By MELANIE SIENA LAPORE
Who would have thought that a relatively large and modern church could ever rise from what was then a mountain of stinking and smoking garbage 21 stories high? Probably none, except for the scavengers themselves of the then Smokey Mountain who had prayed long and hard for it. And rise it did.
Faith must have worked wonders on what used to be a mere makeshift chapel with a floor area of only around 100 square meters. It formed part of an unfinished structure that provided roof to a livelihood facility with limited space for small social enterprises, all apparently put together in bric-a-brac, making the chapel appear totally misplaced despite its extreme modesty.
The chapel could accommodate only 60 worshippers at most, just a miniscule fraction of the 2,500 households, or some 25,000 individual residents, of this Parish of the Risen Christ.
The parish was established on March 27, 1989 when the dumpsite was proclaimed as such by then Manila Archbishop Jaime Cardinal Sin upon the request of Rev. Fr. Cornelio Alpuerto of the Societas Verbi Divini (SVD, or the Divine Word Missionaries), the largest congregation in the Catholic Church.
It was probably the poorest parish in the world as the altar would get engulfed in dark smoke from the burning dump and the chalice swarmed by flies during mass. Still, it functioned as a regular church— conducting baptisms, confirmations, weddings, catechism classes, retreats, recollections, and bible studies.
The altar of the Risen Christ featured Jesus bursting out of a hovel of rotten garbage in triumph, practically depicting the aspiration of the parishioners to get redeemed, if not resurrected, from it all. Christ’s image was called by the local folks, Kristo Basurero, which resonates well with their main source of livelihood.
Nonetheless, the parish, up to this day, is well organized. The basic social unit is the sambayanan, a cell of 10 or more families. Ten or more of these cells constitute a zone, which also has its own set of leaders. There are 18 zones, each registered with the Securities and Exchange Commission. Thus, the parish has a federation of 18 zones, with three zones constituting a cluster of basic Christian communities.
The six clusters of three zones each make up the Sambayanang Kristiyano, with its own sectoral groups for the youth and the elders.
It is through these organizations that resources and activities are channeled to address the basic needs of parishioners, especially health and education, with the church as the fulcrum and faith as the driving force.
No wonder that what seemed a miracle happened as everything fell into place despite all the gruesome difficulties.
Just the thought of putting up a medium-rise residential condominium complex atop an unstable ground of methane-emitting and leachate-contaminated muddy soil was already an overwhelming engineering challenge, more so the financial requirements of this onsite development project that had no precedents to serve as either benchmark or model.
Nevertheless, this unprecedented undertaking called Smokey Mountain Development and Reclamation Project (SMDRP) broke ground, which Cardinal Sin described as a “miracle project” by a “miracle builder,” referring to its developer.
It all began at the National Housing Authority (NHA), where then parish priest Fr. Ben Beltran of SVD and chairman Reghis M. Romero II of R-II Builders crossed paths for different but related purposes. Father Beltran was pressing for an onsite housing project at the Smokey Mountain, and Romero was seeking an opportunity to get rid of that eyesore from Manila’s northern doorstep.
But because of the project’s daunting technical and financial challenges, only two companies dared to bid for it. The project also took two presidents to eventually bid it out and another two to get it completed and awarded to its beneficiaries.
Soon enough, the project was completed and turned over to the NHA by R-II Builders in 1999, exactly a decade after the parish was organized, and its housing units finally awarded to the beneficiaries in 2003 during the time of Gaudencio Cardinal Rosales.
At this time though, the Church of the Risen Christ has remained the chapel that it once was, except that it is sitting on a prime 2,000-squaremeter lot that formed part of Romero’s five-hectare share in the project.
But even without being asked, Romero has promptly donated the entire property to the parish, has built a health center and a basketball court on it, has helped residents get a permit for a mini wet market, has been attending mass and had distributed gifts to the children every Christmas, and has picked 10 of its public school students yearly to receive scholarship grants and regular allowances.
Despite its vast improvements, the church keeps its patron ‘Kristo Basurero’ heralded in its original form, but this time in a glass showcase from where He looks over his flock.
Capping these philanthropic activities was the construction and completion of the Church of the Risen Christ on Oct. 4, 2017 by Romero’s company, which expanded the 100-sqm floor area to a whopping 3,500 square meters, including the second floor, for a total combined seating and standing capacity of 532.
The chapel has magically morphed into a full-fledged church, whose sidewalls have large frames of stained glass depicting the Stations of the Cross, all at a cost of millions of pesos. So is the altar, which is made of wood exquisitely carved by renowned craftsmen from Guagua, Pampanga.
Four-square-feet marble-like white tiles comprise the flooring, adding elegance and spaciousness to the interior, whose length and breadth match its height capped by a trellis of large ceiling fans about eight feet from the roof.
Certain parts of the church came from various donors, but all were assembled in perfect harmony to make the entire structure serve as the crown jewel of its landscaped yard with lush greenery.
All these were made possible through various donations from the faithful, with the concreting and architectural works shouldered by R-II Builders, which nonetheless shelled out almost P20 million. The structural and roofing works were donated by others.
Despite its vast improvements, the church keeps its patron “Kristo Basurero” heralded in its original form, but this time in a glass showcase from where He looks over his flock. So is the Maria Ina ng Bayan—clad in modest Filipiniana to characterize the country’s iconic Maria Clara. Both symbolize where the residents of the Smokey Mountain, now named Paradise Heights, have come from and what their life has miraculously transformed into.
Just recently, decks of old and new photos of the church were viewed by Manila Archbishop Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle in preparation for its forthcoming consecration.
All in all, it has taken six presidents, three cardinals, and three decades to realize the scavengers’ aspirations.
To the parishioners, it has all been a miracle, powered by their own faith in Christ who has, indeed, risen for them.
Jesus looked at them and said: “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible” (Mt. 19:26).