Capuchin Brothers Respond to the 2020 Taal Volcano Explosion

Taal and Tagaytay: At the Heart of Capuchin Life in the Philippines

The Taal Lake and Volcano has always been a sight to behold from the cool and relaxing City of Tagaytay, Cavite and it has been the one of the main reasons why the city has enjoyed a boom in economic development in recent years.  For the Capuchins, seeing the Taal has been part of the normal way of life as the brothers have been there since the establishment of the Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in 1940.  Long before Tagaytay became a haven for tourists, the Capuchins have served the different communities both in Tagaytay and in nearby places and this is concretized by the presence of Lourdes and the Ina ng Laging Saklolo Parish at the eastern part of the city.  Tagaytay has also been the center for the brothers who pursue theological studies as it is home to the St. Lawrence of Brindisi House of Studies, the residence of the brothers who study at the Divine Word Seminary Tagaytay.  The city of Tagaytay, and the Taal lake and volcano, has been at the heart of the life of the Capuchins in the Philippines.

The Volcanic Explosion of 2020

In January of 2020, a natural calamity involving the Taal Volcano challenged many communities residing in areas surrounding its picturesque lake, including Tagaytay.  In the afternoon of January 12, 2020, the volcano had a phreatic eruption which, in a matter of hours, quickly elevated to the status of Alert Level 4 or the danger of an explosive eruption.  As the brothers in the St. Lawrence of Brindisi fraternity and residents of Tagaytay narrated, it was a frightening experience as they endured continuous earthquakes; heavy ashfall which mixed with the rain; loud booming sounds of the explosion and odd smell of sulfuric material which emanated from the volcano.  This was complicated with the cutting off of electricity and water supply in the city.  By evening, there was a terrible traffic jam as many people, tourists and those on vacation scrambled to get out of Tagaytay.  The unrest went on through the night and by the next day, Tagaytay was heavily affected by the ashfall and thick mud; it was described by some as a “ghost town.”

The Immediate Response to the Disaster: Opening the Doors for our Brethren

With the gravity of the situation, many sectors organized efforts to give relief to the affected people and the Capuchin Philippine Province responded to this challenge.  The morning after the explosion the two Tagaytay fraternities, St. Lawrence of Brindisi under Br. Francis M. Mesina, OFMCap. and St. Francis of Assisi-Ina ng Laging Saklolo Parish, Brgy. Sungay West under Br. Zacarias M. Parra, OFMCap. opened their doors to accommodate evacuees.  The Province also made an appeal via social media for aid and many generous people responded immediately.  By the afternoon, donations both in cash and kind (food supplies, bottled water and rice) came in the Provincial Curia.  With an initial arrival of supplies, some brothers from Manila led by the Provincial Minister, Br. Eugenio P. Lopez, OFMCap. visited the brothers and evacuees in St. Lawrence of Brindisi to assess the situation and express solidarity with them. 

Donations for the victims continued to arrive at the Provincial Curia this enabled the brothers in Tagaytay and the evacuees to be sustained for the prolonged crisis.    Days after the January 12 explosion, the volcano remained under alert level 4 which means that there is still the danger of a powerful explosion.  The Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology (PHILVOCS) have issued a list of areas under the 14 kilometer danger zone and this includes Tagaytay.  There have been constant warnings for the communities under the danger zone to evacuate and flee to safer ground.  Days following the explosion, some towns surrounding the lake like the towns of Agoncillo, Laurel, Talisay, Lemery, Taal, all in Batangas, have been placed into “lockdown’, which means that no one is allowed to stay in those places due to the impending danger.  Tagaytay, although located in a ridge above the lake, still faces danger from the effects of a powerful explosion.

Moving to a Safer Ground

Because of the impending danger, on January 16, the brothers of St. Lawrence of Brindisi coordinated with the Tertiary Religious Capuchin-Amigonian Fathers to have the evacuees relocated from Tagaytay to their compound in Barangay Panungyanan, General Trias, Cavite.  The place is north of Tagaytay and is outside the radius of the danger zone. With the arrangements finally set, Br. Eugenio sent a message via social media asking for assistance to transport the evacuees from Tagaytay to General Trias.  Many kind hearted people generously responded and sent vehicles to ferry the people and bring them to the new relocation site.  By late in the afternoon of that day, the evacuees, together with some Capuchin scholastics, were safely transferred to the place of the Tertiary Capuchins where they received a warm welcome from the Amigionians headed by Fr. Mark Kelvin Tobias, TC.  They were also visited later that day by a group led by Br. Alberto S. Poblete, OFMCap., the head of the Provincial Office for Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation and who brought with them the bus of Lourdes School of Quezon City which was fully loaded with donations and supplies.

The evacuees in General Trias are under the care of a group of Theology scholastics coordinated by Br. Michael Angelo V. Flores, OFMCap. They are assisted by the Amigonian brothers, Somascan sisters of Tagaytay and volunteers from Our Lady of Lourdes Parish, Tagaytay.  Many of the evacuees came from Barangays Sambong and Bagong Tubig in Tagaytay while others came from Laurel, Batangas.  The rest of the scholastic brothers remained in Tagaytay and from time to time visit the evacuees to give assistance.  The donations coming from Manila remained constant and were consistently brought to the site through the efforts of some volunteer brothers.  With the numerous donations and supplies coming to the curia, some of them were disseminated by the scholastic brothers to other evacuation centers in Tagaytay.

Extending Generosity to Others: Assistance to the Archdiocese of Lipa

As the crisis became prolonged because of the unpredictability of the volcano, the plea for help became greater because of numerous people who flocked the evacuation centers in Cavite and Batangas.    The Archbishop of Lipa, Most Reverend Gilbert A. Garcera, DD, sought assistance for the evacuees in Batangas, particularly those under the care of parishes in the affected areas.  Heeding his request, the Province also extended the distribution of donations to those under the care of the Archdiocese of Lipa.  Donations were also brought to the Capuchin Retreat Center, Lipa and brought to the affected parishes and communities.  The coordination with the archdiocese was facilitated by Br. Antonio B. Ala II, OFMCap. CRC Director.

Hope Never Fades

After two weeks of uncertainty, hope begins to shine as the volcano became calmer. By January 26, the alert level of Taal Volcano was lowered by PHILVOCS to the level 3 status.  This means that some areas under lockdown can now be opened for the return of the evacuees, except for those under the seven kilometer danger zone or those at the immediate vicinity of the volcano island.  Though they may return, they are still warned to be on alert and be ready should the volcano manifest restive behavior again.  The Capuchin brothers in General Trias have made coordination to have some of the evacuees return to Barangays Sambong and Bagong Tubig while others who are not allowed to return, especially those from Laurel, Batangas, still await further developments.

Aside from the hope coming from the gradual calming of the enigmatic Taal volcano, a greater manifestation of this hope came from the many generous people who shared their time, effort and material resources to help those in need.  For many days after the January 12 explosion, many came to the Provincial Curia to bring material donations; others gave cash donations; some went directly to the evacuation site, brought donations, and spent time with the brothers and the evacuees.  Though the two weeks after the explosion became a very difficult experience for those affected, hope never waned through the presence of people who cared and expressed their solidarity.  The Capuchin Philippine Province is truly grateful to all who cared, share, and became one with our brethren.  It is the prayer of all that this dim chapter will finally end and move forward, to start again and be stronger amidst this adversity.