ”They loved him and they will miss him.”
A clear sign of that can be seen in the hot, shabby courtroom of the two- story provincial capitol building here in Koronadal. All the seats on the six rickety wooden benches and all the spaces along the faded concrete walls are packed with Bilaans determined to see that justice is done for Father Carl.
Their faces are intent and aglow with the honesty and innocence that only the poorest of the poor seem to portray. Most wear tiny crosses around their necks and rubber shower slippers on their feet. Ragged blue jeans are the norm, and some of the best-dressed wear faded T-shirts that commemorate church retreats two or three years ago.
Historically, 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 baptized more than 1,000 children and converts in the past two years alone.
”The Bilaans are pagans, so they are good people for Father Carl to work with,” said Teodulu Paris Sr., a Catholic who lives and works in General Santos City, the biggest urban area in southern Mindanao.
”He helped many of them. He was every inch a man from his head to his toe.”