The Saintly Priest of Balangiga
by Rolando Borrinaga and Tax Rosaldo
Banner article in the INQUIRER Visayas section, Philippine Daily Inquirer, Sept. 28, 2000, p. A14. Grand Prize Winner in The Gawad Kalinangan Journalism Contest, the 2001 edition, of the Rotary Club of Manila Journalism Awards. The awarding rites were held at the Centennial Hall of The Manila Hotel on June 14, 2001.
"WHY should you pay me for my love of country?"
With this tart comment, originally spoken in Spanish and handed down by oral tradition, Fr. Donato B. Guimbaolibot dismissed an alleged bribe offer by American officials. He was supposed to receive cash as payment for the physical torture inflicted on him by US Army operatives after Sept. 28, 1901.
In the morning of that fateful Sunday (sic, it was actually a Saturday), hundreds of natives armed with bolos swooped down on Company C of the US Army's 9th Infantry Regiment stationed in the town of Balangiga in southern Samar.
The so-called Balangiga Massacre turned out to be the worst single defeat of the US Army during the Philippine-American War.
According to accounts of some Balangiga plotters, only two Americans survived the attack, and they escaped to Leyte. This figure is quite inaccurate: 24 others reached the US military station up the coast in Basey, Samar, after a harrowing journey aboard several bancas (outriggers).
A failed House bill filed in the US Congress in 1932 to honor the Americans in the Balangiga Massacre gave the following summary of their debacle: missing, 4; killed during massacre, 36; wounded, died later, 8; wounded, 22; not wounded, 4; total present during massacre, 74.
The natives suffered 28 deaths and 22 wounded during the same attack.
The Americans retaliated with a "kill-and-burn" policy. This resulted in the killings and undocumented disappearances of some 50,000 men, women, children above 10 years old, as part of the colonial campaign to turn Samar into a "howling wilderness."
Gen. Jacob Smith, who implemented the American revenge in Samar, was eventually made the scapegoat for the shameful policy. He was retired from the US Army following a court martial.
Father Guimbaolibot, parish priest of Balangiga from March 2, 1900 to May 8, 1904, was singled out by the US military officials as the possible "mastermind" behind their defeat. Their official records of the event did not have kind words for the priest.
But the natives of Balangiga held Guimbaolibot in high esteem. When they planned the attack after suffering deprivations from the Americans who had rounded up their males as prisoners, the residents purposely left the priest out of their plot.
But on the Tuesday before the attack, Guimbaolibot was approached by a local leader, Pedro Duran Sr., who disclosed the plot to him by saying, "Father, make up your mind, to stay or to leave; there will be a fight on Saturday."
Guimbaolibot was so disturbed by the revelation that he left the same day in a banca for Tanauan, Leyte, his previous parish assignment. He did not really want to leave; he wanted to be of help. But the plotters had agreed that their priest should not be involved.
Arrest in Tanauan
The two Americans known by the Balangiga plotters to have survived the massacre fled by paddling a banca toward Tolosa, Leyte, and proceeding to Tanauan. While they were telling their story to an American captain staying at the Tanauan convento, they allegedly spotted Guimbaolibot in the same parish house and had him arrested.
In the book Revolutionary Clergy (1981), Fr. John N. Schumacher, SJ, quoted a document that described Guimbaolibot's hiding in Tanauan:
"This Felix Vara (de Veyra) has another son, Jesus Vara (de Veyra) who is now in the field with the insurgents of this island under Capili; he also has a nephew, Julian Vara (de Veyra), who is with the same outfit, and is understood to be second in command of these forces."
"Padre Pantaleon Vara (de Veyra) of Tanauan, Leyte is a cousin of Felix Vara (de Veyra), and it was to this padre's house that the padre of Balangiga took refuge before the massacre at that place."
This document seemed to impute guilt by association on Guimbaolibot. Thus, since he was living with a relative of the "insurgents," then he must be an "insurgent" himself.
The arrest of Guimbaolibot was apparently influenced by dirty local politics and intrigues that involved Daniel Romualdez y Arcilla, the patriarch of the Romualdez family that is now making a comeback in Leyte's political scene.
A Tagalog teacher who migrated to his wife's home province in 1872 to find a cure for his tuberculosis, Romualdez was capitan municipal (mayor) of Tolosa town at the outbreak of the Philippine Revolution in 1896. Under the Aguinaldo government, he was somehow appointed capitan municipal of nearby Tanauan. But he left this post in haste due to alleged threats to his life and returned to Tolosa.
As luck would have it, Sgt. George F. Markley and another American survivor in Balangiga landed from their banca on Romualdez's Tolosa domain. They were given shelter by Romualdez, who apparently used them as pawns to prove his family's allegiance to the new regime, to hit back at his political enemies in Tanauan, particularly the influential De Veyra family, and to extract future favors from the American colonial rulers.
The incriminating information in the document quoted by Schumacher probably came from Romualdez. Romualdez's family had known motives to shame the De Veyras. He probably even provided the tip that led to the arrest of Guimbaolibot in a De Veyra house. The report of the priest's arrest in the convent looked like an official cover to hide the real informant.
Two sons of Romualdez eventually became prominent officials during the American era. Norberto, the eldest, became an associate justice of the Supreme Court. Miguel, the second son, was appointed mayor of Manila.
In his doctoral dissertation, Dr. Reynaldo H. Imperial mentioned that Guimbaolibot was brought to Calbiga, Samar, following his arrest. He was subjected to "water torture" by Lt. Julian Gaugot, to extract information on the whereabouts of the leaders who plotted the massacre and on the priest's participation in the planning.
Gaugot was eventually court-martialed for "this disgrace upon the (US) military service" and was proven guilty. He was suspended from the command for three months, forfeiting $50 of his monthly salary for the same period.
The torture of an innocent priest was perhaps the official basis for the bribe-offer that was spurned.
While undergoing torture, Guimbaolibot admitted that he was aware of a plot being organized against the Americans in Balangiga, but that he himself had no part in it and even left the town so that he would not be involved.
Later researches and documents bore out the priest's story. But at that time, the American military officials seemed convinced that Guimbaolibot had a principal role in an event that almost wiped out a company of US troops.
There had been no previously recorded detail on how Guimbaolibot was tortured. But The College Tradean, a student publication in Guiuan, published in 1994 a folk account of how this was done:
"His body was tied with a rope, hoisted up to the ceiling, and then abruptly loosened, thus bringing the body down very hastily, after which he was made to drink sea water. This treatment was repeated a number of times."
The article further said that, after all the tortures, Guimbaolibot and the other suspects were kept in jail and told that they would be killed.
The island of Samar lacked priests at the turn of the century. Schumacher wrote: "(T)here were only 14 priests from Samar ordained from Cebu Seminary between 1867 and 1903 … and there were only 13 priests in Samar in early 1900 … for at least 31 parishes."
After the Balangiga event, nearly half of the Samar clergy were herded in a single prison -- the convento of Calbiga. They were later transferred to Catbalogan.
The Jan. 29, 1902 issue of El Nuevo Dia, edited by the young Sergio Osmeña and Jaime de Veyra, reported the death of Fr. Bartolome Picson and the imprisonment of Fathers Nicanor Acevedo (Acebedo), Donato Guimbaolibot, Maximo Ponson (Conzon), and Jose Diasnes by the Americans in the Calbiga convent.
What happened to them there was described in terms perhaps intended not to unduly provoke the American censor but sufficiently clear to give an idea of the American treatment of the Filipino priests: "In Samar, they (Americans) meant not merely arbitrary imprisonment but torture for not a few."
In Los Sacerdotes en Samar, El Commercio, in its Feb. 4, 1902 issue, reported that the inquisition of the priests was intended to find who were cooperating with the revolution, especially those who were helping the Filipinos still in arms with rice and money. And, of course, the priests had to know this information, according to the way of thinking of the American officers, especially that (since?) they possessed the secret of the confessional.
In The Ordeal of Samar, Joseph L. Schott wrote that one of the imprisoned priests, Fr. Nicanor Acebedo, parish priest of Basey, was "water-cured" by Capt. Edwin F. Glenn of the US Infantry. The assistant parish priest was also "water-cured." Both were injured for life; the assistant became insane.
Father Picson was "water-cured" to death by Captain Glenn. His sister was also bayoneted to death upon Glenn's order.
Glenn was an expert in torture both in Panay and in Samar. He was later court-martialed for "water-curing" the town mayor of Igbaras in Iloilo, and for burning that town. He was punished with a mere fine and reprimand, and continued to serve in the US Army. He retired as a brigadier general.
A folk account has it that the threat of execution did not faze Guimbaolibot. He was prepared to die. His calm demeanor in prison was said to have inspired his fellow prisoners not to lose hope.
The College Tradean article said that on the scheduled date of his and other prisoners' execution, Guimbaolibot was able send word to the people of Catbalogan about the decision. He requested them to pray for their (prisoners') deliverance and for the enlightenment of their executioners. It was about 3 p.m. when the Americans deferred the sentence.
Guimbaolibot and a few other suspects were turned over to the people who fetched them from jail. Their caretakers tended to their bruises, for they were beaten all over their bodies.
Guimbaolibot went home to Guiuan to recover his health. He returned to Balangiga on April 22, 1903. He served the town one more year, after which he was transferred to his hometown, in Guiuan, Eastern Samar.
Guimbaolibot was born in Guiuan on Dec. 5, 1866, the second child of Tomas Guimbaolibot and Narcisa Bago. He had three sisters: Felipa, the eldest, Faustina and Maria. Local accounts had it that the Guimbaolibot children were raised in a simple but religious life at home.
Padre Atoy, as Guimbaolibot was known, studied for the priesthood at the San Carlos Seminary in Cebu, where he was ordained priest at the age of 28 in 1894. He taught at the seminary before his first parish assignment in Tanauan (November 1898 to May 1899). At that time, the islands of Leyte and Samar were under the jurisdiction of the Diocese of Cebu.
Balangiga was his second parish assignment. His assignment to Guiuan would be his last. He served his hometown for nearly half a century until his death in 1949. There, he founded a parochial school for children, built a hospital, a high school and a new convent, and saw to the repair of the centuries-old parish church in the 1930s.
He was elevated to the title of monsignor around the late 1930s, during which he also reluctantly assumed the position of vicar general of the Diocese of Calbayog.
Guimbaolibot had never been at ease with the Americans since his release from prison. At the end of 1944, when the American forces established a naval base in Guiuan, he was heard saying: "Take note, the American presence here is not a blessing; rather, it is a disgrace."
Guimbaolibot suffered a stroke and became bedridden in July 1949. For a month, he hovered between life and death. He showed some improvement after that, but he never fully recovered. He died on Sept. 9, 1949 at the age of 83.
Fr. Maximo Arganda, a retired 83-year-old priest in Guiuan, revealed in a 1995 interview that Guimbaolibot was a "silent type of person, devoted to prayer. He lived a pious, humble and simple life. He was offered to become a bishop many times, but he humbly refused all these offers."
"I consider him a saint," Arganda then told Bankaw News, now re-launched as a cyber-magazine after four years of dormancy. (The URL is http://www.geocities.com/bankaw/.)
Arganda was a former sacristan (altar boy) of Guimbaolibot. He later became his assistant priest who took over the parish during the illness and after the death of the monsignor.
"Buotan hin duro adto nga Monsenyor (The monsignor was an extremely good man)," was a usual comment about Guimbaolibot from those old folks who had seen him in life.
On Dec. 8, 1995, the "Movement for the Beatification of Msgr. Donato B. Guimbaolibot," was formally launched in Guiuan, coinciding with the town fiesta and the celebration of the 400th anniversary of the town's Christian evangelization.
Publicity about the movement, which was reported by several Manila newspapers, continues to raise eyebrows, more so among many people who associated Guimbaolibot with the killing of American soldiers by native bolo fighters in Balangiga, and not with the priest who suffered because of an erroneous suspicion by the Americans.
A proud moment in our historic struggle for freedom, the Balangiga event has remained misunderstood by many Filipinos.
Whatever outsiders say about him, Guimbaolibot was the only priest from Leyte and Samar with a monument erected in his memory right in his hometown. His statue stands on the western lawn of the centuries-old Guiuan Parish Church.
This monument and the beatification movement are supreme tributes to a priest who showed that his love of country and his sacrifice for the defense of his faith and vocation could not be bought.
About the Author
Rolando O. Borrinaga is an associate professor who teaches general education courses at the School of Health Sciences (SHS), University of the Philippines Manila, in Palo, Leyte. He is internationally recognized as a researcher on health development issues. He had spearheaded major health surveys in the Eastern Visayas Region for UNFPA (1988), UNICEF (1994), and USAID (1998), respectively. He contributed a chapter in the Oxford book Reaching Health for All (1993).
A first batch scholar of the Philippine Coconut Producers' Federation (COCOFED), he earned in 1980 his B.S. in Agriculture (Agribusiness major) from Silliman University in Dumaguete City, where he also earned a cognate degree in Philippine Studies. He earned his Master of Management (major in Public Management) from U.P. Tacloban College in Tacloban City in 1987. In March 2003, he received the degree Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) in Social Science Research from Leyte Normal University in Tacloban City with a dissertation on the Balangiga Conflict in Samar in 1901. The main papers of this dissertation have been published as a book entitled The Balangiga Conflict Revisited (Quezon City: New Day Publishers, 2003).
Prof. Borrinaga is a local historian by avocation. His revisionist views of historical events initially appeared in the "Letters" section of the Philippine Daily Inquirer. They also appeared in historical papers published in Kinaadman and Leyte-Samar Studies. A founding officer of the Leyte-Samar Historical Society, he has read academic papers about Leyte-Samar history and culture in various conferences and workshops in the region since 1996. He is a member of the multi-national Balangiga Research Group, which has clarified many myths and misconceptions about the Balangiga Conflict in Samar a century ago. The BRG is now spearheading a new campaign for the return of the Bells of Balangiga from the U.S. to the Philippines.
Prof. Borrinaga has won several writing awards. He won a fiction writing prize and a poetry writing prize as a university student. He also won one of four feature writing prizes during the 8th Lopez Jaena National Summer Workshop in Community Journalism conducted by the U.P. College of Mass Communication in Cebu City in May 1996. His latest feat was as Grand Prize Winner in The Gawad Kalinangan Journalism Contest, the 2001 edition of the Rotary Club of Manila Journalism Awards conducted in cooperation with the U.P. College of Mass Communication Foundation, Inc.
Prof. Borrinaga's biographical sketch appeared in the 13th (1996) edition of Who’s Who in the World, published by Marquis Who’s Who in the United States, and in the 25th (1997) edition of Dictionary of International Biography, published by the International Biographical Centre in Cambridge, England.
Source: Reposted with permission from http://www.geocities.com/rolborr/balsaintly.html