A school in Macarascas

Macarascas is one of the many sparsely populated barrios of Puerto

Princesa in Palawan.  It is the home of the St. Ezequiel Moreno Parish, about an hour’s ride by jeep from the city center on the newlybuilt concrete road to Sabang and the famous St. Paul underground river.  A cut on this tourist highway leads to a narrow dirt road that goes to the impoverished community of Macarascas.  This is the other face of Palawan, the one hidden by the opulence of classy resorts like Amanpulo, El Nido, and Dos Palmas and by big-ticket projects like Malampaya Gas.

More than 5 years ago, the parish priest of Macarascas, Fr. Broderick Pabillo, embarked on his own dream project – a rural boarding school for girls that would serve the more than 30 communities comprising his parish.  The idea struck him after seeing how the children, who lived in the parish while they were attending the public schools nearby, routinely lost interest in learning.  One by one, they quit school either to work as house help in the city or to go back to their communities, get married, and have children of their own.  He thought something had to be done to break this cycle of ignorance, poverty, and hopelessness.  He sensed that the public schools were trapped in their own inadequacies, mechanically promoting illiterate children year after year in fulfillment of their bureaucratic mandates.  A great believer in the transforming power of education, Fr. Pabillo refused to yield to this reality.

He sought permission from his bishop to set up a non-formal school in which the children of his parish could be given the education he thought they deserved and needed.  He linked up with the DECSaccredited Angelicum School in Quezon City which follows a nongraded curriculum based on varying levels of competency.  In effect, what he was setting up was a comprehensive tutorial boarding school that would help the children graduate to higher levels through periodic examinations.

He then explained the concept to the parents in his parish. Their response was enthusiastic, but the school could not possibly admit every child.  Fr. Pabillo decided to start with 40 kids ranging in age from 12 to 18, focusing on the girls who, in the typical scheme of rural life, were deemed most undeserving of a proper education. He worked on the intuition that the rural revolution by education he had in mind stood a greater chance of succeeding if women were at the center of it.

His parishioners, mostly peasants and indigenous tribes who gathered forest products for a living, were in no position to contribute money toward the education of their children.  He did not expect them to, but they offered to send food and, more important, to help build the school.  Fr. Pabillo wrote to his friends and contacts in Manila and abroad for assistance in maintaining the school.  The money is always short, but he has become used to running this free boarding school from month to month on a tight and uncertain budget. In his mid-50s, this man of deep faith is unfazed. Besides running the school, he continues to minister to the spiritual needs of remote villages, riding a small motorcycle every day, hiking for hours, or crossing the sea so that he could celebrate Mass for his isolated parishioners at least once a month.

In October this year, my wife and I, with our three children and granddaughter, went to Macarascas to visit our youngest daughter who had volunteered to teach in this school for a year. I had imagined it to be a cool idyllic retreat up in the mountains, surrounded by waterfalls and lush forest growth.

Macarascas bears no resemblance to these postcard snapshots of the travel agency’s Palawan. Electricity has not reached this community.  Water from the wells is not potable; the school harvests rain water for drinking. The land is barren, the surrounding hills show the scars of relentless logging, and on the day we arrived, it was hot and humid.  But the children’s faces were full of life and wonder.  This was a field of dreams, and from the moment I set foot on it, I was certain that our daughter had found what she was looking for when she left a secure career as a corporate executive to become a Jesuit volunteer.

When I was a student in the ‘60s, we used to distinguish the hardnosed activists who did political organizing from the soft-hearted dogooders who volunteered for community work.  In an age dominated by the rhetoric of radical anti-imperialism, the word “do-gooder” was a vicious slur. The university was supposed to produce political activists and not social workers.

Things have changed.  Political organizing no longer holds the same spell on students as in those days when not a few abandoned their studies to become full-time cadres of the revolution.  The kind of compulsion and sense of duty that drew an entire generation of young Filipinos to political activism just vanished.  The good news is that, today, there is a rekindling of this radical selflessness among many young people, and it is finding expression in many acts of quiet volunteerism.

It is to such a generation that individuals like Fr. Broderick Pabillo speak.  Educated abroad in biblical studies, he taught theology and philosophy at various seminaries for many years.  He was a scholar and read papers at conferences.  One day, he realized that the priesthood in our time must mean more than this.  He wrote the Bishop of Puerto Princesa and asked to be assigned to a remote parish.  The bishop sent him to Macarascas.  He never looked back.


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