This last week in Culion has been a delightful experience.  A fascinating place with an impressive Jesuit presence, an important mission and a unique history.  The former leper colony on the edge of the West Philippine Sea (or the South China Ocean) is now a buzzing town with a population of 10,000+. Breakthroughs in leprosy in the 1940’s and 80’s  means that the disease can now be controlled, if not fully curable. So for many on the island in reality it is only a memory. However there is still a ward in the hospital with a few ‘abandoned’ patients suffering from the disease. It was a memorable experience sharing the mass with them on Valentines Day.  It also struck me that last Sunday’s gospel was about Jesus curing the leper – slightly awkward timing for me.  How does a visitor and an outsider preach sensitively about such a Gospel especially when I had only a few days to get to know some of the islanders?   Luckily the dilemma was resolved by having a Jesuit novice preach as part of his ‘parish experiment.’ He did a great job.

Culion also happens to be the setting of one of the most beautiful parishes that I have visited.  The parish has its own boat (or Bangka) called ‘San Ignacio’.  I was met at the airport and taken to a jetty where the boat was awaiting me.  The parish has 51 chapels associated with it in surrounding islands – it is a wonderful experience going to celebrate mass over the shimmering water, passing over coral reefs, and then as the water changes from emerald green to deep blue we glide past the many (Japanese owned) pearl farms that float in the inlets and passages.  Schools of flying fish leap out of the water in the distance and you glimpse the occasional crocodile peering out greedily from the mangroves.  One of the two nuns on the island told me they were followed in their small boat by a huge croc the other week – a stimulus to praying the rosary!  It is wonderful to stop the boat on the way home for half an hour of snorkelling. I was very impressed with the corals and the array of curious fish that come right up to your mask, the varieties and colours of the coral seemed pristine t o me, but I was told by the parish priest that there has been a lot of damage due to cyanide fishing.

Loyola College Prom night - bringing a bit of glamour to Culion

There are two young Jesuits on the island – one who is parish priest and the other director of the Jesuit College – Loyola College of Culion.  It was a pleasant surprise to be invited to the ‘Junior and Senior Prom’ of the College on Friday night. The students looked stunning in their dresses and tuxedos, and I was glad to have avoided being invited to be one of the judges…. One of the novices ran the gauntlet of having to choose the Prom King and Queen, whereas I could enjoy telling everyone I met how beautiful / handsome they looked.  The one beauty salon on the island seems to have been very busy considering some of the impressive hairstyles on show.

I have to admit High School Proms are a very ‘American’  phenomenon for me – and quite alien to my experience.  On reflection it is a great testament to the commitment of the Jesuits and the success of their college that such a celebration is a regular occurrence.  It certainly challenges the stigma and the stereotype of Culion as being the ‘Isle of Despair’.

Below is a small clip to give you a sense of the sights and celebrations of Culion!