The Journey of Fr. Avel and the Filipino Personal Parish in Barcelona
by Nats Sisma Villaluna
Once, a Pinoy friend told me. “If I were to run down the things that Father Avel did for the Filipino community in Barcelona, it would take me a week to finish it. He has done a lot.”
Fr. Avelino Sapida
It was in 1986 when Father Avel arrived in Barcelona. Upon his arrival, he found himself facing a dilemma, the Filipino community was like sheep without shepherd. The Iglesia de San Elias, the church that had been serving Filipino churchgoers under the administration of Spanish priests Father Garcia and Father Gines had “died” a long time ago. It was a challenge for him to find his flocks and gather them in one place and be united again. He went to places frequented by Pinoys on their days-off. He scoured the Las Ramblas, Plaza Cataluña, Bracafé and the port area. He knocked at Pinoy’s houses, one by one, and invited them to participate in the community. At first, this attempt was met with cynicism. Some doubted his motive. However, after seeing that that Father Avel was only doing this for their interest, they came in droves.
Little by little his effort paid off. The Church of Sta. Monica became the church for Pinoys and Father Avel became the assistant priest. The number of attendees grew. The “dying” church slowly resurrected to life.
Father Avel has always been committed to the cause of the migrant workers. When he was first assigned in Italy, he served the Pinoys in Rome. There, he learned a lot about the situations of Filipino migrants in his short stint. Now in Spain, he was committed to do something for them at all cause.
For six years, the Santa Monica church witnessed the rise in numbers of mass-goers, both Pinoys and non-Pinoys.
In 1992, the need for a bigger church was apparently inevitable. Father Avel requested for a bigger place of worship. His petition was granted. The Basilica de San Justo y Pastor was offered following the directive from the bishop of Barcelona who ordered Father Avel to resurrect yet again another dying church. With lively songs and a participative environment, the church came back to life in a short period of time. Attendees swelled ten-folds.
“Nagkaroon na ng magandang impression ang Simbahan ng Barcelona sa ating mga Pinoy. Kaya sabi ng Obispo, patay na yang parokyang yan. Buhayin ninyo.”
The church also became a refuge for Filipinos, offering services ranging from employment to legal issues. It was also vocal against abusive treatment towards those without legal documents.
“We were even using our pulpit to denounce the treatment of the police against undocumented migrants. Naging uso ang mga raid ng mga pulis noon sa mga walang papel at kailangang saklolohan ang ating mga kababayan.”
Aside from providing spiritual guidance to the community, Father Avel was also busy helping our Pinoy seamen. He would visit Stella Maris, a church-based center where spiritual, pastoral and legal services for seafarers and their families were provided for the seafarers. It was also in this period when the Centro Filipino-Tuluyan San Benito was founded. Under the supervision of the Benedictine sisters, the Centro Filipino worked hand in hand with the church to protect the rights of Filipino migrants and seafarers in Catalonia. Later on, the Samahan ng mga Migranteng Pilipino sa Barcelona (SMPB) was formed.
“During the time when the government granted the amnesty program to illegal migrants, we were tapped by the Ministry of Labor to facilitate the preparation of documents of our Filipino workers. Pag may rally sa kalye para sa katarungan ng mga migrants, nandoon din kami.”
Once again, the problem regarding space became a challenge for Father Avel. He had to look for a much bigger church to accommodate the dramatic increase of churchgoers in Basilica San Justo y Pastor. He had his eyes on another dying church, the Iglesia de San Agustin. Previously, the Archbishop of Barcelona had promised him to give the church as a personal parish to the Filipino community. But before making good his promise, the archbishop died. His successor was not that keen on fulfilling the standing promise made to Father Avel. In 1996, Father Avel already started with the paper works to have the church. It took him a long time to convince the church of Barcelona to give the Iglesia de San Agustin to the Filipinos. The Spaniards were worried that by granting the Filipinos their own parish, the effect would be a ghetto-like existence where Filipinos would no longer integrate, hereby alienating itself to its host country.
But Father Avel argued;
“Hindi kami magiging ghetto. In fact, the more pa kaming mag-iintegrate sa comunidad. Sa pamamagitan ng parokya personal, we can have our own identity. We know what to give to the community. Alam na namin ang ibabagi namin.”
The year 1998 was a significant year for this undertaking. Father Avel took advantage of the historical importance of the said to persuade the Catalan religious leaders to grant his request. 1998 was the 100th year of Philippine independence from Spain. He pointed out the parallelism of this historic event to his appeal.
“I saw the opportunity to let them see the importance of having a personal parish to preserve equality and independence among us. Maramdaman natin na iisa tayo, na equal tayo sa kanila. We were able to fulfill their requirements: that we have our own language, culture, that we are not from here and we are Catholics. Ang apat na ito’y nasa atin lahat.”
Father Avel was not alone in his battle for a personal parish for the Filipinos. With the unwavering support from the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines, his request gained momentum. His effort was also recognized by several Spanish non-Spanish civic organizations. That same year, he was the head of the municipal council for the migrants in Barcelona.
“Pinag-aralan ng mga pari ang sitwasyon. Nakita nila kung ano ang mga pangangailangan ng mga Filipino dito sa Barcelona at kung paano sila matutulungan. Yung ibang civic organization naman, na-inspire sila na ipaglaban din ang kanilang karapatan.”
With 16 votes in favor and 4 who voted against it, the Church of Barcelona granted the request of the Filipino community to finally have its own personal parish. Although, there was a tiny condition in its resolution where the left side of the church belongs to the Filipinos and the right side to the Spanish, Father Avel was very pleased with the turn of events. It was on September 27, 1998 when the first official mass was celebrated. The same day that San Agustin church was brought back from the dead.
After a year, Father Avel decided to go back to the Philippines.
“Nagawa ko na ang dapat kong gawin. Nakuha ko na ang nais ko para sa mga Pilipino dito sa Barcelona. Dahil sa pagkaroon ng Parokya personal, nakita ng mga Espanyol na organizado ang comunidad Pilipino. It was an honor for the Filipinos to be recognized by the church of Spain. For our faith, culture and language, to be recognized is something.”
Was there a time where he felt he wanted to give up?
“Hindi, dahil kung nasaan ang Pinoy, dapat nandoon din tayo. Imbes na umurong ako lalong nag-init ang aking mithiin na lumaban. Kailangan maging organized tayong Pinoy. If you are not organized, you are nothing. It is important for Filipinos abroad to have a Filipino priest. They can express to the priest lahat ng saloobin nila, problema, lahat dahil the only ones who can understand Pinoys better are the Pinoy priest themselves. Sa bawat struggle ng Pinoy dapat may institutional back-up. Kaakibat. Nakaalalay palagi. ”
Last year, after almost ten years of being away, Father Avel decided to come back to Barcelona and became once again the Parish priest of San Agustin church. In his second coming, he still have dreams for the Filipino personal Parish.
“Gusto kong sa pagkakataon ito, tayo namang mga Pinoy ang lumabas tulad ng paglabas ni Jesus at pagpalaganap ng magandang balita. Sinisimulan na nating magkaroon ng tinatawag na Basic Eclesiastical Community, yung maliit na mga simbahan, bubuhayin natin ang mga iyun. We Filipinos are going to save those dying churches. We have done this before, we can do it again now. At sana balang araw, magkaroon ng isang maihahalal na mambabatas na Pinoy dito sa Espanya na siyang magsilbi para sa kapakanan ng mga migranteng Pilipino. Someone who also shares the dreams and aspirations of every Pinoy migrant worker. Matanda na ako. Pero kung anuman ang maitutulong ko para sa comunidad Pilipino at ng simbahan handa akong tumulong.”
San Agustin church was saved from dying. Today it enjoys a large number of attendees especially on Sundays and Wednesdays. Spanish churchgoers also come to hear the songs and feel the solemnity of the mass. For twelve years now, the church has been a witness to jam-packed masses, Filipino weddings, baptisms and other religious services. As one foreigner commented when he got lost and accidentally found himself attending a Filipino mass one Sunday afternoon, “This is my first time to hear mass where I didn’t understand anything but, it is so dynamic and participative and people are short, young and all have black hair.”
Whether he decides to stay or go back to the Philippines to retire, Father Avel’s legacy lives on.
If it were not for his vision and his efforts, we would not have been enjoying the freedom and equality we are benefiting right now. Yes, we could have a Filipino priest, a mass in Tagalog, but a personal parish like the San Agustin Parish that we can call our own, that would not have been that sooner. As a priest, a friend, a brother, a father or a grandfather, what Father Avel has done will always be a significant part in the history of Filipinos in Barcelona, and the whole of Spain. He will always be remembered as the one who came, the one who searched and the one who gathered.
Our beloved Fr. Avel passed away on May 03, 2013. Our kababayans in Barcelona and nearby places can pay their last respects at:
-Tanatorio de Sancho de Ávila, Calle Sancho de Ávila, 2, Barcelona, on May 7 and 8, from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m.
-Iglesia de San Agustin, from May 09, Thursday, 4 p.m. to May 10, Friday, 10 a.m. An overnight vigil will be held. His remains will be flown home to the Philippines.
We, from Ang Bagong Filipino, join the Filipino community in Barcelona and all the migrant communities around the world, in praying for the eternal repose of Fr. Avelino Sapida. Rest in peace, Father.