The Lost Eden of Fr. Stefano
Lakewood is as picturesque as any other paradise; unfortunately the area is highly contested by interests, and plagued by violence.
By Gerolamo Fazzini
For twelve years Fr. Stefano Mosca, PIME, has been working in Lakewood, a natural paradise in the southern part of the Philippines. A beautiful area that is torn by clashes, and home to the vulnerable community of the Suban people.
“Lying on a picturesque volcanic lake, Lakewood seems like a place of enchantment, a kind of earthly paradise in which man and nature live in spontaneous harmony. In reality, few places in the world are more torn than these hills of Mindanao, in the South of the Philippines, the scene of clashes, looting and abuses for at least 30-40 years.” Thus begins a report on the area written by Fr. Giorgio Licini in 1993. Once, this was really a corner of Eden: the tropical forest around the lake was lush; the inhabitants were few and all were tribal Suban (a term that means “inhabitant of the rivers”, but they prefer to call themselves Lumad). “But then the arrival of immigrants from the North and Central Philippines was worse than a devastating cyclone,” continued Fr. Giorgio. Having visited it 25 years later, I can only confirm: Lakewood is a beautiful place, so much so that a tourist-entrepreneur opened a four-star resort here. We are, however, in a very isolated strip of the province of Zamboanga del Sur. The nearest town, Pagadian, is 31 miles away. As for the problems of the tribal population, despite some significant improvements over many years, they cannot be said to be totally resolved.
PIME arrived here in 1985, at the surprise request of Bishop Federico Escaler. The area remains very remote despite the improvement of communications. Fr. Angelo Biancat, who died in 2005 at the age of 68 (32 of which he spent in the Philippines), conquered the hearts of people with his simplicity during the years he spent in Lakewood. They called him “Fr. Lumad” or “Fr. Native”, because he immediately had done his utmost to care for the Suban, learning their dialects and welcoming their culture as well as their strong religious beliefs. He had become one of them, to the point of defending their human rights before Philippine Government authorities. After repeated efforts, he succeeded in declaring the land where the Suban people lived “ancestral domain”.
Fr. Stefano Mosca, from the Brianza region of Italy, has been working in Lakewood for 12 years. Fr. Ilario Trobbiani, a veteran of the Philippines, has been lending him a helping hand since 2015. In all that time, Fr. Mosca did not forget how the Regional Superior of the Philippines welcomed him when he arrived: “The Superior, Fr. Gianni Sandalo welcomed me at the airport like this, ‘Have you come here ready to die? If the answer is no, take your suitcase and go back to where you came from.’ It was a welcome with a profound sense that I soon understood.” After a period of language study in Davao, Fr. Stefano was sent to Sampoli with Fr. Ilario, after only three years, he was called to replace Fr. Carrara in Lakewood. The ministry of preparing people for Christian initiation, catechesis, and the celebration of the Sacraments would be a great undertaking. However, he quickly realized the urgency of three social priorities that were more pressing: the Suban people, education, and medical aid for the sick.
Fr. Stefano Mosca, PIME, celebrates the Eucharist with the people of his mission in the Philippines.
The tribal situation at the beginning of the 2000s was complex; they had formed a legal association to prove to the government that they were the first inhabitants of the area. A legitimate claim soon clashed with the greed of powerful local people. “They placed hurdles of all kinds in my path,” Fr. Stefano laments. “The situation turned very ugly, they started threatening me with death, trying to tarnish my name and sending letters to the local Bishop. It was a hard time, I was scared. When they killed Fr. Fausto Tentorio, in the fall of 2011, they told me, ‘You will be next.’ Fortunately, I’m still here.”
In 2013, the Filipino government issued a law that offers these tribal people the opportunity to apply for a mine-operating permit as they “arrived first”to the territory. “My people sensed the importance of this opportunity and understood that, if they turned down the government’s offer, they would have opened the door to the arrival of foreign multinationals.” Thus, the Lumad Mining Corporation was established, with the financial support of a friendly politician. Thanks to the intervention of a pro-Lumad Filipino and all required legal documents in hand, we are now studying how to carry out the project.
PIME runs a very important educational service through the Lakewood mission. It makes sense, since the number of children and young people that hang around the parish is so high. “Through the PIME Foundation,” Fr. Mosca explains, “there are 186 students who will take advantage of this opportunity this year: 36 in college, and 150 in high school. They are mostly tribal, because they face more learning difficulties.” In addition to this school, there is also the diocesan vocational school recognized by TESDA (Technical Education and Skills Development Authority). An important vocational school promoted by the State that offers a diploma recognized throughout Asia. The children and their families are asked to pay a small, accessible fee, about a third of the cost of similar schools in nearby Pagadian. “Formally owned by the diocese, every year this vocational school educates more than 300 students through various training courses for manual work.” Fr. Stefano took advantage of the previous experience of Fr. Ilario, who had already opened a Tesda school in Sampoli. “Today we have 12 recognized courses,” Fr. Stefano explains. “In our school we train welders, electricians, mechanics of motorcycles and cars, but also computer technicians, tailors, masseurs, physiotherapists, taxi drivers and bus drivers. We have recently started a course to teach how to preserve food: make jams or can sardines in oil, etc. These are all courses we have studied for the Lumad because, in the absence of some work skills, they would continue to be socially marginalized.” The result? “The vast majority of the students who have graduated have already found work: one has become the chauffeur of the mayor of his town; another is in Manila working as welder in skyscrapers under construction. Being able to work allows them to have an income and send money home, it gives them a strong sense of self-esteem.”
The third front on which the parish works is medical care for the sick. “The nearest hospital is the Pagadian Medical Center, 37 miles from here. We had a public hospital in the village, but the authorities closed it. Pagadian is semi-private and my people cannot afford it,” says Fr. Stefano. “The nearest state clinic is in Margosatubig, but there, too, care is not free. Consequently, they put off a visit to the doctor or hospitalization until it might be too late. Hence, why so many recoverable sick people end up dying.” It is for this reason that the parish of Lakewood is setting up a Caritas fund for the sick.
Among the many young people who have passed from his parish, Fr. Stefano has not forgotten Cristy Capua. “She was finishing middle school and, as she was good at school, I promised to help her get into college.” On the first Sunday of June 2017, Cristy received her Confirmation. A few days earlier, participating in a work camp organized for the students, a stray dog bit her. Frightened by the possible costs of treatment, she said nothing but simply rubbed some alcohol on the wound.”
Fr. Stefano fights for equal opportunities for the Suban people; more often than not, their own government forgets them.
“When I went to bring her the certificate of Confirmation,” Fr. Stefano remembers. “I saw that she was pale, but she explained that she was just tired.” In short, Cristy got worse. Fr. Stefano was going to suggest that Cristy use the Caritas fund to pay for the costs of her treatment. By the time he made it to the hospital, it was too late: rabies had already taken her life. “The nun at the hospital told me that right before dying, Cristy comforted her family members: ‘Why are you crying? Jesus is coming to take me and I go with him, I’m happy. Why are you crying?’” They buried her near the parish church. Fr. Stefano concludes: “From time to time I stop at her grave, and I ask her to intercede for our young people.”