Philippine Saints: ‘A Believing People’
July 1991

“Philippine Saints: ‘A Believing People’” Ensign, July 1991, 32

Philippine Saints:

“A Believing People”

Ceiling fans are whirring overhead, but the humid air hardly stirs. Although the folding doors along one entire side of the chapel are open, no breeze blows through to cool things off.

The parking lot is almost empty, but the small chapel of Manila’s Pateros Ward is full. Some members walked; others came in jeepneys or pedicabs (bicycles or motorcycles with attached sidecars).

The bishop says that, in terms of material possessions, “most of our members here are very poor. But when I interview them, they say they have been blessed and their prayers are being answered.”

Sacrament meeting begins, and a woman gives a talk on charity, the pure love of Christ. Next, a young man tells about the destruction of the Jaredite nation. “This story shows that without charity, we are nothing,” he says. “The same applies to us; we are no exception.”

A girl stands to direct the hymn. There’s no pianist, so she sings the first line. Then everyone joins in: “Because I have been given much, I too must give.” (Hymns, 1985, no. 219.)

In this nation plagued by natural disasters and social unrest, why is so much emphasis being given to receiving and sharing blessings? What have these members been given—and what can they offer in return?

As they tell of ways the Lord is blessing them, the answer becomes clear: They have been endowed with great faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. The gifts of the Spirit are abundant in their lives. Freely, they share their witness of the Lord’s goodness to them.

“Heavenly Father Really Knows My Need”

Malou Ducta shivered in the darkness as she prayed. The typhoon, still raging out of control, was threatening to shatter the small house where she and the others were huddled. The friendly sea had become a violent stranger. Everybody was crying.

Hours ago, Malou and her family had evacuated their small house of nipa palms and wood at the edge of the sea near the city of Sorsogon. They had waded through chilling chest-deep water and muddy debris to reach a friend’s house higher on the hill.

Now, as the tumult outside continued, Malou kept praying. Suddenly she thought of her college notebook! How could she have forgotten it? Tucked inside its cover was the money she had been awarded from a Church scholarship fund. This money would pay for her final exams. With the money, she could take the exams and graduate. Without it, her dreams of graduating—and of getting a job to help support her family—would shatter like a tiny nipa hut in a storm.

“I was praying as if talking to a friend, and I said to the Lord, ‘It’s your money, and you know that if I don’t have it, I can’t graduate from college.’ I kept praying, asking Heavenly Father to save the money.”

At 2:00 A.M., the men ventured outside. “They found out that there were no more houses by the seashore,” Malou says. In tears, everyone ran to see for themselves. “All were destroyed. All gone.”

The shore was littered with debris and with bodies of people and animals that had died in the storm. “We were just thankful that no one in our family had died,” she says. “The only things we were able to save were our lives and the clothes that we wore. I felt comforted about losing my tuition money, because it was only money.”

People started digging in the sand and mud, trying to salvage whatever they could find. “One of my cousins shouted at me: ‘Oh, this is your folder!’ I ran and got it. It was wet, but the money was all there!”

As Malou recalls that moment, she again begins to cry. “Heavenly Father really knows my need.”

The only other belongings Malou’s family recovered were some irreplaceable photos—photos of her parents when they were young, a photo of the family dressed in white on their baptism day, and a photo of the family in white on the day they were sealed in the Manila Philippines Temple.

Since that 1987 typhoon, Malou has graduated in accounting and has served a mission. The family has built a new house on the same spot at the edge of the sea, because they have no money for land elsewhere. On the wall in picture frames are the water-stained photos and her college diploma. “It’s really a miracle for us,” she says, “a great lesson.”

Perla, the President, and the Bicycle

When Perla gained a witness of the Book of Mormon, she wanted to be baptized. But her parents wouldn’t hear of it. She was twenty-eight years old and didn’t need their permission, but she didn’t want to hurt them. Finally, she crocheted her own baptismal clothes and was baptized.

How to pay tithing was her next dilemma. For years, Perla had taught elementary school. As the only breadwinner in her father’s family, she had always given him her entire paycheck. And now she would not consider withholding either the paycheck or the tithing amount from him. Instead, she started crocheting for people after school, paying her entire earnings from crocheting as tithing on both salaries.

After serving a mission in Manila, Perla returned to teaching and met Luciano de Guzman, a 47-year-old bachelor who also taught elementary school. He studied the gospel and was baptized. They married and now have two daughters, Ruth and Esther.

Eight years after his baptism, Luciano was called as president of the Lingayen stake. Like most Philippine Church leaders, President de Guzman has no car, no phone, and limited money for public transportation. He does have a bicycle. And at age fifty-nine, he rides it to his meetings and assignments—up to three hours round-trip. He carries a sack lunch with him because, he says, “I don’t want to impose on members for lunch.”

Pedaling on congested Philippine highways can be dangerous. But, says President de Guzman, “As I am working in the Lord’s service, he protects me.” One time, a bus was overtaking a jeepney, and the president—on his bicycle—was caught in the middle. “Everyone thought I was going to be killed,” he says. “But then, it was as if a great wind lifted me up and swept me out of the way of the bus. The bicycle was not destroyed, and I was not hurt. The people were surprised when they saw me alive. I was surprised, too!”

“We Could Have Saved That Baby!”

“When I got married,” says Consolacion Pilobello of Pasay City, “I didn’t know how to cook, and I was too superstitious to go to a doctor and get prenatal care. Our first baby died.”

She begins to cry. “If only I had been a member of the Church then, we could have saved that baby!”

After baptism, she learned in Relief Society about water purification, sanitation, nutrition, first aid, and immunizations. “I learned how to take care of my children, myself, and my family,” she says. Her next seven babies were healthy. She is now ward homemaking leader—teaching what she has learned—and cooks for her family’s successful food catering business.

“I Heard the Voice of a Baby!”

To get to the Monares family’s one-room home in the city of Cebu, you have to walk through a maze of narrow, crowded alleys. When you enter the tiny room, the first thing you see is a New Era poster. It’s a photo of one yellow balloon floating above a group of blue ones, with a caption: “Rise above the blues.”

One shelf of a small bookcase is filled with new copies of the Book of Mormon to give away. “Our son is on a mission,” Santos Monares explains.

Brother Monares buys and sells merchandise on the street, hoping to transact enough business to feed his family. When he and his wife, Julieta, first started talking about going to the temple, Julieta didn’t want to build up her hopes. She felt it was useless to even try to save enough money for the boat trip. And then Brother Monares was sick for a long time. But somehow, they got enough money together for themselves and four of their children to make the trip.

When Sister Monares went to the market to buy food for the journey, someone pickpocketed all her food money. Again she was tempted to give up. But fast offering funds helped pay for food, and they finally made it to the Manila temple in April 1990.

“In the temple, we forgot all the problems of the outside world,” says Brother Monares.

Twenty-year-old Vicenta agrees. “When we were being sealed as a family, I heard the voice of a baby!” For Vicenta, it was a witness that her brother who had died soon after he was born was accepting the ordinance.

“What Kind of Restaurant Is This?”

Jovencio Ilagan smiles as he tells that he had intended to just play along with the missionaries who knocked on his door. “I wasn’t a very religious person,” he says. But then he began to read the Book of Mormon. As he was reading in Alma, he says, “I felt the warm feeling that comes when the Holy Ghost is there bearing testimony.” Jovencio, Zenaida, and their six children who were old enough set a baptismal date.

But three days before the baptism, “I had a business appointment with some of my old drinking buddies,” he says. “They persuaded me to drink beer with them.”

Jovencio admitted to the sister missionaries what he had done. “I’m sure they were devastated. I told them to go ahead and have my wife and children baptized, and I would follow later. But the very wise district leader said no. That was a tremendous pressure, you know! Here’s my family—they couldn’t be baptized! Oh, I struggled!” A week later, they were all baptized.

Soon Jovencio became Young Men president and Zenaida became Relief Society president. They’ve since had many callings, including his as regional representative and mission president.

The Ilagans saw their lives change in many ways. “We have a data entry service bureau,” he says, “and many times we had to work on Sundays to meet our deadlines. But after we joined the Church, we decided we wouldn’t work on Sundays. So we lost some clients. But the income we earned during the six days in the week was far more than what we used to make working overtime seven days a week.”

Then they had an opportunity to open a restaurant while still operating their service bureau. “But we never opened on Sundays. We never served any beer or coffee. We never sold any cigarettes—or anything that we felt was against the Word of Wisdom. Some customers would say, ‘What kind of restaurant is this?’ and walk off! But we had a good family atmosphere and reached a different market.”

A few years later, they sold the restaurant for a profit. Jovencio was hired as manager of the Church’s distribution center in Manila. He later worked with membership and statistical records and in data processing. Now he is Area manager of materials management.

“The gospel brought a complete turnaround in my husband,” says Sister Ilagan. “It brought a peace I had never known before. And it came into our lives just in time for our children.” Several of them have served missions and have been married in the temple.

“The Lord Knows Whether You’re Doing All You Can Do”

When he was introduced to the Church, eighteen-year-old Lindo Casinillo couldn’t speak or understand much English. But since the Book of Mormon wasn’t available in Cebuano, he read it in English. “I kept reading it, even though I couldn’t understand it,” he says. “I read until I could understand it.” Now, only a few years later, he has read it seven times, from cover to cover. His English is fluent.

After his mission, Lindo was jobless for over a year and then got a low-paying job. But he paid a full tithe. “I knew tithing wasn’t the amount you paid, but the faith you showed to the Lord.”

Still single, he was called as branch president. “I had to be at church very early on Sunday mornings, but I had no alarm clock. On Saturday nights, I wouldn’t use my mosquito net, so the mosquitoes would bite me and I would arise early in the morning. It sounds foolish, but it worked. I was never late.”

Once he and the branch financial clerk worked for seven straight hours, trying to correct an error in a report. When the clerk left for dinner, says Lindo, “I realized we had not prayed when we started, so I kneeled down and apologized to Heavenly Father that we did not pray first. I asked for his help. When I finished, I got the papers again, and right then I found the solution to the problem.”

When Lindo and Annabelle decided to get married, he was making enough to support only himself. At first her parents, also members of the Church, were hesitant to permit the marriage, he says. “But I promised them that we would do our best to obey the commandments and that the Lord would bless us. They decided to trust me.”

Annabelle had a good job at a medical center. “But the prophet had said that, if possible, the mother should not work outside the home,” he says. “We trusted the counsel of our leaders for her not to work.” They were blessed with a baby boy, Kahivhan—and now Lindo has a good job, and they have a nice apartment.

With limited space and resources, it’s not easy to have a garden or a supply of food. But “our bishop told us that it’s not a matter of having a place to garden—it’s a matter of finding a way to obey the principle,” Lindo says. So he improvised. “I got some wood and made a box. Then I took several bus trips out to the country and brought sacks of soil back with me. I planted some vegetables.”

When the 1990 earthquake hit, they were glad they had put some rice and canned foods in a closet. Although their apartment building was destroyed, they were able to salvage and use some of their supply.

“We do our best,” he says in his unassuming way. “The Lord knows whether you’re doing all you can do.”

“A Believing People”

Isidoro B. Pilobello is a stake patriarch and a temple sealer. “Sometimes I am astounded,” he says, referring to the blessings promised to his fellow Philippine Latter-day Saints in their patriarchal blessings.

“The Filipinos are a believing people,” says Elder George I. Cannon of the Seventy, who recently served there as Area President. “They are a spiritual people. And they are looking for ways to improve themselves. They see the Church as a place to get answers.”

Through their faith in Jesus Christ, they are finding them.

How the Gospel Helps

It seems we’re always hearing about this tiny island nation. Filipinos seem to be facing one dramatic challenge after another. What difference is the gospel making in their lives?

Natural Disasters

Filipinos can expect about twenty typhoons a year, a handful of which bring catastrophic monsoon rains, winds, and floods. Active volcanoes occasionally spew destructive lava. Earthquakes are frequent. In 1988, three major typhoons and two earthquakes hit the area in a six-week period.

How the Gospel Helps

  • LDS meetinghouses become centers of activity where victims—regardless of religion—can receive food, shelter, and medical attention, along with emotional and spiritual support.

  • The Church has given seeds and other supplies to farmers who have lost their crops in monsoon floods.

  • Priesthood quorums and Scout troops have collected materials and have helped to rebuild homes destroyed in earthquakes and typhoons.

  • During a severe drought and power shortage in March 1990, members held a fast for rain. It rained the next day.

Economic Problems

The nation is in a period of economic recovery, but progress is slow. Annual per capita income is the equivalent of $731 in U.S. currency. When Church leaders are asked what members’ greatest challenge is, the most common response is, “Survival—the day-to-day problem of finding enough to eat.”

Philippine families are usually large. And members of extended families often live in the same household, helping one another in times of unemployment or other temporal need. It is common to find only one breadwinner—sometimes a teenager—in an extended family.

The Philippines has a high literacy rate—about 88 percent. And university study is a high priority. But unemployment plagues even college graduates.

How the Gospel Helps

  • Church leaders are teaching the law of the fast—including the giving of fast offerings.

  • A series of self-reliance lessons is taught in every ward—classes on topics such as health, nutrition, sanitation, and budgeting.

  • Missionary couples are serving as employment specialists, helping members find and upgrade employment.

  • Church leaders encourage members to enroll in community- and government-sponsored vocational classes, even offering scholarships for such programs.

  • Some members are forming cooperatives to manufacture goods for profit—such as wicker baskets, wood furniture, and concrete blocks.

  • Many meetinghouses have gardens—not only for immediate needs of members, but also as a way to teach gardening skills.

  • A standard item in meetinghouses is a sewing machine, and sewing classes are given regularly in Relief Society homemaking meetings. Sisters are learning to sew for their families; some are also able to supplement the family’s income with their sewing.

Political Unrest

The Philippine islands were dominated by Spain from 1521 to 1898; then the United States’ occupation lasted until 1946. Since becoming an independent republic, the nation has suffered political unrest. Various opposition groups continue to actively challenge the government, creating a great deal of tension and uneasiness.

How the Gospel Helps

  • The Church encourages the Saints to obey, honor, and sustain the law. (See A of F 1:12.)

  • Most members try to stay clear of problems and to submit to such inconveniences as curfews and checkpoints on the highways.

  • During the attempted coup in December 1989, members and nonmembers on Mactan Island were evacuated to a meetinghouse in Cebu, where Church members provided food and encouragement. “This experience strengthened us—the members and the leaders,” says Remus Villarete, regional representative in Cebu. “The members invited the nonmembers to testimony meeting the following Sunday to express their feelings, and some less-active members became active.”

  • Members bear witness that the Lord has protected them. Some tell of escaping cross fire unharmed; others speak of being comforted after the death of loved ones. In December 1989, rebel troops attempted to enter the temple, but temple workers persuaded them not to do so. Instead, the rebel troops holed up for a time in the temple annex. During the skirmish, the annex’s exterior suffered minor damage, and the patrons’ housing facility was seriously damaged. But, miraculously, the temple was unharmed.

Language Problems

Eighty-seven native languages and dialects are spoken in this small nation. English, a second language used by almost half of the population, is a unifying influence. But its use is limited, and some members list language problems as reasons for nonparticipation in church. Many missionaries, even some from the Philippines, must learn a new language in order to communicate fully.

How the Gospel Helps

  • Members are encouraged to speak their own language in the meetings. Most often, lessons and talks in church are a mixture of English and the local native language.

  • The Book of Mormon and some other Church materials are being translated into the eight most common Philippine languages.

Soon: A Million Philippine Latter-day Saints

Currently, there are more than 250,000 members of the Church in the Philippines. And Church membership there doubles every four years. By the end of the 1990s, there will likely be a million Latter-day Saints in the Philippines.

Why such phenomenal growth? Much of it has to do with the fact that, unlike her Asian neighbors, the Philippines is a Christian nation. As a result of the four centuries of Spanish and American rule, more than 90 percent of the people are already Christians. And, says Elder L. Lionel Kendrick, Area President, “they are a spiritually sensitive, responsive, and believing people.”

But another reason is that it is the Filipino’s nature to share what he has. “Everyone has nonmember friends or relatives for us to teach,” says a missionary. “Most of our referrals come from members.”

“We’re bridling the runaway growth through concentrating on families,” says Elder George R. Hill III, formerly of the Area Presidency. And full-time missionaries are asked to spend up to 30 percent of their time in reactivation and leadership work. Still, the baptism rate continues to rise.

What is the history behind this growth?

  • In 1945, during World War II, servicemen’s branches were organized. Maxine Grimm, a Latter-day Saint serving in the Red Cross, introduced the gospel to Mrs. Aniceta Fajardo, who was baptized—the first known Latter-day Saint convert in the Philippines.

  • During the Korean Conflict in 1953, American soldiers returned, and a servicemen’s district was again organized.

  • In 1955, President Joseph Fielding Smith dedicated the Philippines for the preaching of the gospel. However, missionary work could not begin there yet because of visa restrictions.

  • On 28 April 1961, Elder Gordon B. Hinckley met with a small group of Church members at the Fort McKinley War Memorial Cemetery in Manila and offered a special prayer for the work. Missionaries arrived a week later. Ruben Gapiz, now a mission president, was one of the early members of the Church in the Philippines. “When President Hinckley said his prayer at the cemetery,” Ruben says, “he prayed that there may be many Filipinos who would be baptized and become leaders of the Church here. That was very prophetic. It’s happening.”

  • In a country the size of the state of Arizona, there are twelve missions of the Church. More than 1,250 of the 1,650 full-time missionaries are Filipinos. Five of the mission presidents and all seven regional representatives are Filipinos. Thirty-nine of the forty stakes and all sixty mission districts have Filipino presidents.

  • Current enrollment in seminary and institute programs is fifteen thousand.

  • There is a family history service center in Manila and a branch family history library in almost every stake and in some districts.

  • Eighty missionary couples are assigned to the twelve missions to help train new, inexperienced leaders.

  • The Church is now building small meetinghouses of native materials at a fraction of the cost of standard meetinghouses. Members welcome the change; transportation is expensive, and these meetinghouses are built closer to home.

  • Marvin K. Gardner, assistant managing editor of the Church’s International Magazines, serves as bishop of the Bountiful Sixteenth Ward, Bountiful Utah Heights Stake.

Photography by Marvin K. Gardner

Stake president Luciano De Guzman (foreground) of Lingayen says good-bye to Perla and their daughters, Ruth and Esther, as he leaves on his bicycle for a Church assignment. Members in southeast Luzon tell of being protected from destructive lava flows of the Mayon Volcano (backdrop), a prominent landmark. Four-year-old Jan Michelle Cabrito of Baguio (upper right) learns about Jesus in home evening.

Ellen and Cesar Dichoso were married in the Manila temple, where sessions are regularly presented in English, three Philippine dialects, Mandarin, Cantonese, and Spanish.

Members flock to the Manila temple, many having traveled several days and nights in boats, buses, and jeepneys. The temple is sometimes so crowded that there is a two- or three-hour wait for a session. “Often, groups are waiting for us to open the temple when we arrive early in the morning,” says Floyd H. Hogan, then serving as temple president. Lindo Casinillo (inset) says faithfulness is “a matter of finding a way to obey.”

President and Sister Eusebio Alambra and twenty-six branch members crowded into a jeepney at 1:00 A.M. for a four-hour ride to the temple.

Young Filipino men and women, often beset by economic problems, energetically seek training to support their families. Fifteen of the twenty-two students in this community vocational school class in Davao (left) are Church members; several are returned missionaries who are now married and have families. Sister Vitaliana G. Gorgonio of Cebu (inset) supports her family—including a missionary son—with her sewing. “I learned self-reliance since joining the Church,” she says. She gives sewing lessons to her Relief Society president, in exchange for English lessons.

All of the children in the Cabcaben Branch meet together for Primary. Here, they are preparing for their upcoming sacrament meeting program.

Many small rural meetinghouses can be built with bamboo and other native materials for less than the cost of one traditional Church building. The Cabcaben Branch meetinghouse, pictured here, is situated on the Bataan Peninsula, overlooking Manila Bay and Corregidor Island. Inset: Sister Elizabeth Daan (left) and Sister Angelina Llasos, serving in Manila, are two of many Filipinas who are taking the gospel to their own people.