TACLOBAN, Philippines (CNS) — On a recent Sunday morning, the congregation at Santo Nino Parish in Tacloban crammed into a space one-third the true size of the church. The crowd spilled out onto the courtyard, which had two big gray tents bearing the logo of a Buddhist foundation.
Msgr. Alex Opiniano celebrated the Mass at an altar whose back wall consisted of plywood boards. Behind the boards the nave was bare of pews and had no real roof, just a metal frame and some ripped shingles. The top of the bell tower was the same, and the cross on its steeple hung down from the tip.
The church known as the center of life in this city of 97 percent Catholics still bore the ravages of November’s Typhoon Haiyan, which crushed the central Philippines with 195-mile-per-hour winds that brought a 15-foot storm surge.
But the church was finally under rehabilitation thanks to a donation that could reach $280,000 from a Taiwan-based Buddhist foundation called Tzu Chi.
After Mass, Msgr. Opiniano told Catholic News Service he was heartened that people were “identifying, empathizing with our situation, knowing that we are in a situation of want, and helpless with regard to fund generation, considering the fact that people have lost almost everything.”
Tzu Chi’s Philippine country head, Alfred Li, said the group’s founder, Dharma Master Cheng Yen, wanted to help the church.
“She said … Filipinos are Catholic and, especially at this time, they need spiritual guidance. They need spiritual support, and the church is the best that can do that,” Li told CNS in a phone interview.
Since the typhoon, Li said, Tzu Chi has pumped $22.7 million into the typhoon-stricken swath of the country to help provide shelter, build new schools and get people back on their feet.
“I was so impressed with Tzu Chi,” said William Diaz, a 51-year old driver who was born and raised in Tacloban. “They helped clear these roads with their ‘cash for work’ program.”
Diaz, a Catholic, told CNS the foundation was a big motivator for residents like himself who lost their houses. Tzu Chi gave them $11.35 per day to help clear the debris of their obliterated homes. That’s nearly double the minimum wage of about $6 per day in this part of the country.
Li said Santo Nino let Tzu Chi set up its cash-for-work station on church grounds until the daily crowds swelled to nearly 35,000 and it had to find another location. He said the foundation wanted to give back to the church for helping it carry out its mission of service to those in dire need.
After a chance meeting on a plane from Manila en route to Tacloban, Li learned from Msgr. Opiniano that the church needed $280,000 to be completely rehabilitated. Li ran this by Tzu Chi’s founder, who gave him the go-ahead to give the money, with one condition: The church had to be amenable to the donation.
But church officials also wanted parishioners to do their part, which was why the Tzu Chi foundation was not obligated to donate the entire $280,000.
At the end of every Mass, Santo Nino has a second collection, and celebrants deliver this message each time, said Msgr. Opiniano: “Give your share (to the rehabilitation), small or big for as long as this comes straight from the heart. That would really be a great thing.”
“We are so happy that practically the whole world have come to our rescue to (help) rebuild the lives of the families, the communities in the typhoon-stricken area,” said Msgr. Opiniano. “But we in the church, while working also in the same relief operations … we have to focus on the greatest relief that we can give to our people, God himself.”