Tag Archive: Manila Observatory


When I arrived in Manila in September I was carrying a precious cargo.  An album of photographs that were taken probably between the years of 1902-1906 by an English Jesuit, Fr Robert Brown (n.b. not Fr Browne – the Jesuit on the Titanic click  ).  The photos are a gold mine – taken of the different islands, different missions and different tribal people.  They contain a treasure trove of ecclesial, anthropological and environmental information – at a time when cameras were still the preserve of the enthusiast, not commonly used.  The Jesuit research institute here in Manila, ESSC (Environmental Science for Social Change), is currently making a digital archive of them, as they are particularly interested in how the pictures give a record of Environmental Degradation, and also an invaluable ethnic record of tribal life, dress,  customs.  The important lesson for me is the story of these men and how their work presents the true face of the relationship between science and religion, which is currently being distorted by fundamentalists on both sides of the argument.

Each of the men in the photograph have fascination stories to tell – and maybe if time permits we can cover them. But focusing on Fr Brown first.  Fr Brown was sent as a scholastic to the Manila Observatory to help the transition from the hands of the Spanish Jesuits ( Spain being the departing colonial power) to the arrival of the American Jesuits (the arriving colonial power).  The Manila Observatory had distinguished itself for the first accurate warning and tracking of Typhoons in Asia.  Fr Faura (not pictured) had successfully tracked and warned of a Typhoon in July 1879 that hit the North.  So when he warned of typhoon to hit Manila in November many lives and ships were saved due to his warning being heeded.   The prestige of the Observatory was so great when the Americans arrived that they turned it into a Central Bureau with 50 observatory stations.  The Jesuits received grants from the government and observations were shared amongst the Bureaus.  Fr Brown’s job in the transition was to translate the books of the impressive Fr Algue on cyclones. As well as this work and his photographs, Fr Brown took over Fr Stanton’s work on investigating insects on behalf of the Department of Agriculture. Many of these insects were ill-disposed to the local crops – so it was another example of invaluable Jesuit scientific work.  In fact Fr Brown discovered a new genus and 11 new species of Hymenoptera.  It is delightful to read in his obituary to other Jesuits that, “A member of the Society bitten by the Brownius Armatus or the Clostocerus Brownii may take comfort from the reflection that they are named after a member of the province.” 

Why do I mention all this – well I was prompted to because yesterday I was sent the  picture to the right.  It seems ironic to me that Richard Dawkins – and many of the ‘new’ Atheists – don’t even seek to understand the complex phenomenon that is religion. They use a parody of Religious Fundamentalism – and generalise from this to dismiss all forms of religion or belief in God.  Surely this is a crass methodology.  In fact surely he is guilty of the same kind of ignorance and bigotry that he (rightly) points out in some forms of religious fundamentalism.  There are many counter examples – The Jesuits and the Manila Observatory is only example.  What about the Pontifical Academy of Sciences – or the fascinating work of physicist/ priest John Polkinghhorne,  or the valuable work of the Templeton foundation.

As any good Catholic will tell you in the words of Anselm that healthy religion is about ‘faith seeking understanding’ .  Benedict XVI has made it a big theme of his papacy – the importance of the relationship between faith and reason – especially as a counter to religious terrorism.  This debate is crucial, so it is a shame that in the age of soundbites it is being dominated by the likes of Dawkins, who according to Tina Beatties excellent book ‘The New Atheists‘ presents the so called ‘new atheism’ as intellectually limited and culturally parochial. The new atheists are railing against a God created in their own image – Beattie: ‘Dawkins’ God is as much a thoroughly modern English bully as an ancient supernatural tyrant.’

I just wish that the voices of people like Polkinghorne could be heard more above the din.


You may remember the terrible tragedy before Christmas in the South of the Phillipines – due to the Tropical Storm Washi  (or Sendong as it is known in the Phillipines).   The Death Toll has reached nearly 1500 now.  However the news has moved on – even here  in the Phillipines there has been a landslide which has killed 30 and that is dominating the news now.

Why did so many people have to die?

The excellent  ESSC  (Environmental Science for Social Change) a  Jesuit research institute has already produced a report – as well as the Manila Observatory and the Ateneo Physics Departments.  But as always it seems to be falling on deaf ears – political short termism and corruption seem to prevent progress.

Anyway the main points that even I can understand so far –

  1. Sendong was accurately downgraded to a tropical storm (not a typhoon) – due to windspeed measurements, this might have induced a false sense of security
  2. However the rainfall was categorised as extreme – 180mm in 24hrs (monthly average is 120mms according to report from Manila Observatory)
  3. So the flooding came not from the sea – but from the water running off the mountains – the other direction
  4. Much of the flooding was exacerbated by illegal logging operations that has degraded the environment (greed)
  5. Information and warnings about Sendong were available three days before but there was no strategic response – which indicated a failure at both local and national political level (corruption)            
This is a combination of ‘natural evil’ and ‘moral evil’.  But before we loose touch with what this actually equates to – here is an incredible video of children being rescued – if you have the time please watch it. This shows the results of a combination of these ‘evils’ – as always it is the poor that suffer the most :

So what is the answer?   I have been very impressed by the response of the Phillipino Jesuits. In the affected areas of Cagayan de Oro –  the local Bishop, High School and Universities are all in the care of the Jesuits.  The Xavier University in Cagayan de Oro has been at the forefront of the relief effort. They have even offered 5 hectares of land to help relocate victims (click here) .  One of Fr Pedro Walpole‘s strategies with the ESSC is to help build up disaster resilience, and move beyond relief – to building up a strategic capacity to respond. With the President of the University Fr Bobby Yap they have suggested four ways forward – this is taken from their commentary.

“Emergency preparedness. A warning system on every typhoon in every area of potential risk must be put in place, and not just announced. A day or night evacuation strategy must carefully lay out the locations, paths and methods to reach safe areas for evacuation and temporary settlement.

Relocation and land allocation. A critical review and implementation of land allocation and securing access are vitally needed to assist city and local governments in identifying safe lands for settlements and the procedures for acquisition. A prioritized relocation plan for every city and barangay that sets accomplishments is imperative. This plan should not be simply mitigation activities, like developing and rebuilding infrastructure that will not withstand the next disaster. A sustainable relocation must consider people’s livelihood accessibility so that livelihood is sustained and risks are minimized.

Landscape and waterscape planning and development. An open, transparent planning process for infrastructure development is crucial with broad participation of key people, especially in critical areas of river banks, slopes and floodplains.

Floodplain management. To re-establish natural flood areas, we need to develop a floodplain management program and regulations that strictly enforce restrictions and controls in: the alteration of natural floodplains, stream channels, and natural protective barriers that channel floodwaters; developments that increase flood damage; and construction of flood barriers that unnaturally divert floodwaters and increase flood hazards in other areas.

We need a society that can value life and change its systems of relations and responsibilities to meet new basic needs. Transformative learning has to become a new adult literacy that moves to action beyondbayanihan, expanding this Filipino value and infusing an informed pro-activeness that changes our landscape for the good of all. This includes serious planning for a sustainable future that integrates the knowledge of the disaster potential and local realities. “

But are the politicians listening?  A column written by another Jesuit, Fr Tony La Vina in a popular Manila paper click here ceratinly puts pressure on the highest political levels. Click here to read it and a powerful personal account of survivors.

So now the relief effort is winding down – rehabilitation and resettlement efforts kick in – as well as trauma counselling.  The excellent relief operation co-0rdinated by the Jesuit University – Click Here – are now training counselors and realising suicide risk- indicators.  For those so short-sighted to want to close Religious Institutions working in Education- they should see all this as a lesson in building up the common good.  For the rest of us – lets keep praying for those affected


We have been enjoying two days in Baguio City – it feels a little like our base camp – before we are sent to our respectives areas for Christmas. It has been nice to relax and acclimatise away from the heat and noise of Manila. Known as the “Summer Capital” Filipinos by their thousands flock to Baguio to enjoy family vacations in the cool temperatures and dry air of the mountains. The City is at an altitude higher than Ben Nevis – and was developed by the Americans as a resort town in the mountains.  The Jesuits have a beautiful house called Mirador. It sits at the top of one of the hills in Baguio and has itself become a tourist hotspot.  Over a hundred years ago, Spanish Jesuits built a Grotto to Our Lady of Lourdes which is accessible by climbing 252 steps! And at the weekends it attracts many Phillipinos as much for the views it commands as for devotional reasons. Anyway we all managed to make it up the steps with our full packs- a little bit of training before the Christmas masses in the Mountains.

Mirador was once the site of a Jesuit Observatory and Seismology Station early in the last century which has since relocated to Manila.  For 20 years it became the theologate for the expelled Chinese Jesuits (at the time of Mao) – who have since moved on to Taiwan.  Now Mirador is a retreat/villa house for Jesuits who needed to get away from the hustle and bustle of the city. It is under the management of the CLC.  Tonight – four of us are catching a night bus to Tabuk – where we will be assigned our areas by the Bishop. The journey may be about 12 hours – we have to go the long way round because the direct road is closed due to a combination of landslides and warring tribes!!  Please keep us in your prayers.

For me the highlight of our tour of Baguio has been visiting a quite remarkable work by the Good Shepherd Sisters. They have been training and educating many of the young people from the remoter regions of the Mountain Provinces. At first they had to rely on begging to support such scholarships – but now they have built up an incredible social enterprise where the youngsters support themselves through studies through a series of practical work – from making a nationally famous strawberry jam, coffee,  baking, needlework, making peanut brittle.  In 1990 there was a terrible earthquake which destroyed much of the plant – and so the sisters considered pulling out – but the youngsters insisted that as long as they could still be educated they would carry on the work for free until they built up the business again.  Another important element of the sisters work is to encourage the youngsters to be proud of their indigenous heritage (see pic) – and to preserve it as it is often looked down on by the locals! You can read about this remarkable and inspiring project here –journey form charity to social enterprise.   

I have made a small video called a taste of Baguio – it shows you some of the scenery, a beautiful hermitage in the grounds of the retreat house, the stained glass windows with the famous rice terraces and indigenous villagers depicted (where we will be giving our Christmas Ministries), also some of the work of the sisters, as well as a lovely scene outside the Cathedral in Baguio, with two young girls enchanted by the angelic Holy-water stoops and learning to bless themselves, Don’t worry it is only 90 seconds long!