Dr. John Alipit’s pilgrimage came to an emotional end inside St. George, Newcastle.
Dr. Alipit, born and raised in the Philippines and now living in Michigan, came to St. George’s in early August to pay homage to the man who had converted his parents to Christianity and provided him with an education that changed the course of his life.
“I practically shed tears when I first stepped into the church,” he said.
Dr. Alipit, a retired surgeon, was with a group of about 200 former students of St. Mary’s School in Sagada, a region in the northern Philippines. They had come to Newcastle to pay their respects to Bishop Charles Henry Brent, a child of the parish who had gone on to an illustrious career but is unknown to many Canadian Anglicans.
“I don’t think that there is any question that Bishop Brent was one of the best shepherds you would ever know,” said Dr. Alipit. “This is a spiritual journey for us, and now at last we are reconnected with Bishop Brent.”
In 1903, Bishop Brent, then a missionary bishop for The Episcopal Church of the United States, explored the area where Sagada is located and vowed not only to bring Christianity to the inhabitants but to provide education for them.
“Our area used to be a pagan, head-hunting region,” said Andrew Bacdayan, the president of St. Mary’s School. “Bishop Brent came and expressed his love for our people and worked very hard for our benefit.”
In 1904, Bishop Brent sent the Rev. John Staunton, an Episcopal priest from New York, to start a mission in Sagada. He provided schooling to the local children, and in 1912 St. Mary’s School was built. Over the years, the school developed a reputation for academic excellence.
“St. Mary’s School was one of the best in the Philippines, and we owe what we have to the type of education we got there,” said Dr. Alipit.
In the 1990s, the school was facing a financial shortfall, and by 2000 it was on the verge of closing. Alumni and their friends rallied to the school’s defence and put it on a sound financial footing.
Since 2005, alumni have been meeting every two years to raise funds for scholarships and school improvements. This year it was held in Toronto. “We chose Toronto not only because it is the area where Bishop Brent was born, bred and educated, but also for a special reason,” said Mr. Bacdayan. “We are a grateful people, and it is fitting that we, as alumni and friends of the school his bishopric founded, come to express our gratitude to his people.”
For many alumni, the highlight of the conference was the trip to St. George’s. They attended a special worship service that ended with rousing school songs, tears and hugs.
“It was awesome, I cannot describe it,” said Rose Nabert, wiping away tears. “Here you are at the place where the person who came to you and brought the Christ to you lived. It’s overwhelming.”
Ms. Nabert graduated from St. Mary’s School in 1962. She went to a nursing school in the Philippines, then to a nursing school in Rochester, NY, as an exchange student. After a few years back in the Philippines, she attended Cornell University and then came to Canada. She lives in Toronto and is a member of St. Bartholomew, Regent Park.
“It feels like we’ve come full circle,” she said. “I know I wouldn’t be here without the missionaries. I never would have been a Christian. Our community in Sagada revolved around the school and the church. They were one. I don’t think I would have lasted away from home (in Rochester) without the church. It was very caring.”
The Eucharist at St. George was celebrated by Archbishop Terence Finlay, with assistance from Bishop Michael Bedford-Jones and Bishop Benjamin Botengan of the Central Diocese of the Philippines. The Rev. Eugene Berlenbach, the priest-in-charge of St. George’s, worked for a year to make the day run smoothly. After the service, everyone enjoyed music and dancing outside and a lunch in the parish hall.