On Nov. 7, Typhoon Haiyan barreled through the center of the Philippine archipelago. It had the strongest landfall ever recorded and its winds ranked it the second strongest typhoon in history. Over 6,000 perished, and millions were left homeless and in desperate conditions. Father Manuel Igrobay, the priest for Catholic churches in Olema, Tomales and Bolinas, traveled to the capital, Manila, the day before the storm struck to sit at the bedside of his dying mother. She passed away the day after his arrival. After Father Manuel returned to West Marin, he spoke of his trip during a Sunday homily. The next day he sat down with the Light to share his experiences and reflections on hope in the face of overwhelming loss.
Point Reyes Light: What took you to the Philippines last month?
Father Manuel: My mom was on her deathbed, and that was the main purpose of my going to the Philippines—to see my mom for the last time. I did not know that I was bringing the typhoon to the Philippines! Actually, I knew there was a typhoon coming. The advice of the airlines was it’s O.K., everything would be smooth because it’s a different island than Manila, so I continued.
What is difficult to accept is that I was there for the death of my mom, and that 6,000-plus people also died. It’s very hard.
You get too much with the news. It’s not what happened that we want to know, but how we are going to move on and where we go from here. The stories of hope are what are important right now. Everyone knows what happened, it is all coming out in the news. Stories of hope are what make people strong, just like I said [in my homily] about the woman in her uniform: A Catholic bishops’ conference in the Philippines sent a priest to the location where there was devastation, and he found a teacher of a school, but there was no school, no more children. No roof, almost nothing, but this teacher was beautifully dressed, with her uniform, makeup, lipstick, everything.
The priest asked, “Who are you?” And she said she was the principal. And he asked, “Why are you so well dressed? All the people are suffering.” And she said, “I am wearing my lipstick and hair and makeup because I am giving hope.”
That was very touching—to show to the people there is still hope after this. Isn’t that beautiful? I find it very inspiring, that everyone feels hopeless but someone will stand on her feet saying, “Let’s move on,” giving hope. It’s an example of what we are going to do and what we want to see.
Point Reyes Light: Were people transported from the affected islands to Manila?
Father Manuel: Yes. The government gave them medical services and food and lodging and kids were able to play around, just to divert their minds from the tragedy.
Point Reyes Light: What were your observations of aid work?
Father Manuel: It was so big and very contagious. If other outsiders are helping, why don’t we form ourselves here inside the Philippines to help in our own way? I heard a story of a 10-year-old boy from Samar who was begging in the streets of Manila and donated what he got that day for the victims. It was really
Point Reyes Light: What was your emotional response to the humanitarian efforts?
Father Manuel: It’s a very good act. There’s no more race or religion or anything that hinders the international community. The humanitarian aspect is what is important, and it was very important for us Filipinos to have help at this particular time.
When I see people crying, they are not crying because of the incident. When they cry, it’s because somebody gave them hope: “I can survive this situation, but if someone helps me, that’s the time I feel so blessed.” It’s a cry of joy that someone extended his hand so that I can stand up. That is very
touching for me. In my own difficulties I do what I can, but when someone lifts me up, that’s when I cry—because someone is involved and wants to be where I am. I see people when they receive relief goods, food for the day, that’s the time they are so touched and tears flow from their eyes.
Point Reyes Light: How did you participate in the aid efforts?
Father Manuel: In Metro Manila there were plenty of schools doing packages, and I helped. Just to be part of it. After the storm, relatives came to our house. That’s what people are doing: they have relatives from the island and accommodate them, because no one should be there. Everyone should be in Manila. Even if they are not really affected, the trauma was very strong. So my relatives went to our house, and then we went out and helped some schools in their effort to send goods.
Point Reyes Light: It’s so much to go through all at once. Can you talk about how your faith helped you as you witnessed both the passing of your mother and the tragedy unfolding in the country?
Father Manuel: I always think God is making new things. The verse in the Bible is that you will create new things all the time, which is to say if something happens, something better will then happen. This is it. Maybe God is preparing a better place for these people.
What makes me strong is when there is another being who is stronger than us who is there, because if not for God, we would depend on human resources, which are very temporary, very weak. It is not reliable. But with faith I know God is there always to create new things for me, for us. That makes it perfect.
Point Reyes Light: How did you come to the priesthood?
Father Manuel: My parents put me into the seminary at age 11. I had no knowledge of the priesthood at that time, but I enjoyed life inside the seminary. When I reached adulthood, I decided I wanted to continue. I studied theology and got ordained in 1989. We are a missionary congregation, so they sent me to Paraguay for my first mission assignment. There I learned Spanish. I stayed there four years. Then I came back to the Philippines. Before coming here I was in the Northern Mariana Islands in the Pacific for six years. Then from there a friend of mine invited me to come here and I agreed. I am seven years in the archdiocese and started here in July.
Point Reyes Light: For people in West Marin, what should they do to help if they want to contribute to the recovery?
Father Manuel: The archdiocese is always the best channel for donations. The archbishop is doing all he can to donate something to the Philippines. It’s safer. Human nature is always there, but if you know that the institutions are going to send goods and help is reliable and honest, we know the donations will go through to the intended people.