Scarboro Missions Father Charlie Gervais, left, with the local villagers in Mindanao, Philippines. Photo courtesy of Scarboro Missions

Scarboro Mission priest recounts the days of People Power

  • April 5, 2014

TORONTO - When the Filipino revolution happened Fr. Charlie Gervais was there, in the middle, talking to soldiers and rebels, peasants and potentates. History unfolded in his parish, in the prayers and struggles of his people.

Gervais spent almost 25 years in the Philippines, most of it under the rule of Ferdinand Marcos. He was part of the generation of Scarboro Foreign Mission priests who took over after the former China Mission Society was expelled from China in 1952. It was also a time when missionaries were rethinking their work.

“Justice for the poor became a big thing, where the rich were exploiting the poor in their own country,” said Gervais.

A small slice of Gervais’ memories of working and walking with the Filipino people has now been gathered into a new Novalis book called The People’s Revolution: 24 Stories From a Scarboro Missionary’s Journal. Gervais will launch his book at the order’s Kingston Road headquarters in Toronto April 24 at 7 p.m.

The book concentrates on the period around the People Power revolution of 1986. Although the mass demonstrations that forced Ferdinand Marcos from power took place mainly in downtown Manila, Gervais found himself inevitably drawn into the conflict in his remote, rural parish in Mindanao. Both the military and the rebel New People’s Army were present in his village, with disastrous consequences. When the government army’s informer in the village was assassinated by the NPA, the victim’s family vowed revenge. His son, who was a special forces soldier, wanted the name of whoever fingered his father.

“He didn’t know who did the shooting. He just wanted a name. The name they gave him was Elizabeth, who was just an innocent young woman — 18 years old,” Gervais told The Catholic Register. “So he went about killing her. We lost Elizabeth.”

Elizabeth was one of the catechists Gervais had trained so that the parish could reach out to rural families far from the village.

Ever ything about the movement for genuine democracy in the Philippines was connected to the Church. It was Cardinal Jaime Sin who called for the people to come out to Epifanio de los Santos Avenue — the grand boulevard that ended at the presidential palace. More than 100,000 came waving yellow ribbons.

“Rebels were there with their guns, but the people said, ‘You put your guns away. We’re doing this our way,’ ” said Gervais. When the Philippines Conference of Catholic Bishops decided it was time for Marcos to go, Gervais found himself reading a Sunday sermon written by his own talented, Jesuit Bishop Francisco Claver — a sermon that was read from every pulpit in every church in the country.

As leaders among the people, Catholic priests and sisters played a role in the revolution.

“A few of the reform priests who stood up to the military, they were killed,” recalls Gervais. “The majority of them were Filipinos. The foreigners, they would deport them. That’s why I could be a little braver.”

Corruption and the arrogance of Manila’s elite families continued long after Marcos was gone, but the significance of the 1986 People Power revolution went far beyond the island nation. It broke the Cold War pattern of dictatorships with American backing using the threat of communist overthrow to justify their existence. It demonstrated that unarmed civilians could take power away from the men who

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