This story has been long time in brewing, and the only reason it has taken me this long to write it is because I'm not sure that I can do the subject justice. It's not easy to write someone's biography, much less someone reasonably close to you. Even less so if the subject is still living.
It's not easy to get close to Fr. Chi, that much is certain. In the sunset of his life, all we might see if we don't make the effort is a crochety old man, grumpy and irritable. It helps little that he doesn't speak the vernacular and that, although his command and comprehension of English is excellent, it takes an effort to understand what he is saying.
For many, that effort might not be worth the bother. And that's simply a great shame.
Fr. Chi has been a priest for over fifty-three years, the last forty of which he has served in Dumaguete City. His small but sturdy frame has been through an extraordinary history that few in this pampered age can appreciate much less imagine going through. Fr. Chi is a man of another age, one which is steadily passing into the misty memories of history.
His health had been in decline over the past several years but tough men like him do not keel over easily. Had he been of a lesser constitution, he might have given in many years ago. But the tough gentleman has held on for this long.
Thus it was with some optimism that I visited him in the hospital two weeks ago. He had decided to undergo a procedure and it seemed to have done him some good. He could sit up in bed and hold an extended conversation with visitors.
His disposition had also taken a turn for the better, quite possibly because now he was in less pain. I took the opportunity to review with him some of the milestones of his life, some of which I was familiar but had forgotten, and some of which I was only probing for the first time.
One of the things which marks Fr. Chi is his intense hatred of communism. It doesn't take much to wind him up and get him going on the subject. As with many native-born Chinese of his generation, it was a scar that marked him for life.
In a way, Fr. Chi was lucky to have escaped the persecution that began when the communists took over China in 1949. But in place of that fate came another, one that eventually led him to Dumaguete.
The Last Plane From Beijing
In December of 1948, under cover of the darkness of night and using forged documents, a young Paul Chi and his other fellow seminarians boarded a plane in the makeshift airport west of Beijing. It was a hurried departure, with no time to inform their family or close relatives where they were going.
It was a tumultuous time, filled with much uncertainty. China had just been through a period of long and intense suffering under an almost decade-long Japanese occupation. Now, it was civil war between the Nationalists and the communists, and it looked as if the tide was turning in favor of the latter.
At 24 years of age, the young Paul Chi had spent almost his entire life in the Jesuit-run Tian Xian seminary. He entered the seminary's grade school when he was six years old and stayed there through its six-year course. He went on to its high school where he began life as a full-fledged seminarian, which would take another six years.
It was quite a strict school with a regimented lifestyle. Students boarded at the school and were only let out during holidays and special occasions. Paul, the youngest of seven children, was the only one in his family to attend that school; his elder brother attended a different one run by lay brothers of another order.
Paul had just entered the seminary high school when the Japanese forces took over Beijing in 1937. From then on, it was martial law, and the young seminarian underwent several traumatic experiences.
The occupying forces were never very friendly with the Catholic church in China. The same rules of retribution applied to the Church as it did with many others. In one incident, communist guerrillas killed a Japanese officer and left the body in the church. The following day, the Japanese commander ordered nine priests and seminarians executed in reprisal.
After that, they had to move to other premises. Even during those times their seminary education continued without letup. But neither did the threat of persecution. In another incident, Japanese soldiers saw flashlights shining from their school windows after curfew, and the seminarians were suspected of signalling to communist guerrillas. Thirty-seven seminarians, some of them just a day short of ordination, were dragged out and shot.
Fortunately, the young Paul was spared from this fate. A distinguishing mark that the Japanese looked for in communist guerrillas were rough hands. Though his father was a farmer, the young Paul Chi had spent his entire life within the walls of the school as a student, and so his hands were smooth and soft.
The persecution only came to a halt when the Jesuit brothers wrote to a German priest in Japan, asking for assistance. The German priest talked to the commander of the Beijing garrison and extracted a promise that the seminary would be spared from such purges. As a sign of goodwill, they accepted a Japanese offer for an officer to come to the seminary to teach Nihonggo.
All throughout, the classes continued. Paul finished high school and proceeded to another three years of Philosophy. After finishing Philosophy, he spent some time teaching in Inner Mongolia, before proceeding to the requisite Theology.
It was somewhere near the start of his course in Theology that the decision to leave Beijing was made by his superiors. It looked like there might be trouble from the communists so it was decided to continue their education in Hong Kong. In their class of over a hundred seminarians, Paul Chi and two other companions were the first to take the flight from Beijing.
From Beijing the plane would go to Tsingtao, and then onwards to Shanghai. From Shanghai, they would take a boat to Hong Kong, a trip that would last a week. Characteristic of optimistic estimates in such times, the seminarians thought they would be back in their country after a while when things had quieted down.
Three days after, the Nationalists surrendered Beijing to the communists.
It was the last flight from Beijing. The other seminarians would have to make the journey by land.
Fr. Chi would not see his homeland again until some forty years later. By then, the family whom he had never even said goodbye to on that fateful night would be no more.
Manila and Other Parts
I try to imagine what the young Paul Chi and his companions must have felt when they learned of the fall of Beijing, and that there would be no return, but I simply can't. They belonged to another age when men were tempered by circumstance into sterner stuff.
With the fall of Beijing, the directives changed. They would have to find new locations to settle the seminarians. Paul stayed in Hong Kong for three months while his superiors sought out their contacts. In the meantime, their studies in Theology continued as they joined the ongoing classes in the seminary there.
Finally, it was decided that they should come to Manila, and so they did. They joined the Jesuit seminary there. Classes resumed. The other seminarians from Beijing would also follow.
Paul finished his Theology in Manila, picking up some French along the way. He was ordained priest in 1952.
In retrospect, this itself was an amazing feat. Between their escape in late 1948 and his ordination was only a period of four years. Despite the duress of the times, there was no letup in their studies. Even their three months in Hong Kong counted towards their preparation.
After his ordination, Fr. Chi spent time in various parts of the country. He spent a year in Vigan, then moved on to Quezon Province. He also spent three years in Tarlac before finally heading South. He spent another three years in Capiz and Kalibo, as well as another year in Cagayan de Oro. All travel was done by boat.
Fr. Chi finally landed in Dumaguete in 1962. At that time, the Chinese community of Dumaguete was under a Catholic mission headed by Bishop Juan Velasco. Fr. Chi stayed in Holy Cross School, where they stayed in a two story wood-and-nipa building. The first floor was the chapel, and the second floor was their apartment.
There was no parish church to speak of. That would be his job to put it up.
Sometimes it's easy to forget that churches take a lot of time, money, and effort to build. Mary Immaculate Parish has stood where it stands for over 40 years now, a veritable institution and landmark of Dumaguete City, filled to overflowing on Sundays and feastdays. Sometimes it's easy to forget that it wasn't always so.
Forty years ago, the lot on which it stands was bare land. There were other candidates, for example, a lot in Claytown, but its present site was ultimately chosen because it was the only one which the Chinese mission could afford. The price: P25/sq.m. (As a point of comparison, the entire lot on which Lee Plaza stands was priced at about P130,000. Cement was priced at P4.50 per sack.)
Construction of the parish church started in 1963. Money was hard to come by. Fr. Chi sought donations, sent letters, held benefits, and organized Christmas carolling expeditions to fund the building. Later, Fr. Chi moved to the apartment next to the church.
The first Mass in Mary Immaculate was held in 1964 by Bishop Surban. The Chinese mission in Dumaguete officially became a parish in 1965. (The first wedding, my parents', was held in 1966.) Mary Immaculate Church was finally completed in 1968.
Some interesting facts about the parish church came up in my interview with Fr. Chi.
The present crucifix, for instance, was the original one installed in the church. The corpus was brought in from Manila by boat, but the cross was made by local carpenters using hardwood from Zamboanga.
The altar is made of one entire piece of marble. It is 3m. long, 1.5m. wide, and 8cm. thick.
In contrast to the overflowing parishioners that we normally see on Sundays and holidays, attendance at Mass in the early days was sparse. The Chinese community was still predominantly non-Catholic. Mostly it would be the Matiao sisters and other students who studied in St. Paul's College who would go.
Some Final Commentary
This account was based on half-hour sessions with Fr. Chi over a period of a week. Though I would have wanted to write a more thorough history with exact dates, quotes, and background information, all supplemented by secondary sources and interviews, I thought it best to publish the broad strokes of Fr. Chi's story. Perhaps someone with more experience in writing history can pick up and expand on this tale or expand on it within the context of Dumaguete's history.
Factual or temporal inaccuracies may be attributed to failing memory or my own poor hearing. Speculations as to what he or other players in the story may have felt are entirely my own opinion.
If you've read this far, please bear with me on just a little more speculation and commentary.
Sometimes, I wonder what Fr. Chi would have become if he did not become a priest. Over the years that I've known him, he's demonstrated remarkable interest in mechanical gadgets, so much so that I think, if the events in China had not overtaken him, he might have become an engineer.
What stands out more are the words from Jn.21:18: "Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you girded yourself and walked where you would; but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will gird you and carry you where you do not wish to go."
Wrested from his home in China, following after his vocation, to only God knows where, these words ring so true.