The Flock Gatherer

5 May

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.”

Father Avelino Sapida

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.

Father Avelino Sapida 2

7 Responses to “The Flock Gatherer”

  1. Leny Sapida - Dungca May 6, 2013 at 9:42 am #

    First of all, I would like to thank each of you who believe our Tito Pari (Fr Avel Sapida) and gave your support that in UNITY you can all make a difference & significant changes.

    Secondly, thank you to the Spaniards who listened to Tito Pari’s BIG DREAMS for Filipino Community in Barcelona, Spain.
    Without the cooperation and faith of the Filipino community nothing would be achieved.

    Lastly, glory and praise in honour to the great motivation and aspiration of Fr Avelino Sapida because of it many dying churches had resurrected. The Filipino community in Barcelona, Spain have gathered and placed their faith that with the help of a great leader like Fr Avel there is something achievable and nothing is impossible if it is God’s will.

    I know our loss is your loss for Tito Pari’s passing away; let this moment marked a bigger dream for all you to continue and preserve what you have started. You have proven that Unity and Faith is essential but Love with one another is the main factor.

    Maraming – marami salamat po sa inyo lahat na nakibahagi ng oras at pagmamahal nyo sa aming pinakamamahal na Padre. Sa tulong ng bawat isa sa inyo di nangulila si Tito Pari sa pagmamahal ng kamag-Anak kundi lalo pa dumami ang mga kababayan natin na parang kamag Anak na rin nya.

    Pagpupugay sa inyo lahat mga kabayan di yan sa Barcelona. Nawa’y gabayan pa kayo ng Poong Maykapal na magka-isa para sa I isang adhikain na ikakabubuti ng bawat mamamayang Filipino ng Barcelona.

    Mabuhay ang Filipino!

  2. Vida Bella May 6, 2013 at 9:54 am #

    well said, yes, Father Avelino Sapida is a very good person. For my experience, he`s there everytime i need help. And i`m so lucky to meet him since he arrives here in Barcelona.

  3. Mrs. Eleanor Tagoe May 7, 2013 at 12:13 am #

    R.I.P. Father Avel.

  4. Edwin May 7, 2013 at 10:52 pm #

    I will always remember your kindness and friendliness. The best! Rest in Peace Father Avel.

  5. Nora Adecer May 8, 2013 at 9:19 pm #

    We love him. His the one who gave the first comunión to my 2 kids. Thank you father to all good works that you’ve done to the Filipino community.

  6. Ande Nemor May 9, 2013 at 5:34 am #

    Yes… a true shepherd in deed who always go to find his sheep. Who lifted you up when you are down, guide, support and always there to give you strength even when you are away. A true blessing sent down to be a part of our life. God’s grace is enough with Fr. Avel’s presence in our life that will never ever be forgotten.

  7. mimi May 4, 2016 at 3:58 am #

    i witnessed his great endeavors as a teenager – i was one of the annoying people during his time (sorry for that) but his response incredibly made me find the part of me i never knew it existed and i felt uplifted – enough to believe there ‘s a kind of lost like exactly being found..BY THE WAY – when he knew i was leaving spain for good – he gave me 1000 pesetas .. it was for goodluck journey and it worked..thank you for being my father – til we meet again

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