THE LESSONS OF HISTORY (2): The Jesuit Letters On Epidemics And Tremors In Butuan

BUTUAN CITY (MindaNews / 15 April) – “The number of fatalities increased so much that on Christmas Day [1883], there were 45 burials while there were days when the priest administered extreme unction to 30 persons…. When finally the Te Deum could be intoned, the parish of Butuan had lost in an eyewink 500 souls.”

This was written by Fr. Pablo Pastells, the Jesuit superior of the Philippine province in the last decade of the 19th century and author of the three-volume “Mision de la Compania de Jesus en el Filipinas en siglo XIX” (The Jesuit Missions in the Philippines in the 19th Century). The preceding account was just one episode on the anguish and terror of one town, a cri de couer that would soon be blissfully forgotten by its residents, because more would come in the future.

As I write this, I remember the passages in the book by Stephen Oppenheimer, “Eden in the East: The Drowned Continent of Southeast Asia,” where he wrote that the massive destruction of human civilization brought about by the end of the Ice Age [20,000 to 8,000 years Before the Present] grew into the stories and myths of the Great Flood. It was mankind coping with the pain and tragedy of loss. But it also drove people to reinforce their belief in a Supreme Being who was all-powerful and all-knowing that could only beseeched by the prayer of man, and thus the inspired light of the prophets brought us the Bible. Oppenheimer is a scientist on genetics, geology and archaeology who tries to make sense on how people in ancient times coped with tragedy. People wove poetry, music and art to try to understand the inscrutable fate that befell on them. It was for him as a scientist to tell us that the changes in the earth over time validates much of what we in our time could only comprehend in the parables of the past.

Tragedy in our time should, with hope, provide us the moral transcendence to rise beyond our pain.

(Greg Hontiveros of Butuan City is an independent researcher on historical studies. Hontiveros has two published books and a dozen papers published in the Journal of History and some university journals. His focus is on aspects of Mindanao history and culture. This piece is an excerpt from his book, “Butuan of a Thousand Years.”)

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