Christmas in Bohol: Simbang Gabi in the ruins

LOON, Bohol - Maria Joselle Payales is up before dawn. Along with her mother, she starts getting ready for Simbang Gabi. They look for a pedicab in their sleepy barangay, and make sure to bring plastic stools because Church pews have grown scarce here.

The town's centuries-old Church, after all, is in ruins after a 7.2-magnitude earthquake hit central Visayas in October. Loon was one of the hardest hit in the province of Bohol. 

Under the bright night sky, Payales and hundreds of other Loon residents hear Christmas Eve mass beside what remains of the Our Lady of Light Church. The makeshift church – an altar, chairs, and some pews – is almost never without someone inside praying and hoping.

Payales says waking up in time for morning mass isn't easy, but it's a tradition. "Murag pukawon ka sa Holy Spirit, mathun gyud ka," she said. (It's like the Holy Spirit wakes you up on time.)

The last Simbang Gabi mass in Loon on Tuesday, December 24, was celebrated by Tagbilaran Bishop Leonardo Mederoso, DD, who tells the congregation not to lose faith in God. Even if, he said, He showed his wrathful and destructive side during the quake.

"Nikita naton ang kini nga anino sa Diyos, ngadtong October 15. Diyos na nibisita kanato na gusog na Diyos. Kita tanan nangahadluk. Kinsa galing dili mahadluk. Kinsa galing dili mahadluk sa kini nga Diyos na sa pipila lamang na mga segundo, nabungkag ang atong century-old na simbahan," the bishop said during a December 24 homily at Loon. (We saw this side of God in October 15. A strong God. We were all afraid – who wouldn't be? Who wouldn't be afraid of a God, who in mere seconds, caused the destruction of our centuries old Church?)

For many victims of the earthquake, losing their beloved church was a heartbreaking blow to the entire community. Payales can still remember the day she found out the church was in ruins. "Dili ma-kuan na pagbati. Nakahilak gyud ko," said the 33-year-old grade school teacher. (I couldn't understand how I felt. I cried after seeing the ruins.)

The earthquake took something else that mattered in Payales' life – the Secred Heart Academy, where she teaches computer science to grade school children.

"So ang nahitabo, duha akong gibati. Murag dili ko kadawat nga among simbahan wala na, unya ang skwelahan," she said. (I felt bad over two things. I couldn't accept that both our church and school were gone.)

But Medroso in his homily said despite everything, God was also showing the victims his compassionate and motherly side.

"Siya ang Diyos na diha ni ining imong kalisdan tungod ani nga linog, nianha siya kanimo pagpahid sa luha nga midigayday diha sa imong mga aping. Tungod kay nawad-an ka'g balay, namatyan ka'g igsuon. Diyos na mupahid sa luha sa iyang mga anak." (He is the God who, because of your hardships caused by the earthquake, will wipe away the tears on your cheeks. Because you've lost your homes, you're loved ones. He is a God who will wipe away the tears of His children.)


Much has changed since the week right after the quake.

Usable materials from the old church have been sorted by locals, through a cash-for-work program. On December 24, the parish unveiled plans for the St Joseph Husband of Mary Oratory, which will serve as a "transitional" church while plans to rebuild the Our Lady of Light church are ironed out.

As relief efforts in Bohol end, the rehabilitation phase kicks in. This includes restoring Bohol's many beautiful churches, including the one in Loon.

The church – or what's left of it – has always been a source of hope for Loon locals.

The church grounds are where many locals, whose houses were damaged by the quake, set up temporary camp. They have returned home or moved to different relocation sites since, but it's still where most people turn to in dire times. 

In Payales' case, she says she visits the makeshift church to give thanks for everything that was taken from – and given back – to them. –