By Jason Gutierrez
TACLOBAN(AFP) Santo Nino church stands battered but tall in the ruins of its typhoon-shattered parish, a 124-year-old beacon of physical and spiritual sanctuary for a devout, traumatised community.
At the height of the super typhoon that laid the Philippine city of Tacloban to waste last week, 250 men, women and children were sheltering inside the walls of the Catholic church.
As the storm waters rose, Father Oliver Mazo, 37, said he led them to the cramped living quarters on the second floor.
“I blessed the room and we all huddled together,” Mazo told AFP.
“The wind was devastating, really terrible and we could hear trees falling and crashing against the walls. There was a lot of screaming,” he recalled.
“Fortunately, all those who were here were saved, and I believe what saved us is our prayer,” he added.
The Philippines is the Roman Catholic Church’s most important outpost in Asia, with Catholics making up nearly 80 percent of the country’s 100 million people.
In the aftermath of the storm that destroyed their homes, shattered their livelihoods, and left thousands dead, many in Tacloban have looked to the Church for solace.
As sunlight poured through the gaping holes of the storm-punctured roof, men and women laboured to clear the mud and debris strewn across the floor of the church.
They worked around parishioners kneeling and saying the rosary, praying for the souls of those who died and giving thanks for those who survived.
Mazo acknowledged that for some, the destruction wrought by the typhoon posed an enormous test of their faith.
“I tell people not to despair, because there is a reason this happened,” he said.
“We don’t question the will of God and it does not mean that those who perished were sinners, but it was simply their time,” he said.
Another parish priest Amadeo Alvero recalled the horror he witnessed as he moved around what was left of Tacloban in the immediate aftermath of the typhoon.
He saw bodies floating in the storm waters or tangled in the debris, horribly injured people with no prospect of any immediate medical care, and stunned survivors mute with shock and disbelief.
“I went around trying to bless the dead and dying. But there were just so many,” Alvero said.
“This kind of catastrophe pushes anyone to his spiritual and psychological limit, and it is no different for people here, especially the deeply religious who in their hearts believe that the good shall be saved,” he said.
Although most of the roof covering was ripped off by the 315 kilometre (195 mile) an hour winds that whipped across the central Philippines, the timbered lattice on which it rested remained largely in palace, casting a grid-like shadow onto the muddied, marble floor below.
The elevated altar and painted wall shrines were almost untouched, and their bright colours gleamed in the sunlight as the volunteers swept, mopped and cleared the debris.
Santo Nino has been the focus of the parish’s close-knit Catholic community for generations.
“I have been coming here everyday since I was little,” said Lucrecia Cinco, 75.
“There have been many family baptisms and weddings here. Every member of our family has a history with this church.”
Cinco and 10 family members, including five grandchildren, evacuated their home before the storm hit, but as the wind intensity grew they realized the shelter they had chosen was too weak and made their way to the church instead.
“Do I still believe in God? Yes. But I am left wondering why this has to happen to the good people here,” she said.
“I have seen many storms in my life, but nothing like this.”