Find out the story behind an ancient bell, thick with green patina, enshrined right at the entrance of Robinson’s mall on Padre Faura Street.
Its famous director, Frederico Faura, S.J., was not only the Philippines’ first meteorologist, he was also first in the Far East to study the laws of typhoons, managing to predict their coming for the first time in 1879. This singular achievement in a country visited by at least 20 typhoons a year is why this street was named after him.
“We were cartographers, we were explorers. We really went to the frontiers. The Jesuit spirit – the desire to seek God in all things, even secular things -- has always been there,” Jett Villarin, SJ. observed on the Manila Observatory’s sesquicentennial in 2015.
This striking sight in 21st century Ermita, Manila takes us right back to World War II, when the Observatory was razed by Japan’s Imperial Army with incendiary bombs that also killed all civilians remaining in the Ateneo Padre Faura.
But if this bell could speak, it would tell us more of this stirring history, starting with a fond look back to its first home, the San Ignacio grade school in the Spanish walled city of Intramuros.
It was 1932 under the American colonial government when the Jesuits took this bell with them to neighboring Ermita. There it would ring the start and end of classes in the new Ateneo de Manila high school and college now sharing its campus with the Jesuits’ Manila Observatory.
Well might it clang again to honor a great man few people remember today -- the Jesuits’ burly American Father Superior, the late Fr. John Hurley, who rose as a tower of strength when Japan invaded the Philippines.
Fated to be caught by war from the start, Fr. Hurley was on his way to see Commonwealth President Manuel Quezon in Baguio when the president ordered his plane to turn back. It was Dec. 8, 1941, D-day for Japan’s invasion. Indeed, the first Japanese bombs fell on Baguio’s airport, a hair’s breadth from the Americans’ lookout to the Far East, Camp John Hay, minutes after the Father Superior’s plane left.
A month later began 18 months of Fr. Hurley’s resistance to enemy takeover of Ateneo Padre Faura. Charged with the care of all Jesuits in the Philippines, he revealed himself a brilliant mastermind of non-violent resistance.
“This is the Catholic Church’s property. It’s not mine to give. It belongs to the Vatican in Rome,” he coolly told the Japanese troops. Rome is the capital of Japan’s war ally Italy. The enemy hesitated then withdrew, but left a permanent sentry at the school gate.
Now Fr. Hurley would house a Red Cross mini-hospital behind that gate and hide Americans GIs separated from their units in the deepening war. Meanwhile, he kept alive hundreds of American Jesuits and seminarians classified as enemies, now war prisoners, internees, or fugitives.
He sent them food, medicines, blankets and mosquito nets, even smuggling tens of thousands of pesos to keep bodies and souls together in prisons, hospital beds and jungle hideouts. Soon he would be called “Father Mercy,” whose embrace would include survivors of the Death March from Bataan to Tarlac’s Camp O’ Donnell.
A gallant band of Filipino and American Catholics secretly gathered around Fr. Hurley, risking their lives to share his clandestine mission, all the while suffering hunger and facing the ever-present danger of imprisonment, torture and death themselves. Only with them would Fr. Hurley share the Ateneo’s secret second entrance back of the sprawling campus near the Observatory.
Many of these valiant men and women died or were imprisoned and tortured, but somehow their work continued until the Japanese gave a deadline for the Ateneo to leave their campus to make room for their own military hospital. How well Fr. Hurley remembers that deadline -- noon of the Feast of the Sacred Heart in July 1943.
The Sacred Heart was definitely present that day. Just before dawn, he would be startled by the sudden appearance of an army of Ateneo alumni and their friends, nuns, priests and their students to help the Jesuit fathers leave Padre Faura.
Quickly this well-organized army moved heavy furniture and office equipment, hoisting them down from top floors, loading them all on scores of improvised push carts with giant tires waiting on the street, even dismantling fixtures down to light bulbs and electric sockets “because we don’t want to leave anything for the Japanese.” Fearlessly crowding out the equally surprised Japanese, one intrepid Belgian sister even grabbed an ashtray from a Japanese soldier smoking in a corridor.
With hundreds of applauding civilian spectators, this army of the Sacred Heart pushed the heavy carts from Padre Faura back to Intramuros for storage in San Ignacio Church. The bell that called to Mass even in war was back in its old home.
That moment of triumph was brief. When the Japanese ascertained the heart of church resistance, they imprisoned Fr. Hurley in Fort Santiago, later interning him at the UST with his fellow-Americans. Starving with all the rest, Father Superior still made himself useful by becoming a “delousing expert.” Among his patients was the Jesuit seminarian Horacio de la Costa, one of his trusted lieutenants, scrawny from hunger.
Only when Gen. Douglas MacArthur landed in Leyte on September 1944 did 13 months of hunger finally end. The once burly Fr. Hurley was now 100 pounds lighter with a damaged heart.
But refusing to “toot his own horn,” it took 20 years for his brother Jesuits to convince him to finally write down his memories of war and the recovery he helped bring about in the Philippines. Those were the years when he shuttled between war ruins and the U.S. Congress’ deliberations on budget. What his brother Jesuits succeeded in preserving, with a bit of a push from the revered Cardinal Spellman in New York, are memories of great value to future generations.
The book John F. Hurley S.J. – Wartime Superior in the Philippines, published by the Jesuits’ Fordham University in 1966 is more than a stirring eyewitness account of Manila’s intense suffering -- bombs falling, fires blazing, bridges blown up, women raped, civilians killed by the bayonets of a fleeing Japanese Army, leaving a once lovely Pearl of the Orient in the total destruction of Manila’s “liberation,” with 100,000 dead.
This book offers something richer – an insight into the noblest ideals of their soldier-founder Ignatius de Loyola, nourished by his Society of Jesus in action without a single preachy word. “Jesuit missionary character is to go where no man dared to go,” says Fr. Villarin. Meeting this character in war makes the reader all the richer.
Bombs would destroy San Ignacio Church and everything in it, but unknown to everyone, a precious memento would somehow remain intact. Five decades later the bell -- with the Jesuit seal and the year 1932 inscribed -- would reveal itself to an Atenean, Saul Hofileña, a lawyer, historian and art collector browsing in an Ermita antique shop.
Ateneo Padre Faura -- with its lovely circular chapel and stained-glass Stations of the Cross, where the Jesuit genius Fr. Horacio de la Costa gave the most moving Christmas and Easter homilies -- was no more, long sold to Robinson’s Mall. Scholarly Ermita with many old trees is now commercial and touristy, with Japanese tour groups solemnly walking in the busy streets their warplanes once bombed while their infantry slashed fleeing civilians to death.
But here was an eloquent survivor of those unspeakable years. For a while Hofileña hung the bell on his doorstep -- until it struck him how much more eloquent it would be if it were returned to Padre Faura. He presented his idea of installing the bell as a monument to his law classmates Perry L. Pe, Gianna Montinola and the rest. John Gokongwei Jr., Pe’s father-in-law, graciously lent the land and partially funded the construction of the monument in front of the mall, its inscription read each day by hundreds of people, waiting for the mall to open in the early morning hours.
So, there it hangs in quiet dignity, commemorating both the Ateneo’s 150th anniversary and the 25th of Hofilena’s Law class in 1985. It waits for all who care enough to hear what a long silent bell still has to say about war and peace, life and love. Knowing the story hidden in this bell – with the great spirits of Padre Faura, Fr. Hurley and Fr. De las Costa hovering above a center of learning turned resistance zone -- may help heal still divided Filipinos with their country’s older, nobler memories.
Sylvia L. Mayuga is a veteran Filipino writer on the arts, culture and history of the Philippines. She has three National Book Awards to her name.