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Faith after the typhoon

07 February 2014

The remains of a 30-metre telecoms mast

The remains of a 30-metre telecoms mast

MANY Filipinos fled to their nearest church when the warnings for Typhoon Haiyan began on 7 November, seeking refuge in more robust structures.

But houses of God were not immune to the force of the storm. In the large, ornate Roman Catholic Church of Santa Niño in Tacloban, the largest town on the island of Leyte, the surge of water was waist-high, and the howling winds caused almost £50,000 of damage to the roof.

Sister Monica Gutierrez, of the Franciscan Handmaids of the Lord, said that 250 families sheltered from the typhoon in the church. "I was in the convent; so I didn't see it, but the water came up to the fifth step on our stairs," she said. "The families in the church went up the bell tower during the typhoon. There were no casualties, but they are very shaken.

"The roof is ruined. It will cost 40 million pesos [about £530,000] to renovate the entire church."

With no money from the diocese, Sister Monica and her parishioners must raise the funds themselves to restore their church. But the physical damage had not shaken the faith of the congregation, she said. "People are stronger in their faith because of the typhoon. They trust in God, and try their best to cope with the situation." Attendance at services inside the damaged church had gone up.

Fr Pio Makabenta, from the RC Redemptorist Mission in Tacloban, said that it was inevitable that a tragedy of the scale of the typhoon would raise spiritual questions for the survivors. Many had approached him after the storm, he said. "People have questions about God. They were asking: 'What kind of God do we have?' and 'Where is God in this?' It's about journeying also with them."

As Fr Makabenta spoke he was preparing to hold mass inside the Astrodome stadium, which was an evacuation centre during Haiyan and is still home to 462 families.

He grew up near the town, and was a parish priest there for four years. After the typhoon hit, he returned with the mission, and had been helping the relief efforts for the more than 300 families in his parish who were left destitute by the storm.

"We were bringing in relief food during Yolanda [the Filipino name for Typhoon Haiyan] and also medical supplies," he said. "Now we are into building shelters. The plan is to give housing supplies to 22 barangays [districts]."

The area had changed since the typhoon struck, Fr Makabenta said. "It was very difficult for me to come back. Before, it was a happy life here. But coming back - the trauma and the stress. . . I can't count the times I have wept with people, or even on my own."

Wherever you go, the legacy of Haiyan is unavoidable. The land around the parish church of San Joaquin, a short drive outside Tacloban, has become a mass grave. At least 50 simple wooden crosses, many inscribed with the name of a victim and a photo, mark the graves.

The town of Palo, a few miles from San Joaquin, was in the eye of the storm. The steel roof of the RC cathedral was ripped off as though it were tin foil, and lay, contorted, along the side of the building.

Sister Monica said that her church was the first to offer help to the victims. "It was the first to give food, water, and clothing. The families that sheltered here stayed in the church for more than a month afterwards.

"Some of the people may be doubting about their faith, but, mostly, they try to carry on."

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