Ateneo priest eyed as next Filipino saint

Paterno Esmaquel II
Ateneo priest eyed as next Filipino saint
Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle opens the process to declare Fr George Willmann SJ the next Filipino saint

MANILA, Philippines –  Twice between 1922 and 1940, his superiors assigned him to work in Ateneo de Manila, then an exclusive school run by American priests from the Jesuit religious order. 

Naturalized Filipino priest Fr George Willmann SJ, however, found his heart elsewhere.

“At the outset he asked his superiors to allow him to work in Tondo, because while there were so many priests in Ateneo to attend to a smaller population of students, there were but a few priests attending to the pastoral needs of the poor in Manila,” according to his biography read Monday, December 7, at the Manila Cathedral.

Willmann’s leaders denied his request. He ended up working in Ateneo, then based in Padre Faura, Manila, as treasurer from 1937 to 1939 and as dean from 1937 to 1940. He had also taught in Ateneo, then located in Intramuros, Manila, from 1922 to 1925. 

Still, while the New York-born Willmann stayed in Ateneo, he found his own “launchpad to the doorstep of the poor.” He became the chaplain of the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic brotherhood formed in 1882 to help the poor, but later perceived in the Philippines as an elite group.

Willmann’s biography said, “The first thing he did was to open and expand this organization of men, which had earlier been perceived as the domain of the elite, to Catholic men irrespective of their social or economic status.”

Willmann, who became a Filipino citizen in 1975, also started projects to help the poor. For one, he founded the Columbian Farmers Aid Association in 1951 to assist small farmers “who were not able to help themselves due to lack of educational background, or because of poverty.” 

Willmann’s love for the poor, as well as his efforts to boost the Knights of Columbus, prompted a group of Catholics to push for Willmann as the next Filipino saint.

Long road to sainthood

Their petition convinced Manila Archbishop Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle to put Willmann, known as the Father of the Philippines’ Knights of Columbus, on the road to sainthood.

On Monday, Tagle accepted a petition to investigate Willmann’s life to see if the Pope could declare him a saint.

The Catholic Church considers saints, deceased individuals who lived exemplary lives, as models and intercessors in heaven.

The process to declare someone a saint can take decades. Tagle’s move on Monday begins this process.

Tagle, a Jesuit-trained cardinal who also studied in Ateneo, appointed Monsignor Pedro Quitorio III as postulator for Willmann’s cause. Quitorio is also the media office director of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines.

The postulator is tasked to “collect documentation on the reputation of holiness…and on the reputation of intercessory power” of Willmann, according to the document Sanctorum Mater published by the Vatican in 2007.

In the case of Willmann, people who knew him said his holiness stemmed from his personal simplicity.

His biography recalled his simple life in the Jesuits’ La Ignaciana community in Santa Ana, Manila.

Quoting Monsignor Francisco Tantoco, his biography said: “Fr Willmann was a man of detachment. He lived a truly Spartan life, deprived of all unnecessary luxuries and comforts, and yet keeping his whole being strong, active and disciplined in the service of God and humanity.”

“His iron bed in La Ignaciana had no cushion nor foam on it, but only a mat. The only prized possession he always carried with him were an old leather briefcase, a pair of eye glasses, a wrist-watch of unknown brand, a rosary and a breviary,” Tantoco said. 

In the words of his biography, “his love for the poor came from living a life of poverty.” –

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Paterno Esmaquel II

Paterno R. Esmaquel II, news editor of Rappler, specializes in covering religion and foreign affairs. He obtained his MA Journalism degree from Ateneo and later finished MSc Asian Studies (Religions in Plural Societies) at RSIS, Singapore. For story ideas or feedback, email him at