Tuesday, June 4, 2013


Father Ferdinand Sablan Pangelinan, OFM Cap

We all called him Father Ferdy.

He was born in Saipan in 1924 and, lacking an English education in his childhood, did not speak English very well.  He could speak it, but in a very rusty way.

Now his Japanese....well, that was a whole different matter!

He was born into a devout family.  His father was born on Guam, but as a child moved to Saipan with his parents.  His father was Vicente Campos Pangelinan, from the family better-known-as Lino.

His mother was also born on Guam, by the name of Emilia Sablan.  Her brother Gregorio, better-known-as Kilili', was such a devout Catholic that he more or less ran the church in Saipan from around 1919 until 1921 when the Japanese did not allow any Catholic missionaries there.  Kilili' baptized, witnessed weddings and lead devotions until priests were allowed back in.

Father Ferdy, whose baptismal name was Vicente in honor of his father, wanted to be a priest from an early age.  He was therefore sent to minor seminary (what would be our high school level) in Tokyo, Japan in the 1930s.  It was run by the Salesian fathers (Father Ferdy would say "The Don Bosco priests").

So Father Ferdy's Japanese was pretty good, not only because he grew up in Japanese-held Saipan in the 1920s and 30s, but also because he went to minor seminary in Japan in the 1930s and 40s.

The Effect of the War

War was not easy on Japan, as well as on everybody else.  Food was rationed.  There were restrictions on movement and activity.  Eventually, there was no food to be had, when American bombardment of Tokyo was heavy.

Father Ferdy knew real hunger.  And so it was said that he developed an unspoken fear of starvation which was shown in deeds.  When he was the friary cook, he would stock up on food like there was no tomorrow.  Meals were plentiful.  Those who knew him better than me said it was all psychological.  Those who never experienced near-starvation would never understand.
After the War

When the Americans in Japan discovered who he was, he was sent back to Saipan.  But now, what about the priesthood?

Saipan was eventually made part of the Vicariate of Agaña, on Guam.  He could have applied for the diocesan priesthood on Guam.  Instead, he asked to join the Capuchins.  He had met the first American Capuchin assigned to Saipan, Father Ferdinand Stippich, who spoke Chamorro, as young Vicente did not speak English.

The Capuchins accepted him in 1949, the first Chamorro to enter the Order and persevere.  Another Chamorro from Saipan had also entered, but he eventually left.  Vicente Pangelinan did not leave and stayed on till death.  So, he has the distinction of being the First Chamorro Capuchin.

Brother Ferdinand with other friars in New York
Early 1950s

Friary Cook

Tying a live crab before dropping it into boiling water for supper!

When he entered the Order, he took the religious name Ferdinand, probably in honor of Father Ferdinand who was the first Capuchin he knew.

He made his novitiate in the States and made his first vows.  It didn't take long for the Order to realize that Brother Ferdinand did not have enough grasp of English to handle the academics needed for priestly training.  Much of that training was in Latin, as well, and he didn't seem to have an easy time with that language either.

In all humility, he accepted the will of the superiors to send him back to Guam in 1954 as a lay brother to cook and do other household labors.

For about twenty years, during the 1950s and 60s, Brother Ferdinand was a simple cook for the friars.  His childhood dream of becoming a priest seemed to have ended.  But not for God.
The Permanent Diaconate

He wanted to be a priest, but after 20 years was ordained a permanent deacon which he accepted in all humility.  He is pictured dressed in a deacon's dalmatic with his mother, Tan Emilia Sablan Pangelinan.

Vatican II re-established the permanent diaconate and Guam went forward very early in implementing that in the Diocese.

The idea came to make Brother Ferdinand a permanent deacon.  Saint Francis, after all, was just that - a deacon.

Brother Ferdinand took the necessary classes and was ordained a deacon in 1971.

But because his English was still poor, he was never assigned to serve as deacon in any Guam parish.  Instead, he would exercise his diaconate in a new and unusual way.

Japanese Weddings

In the early 1970s, just when Brother Ferdinand became Deacon Ferdinand, Guam became a popular tourist destination for Japanese, including Japanese couples wanting to get married on the island.

At the same time, the Japanese bishops obtained from the Vatican special permission for Catholic priests and deacons in Japan to perform weddings, in a civil capacity and not sacramentally, for non-Catholic Japanese.  As long as neither bride nor groom were Catholic, the priest or deacon could solemnize their marriage in a purely civil way, since the clergy were licensed by the government to officiate at weddings.

The idea was that Japan was so distant from any Christian influence that at least a Western wedding by a Catholic priest could be a way of evangelizing.  Western weddings were cheaper than the traditional Shinto weddings, and so very popular among many Japanese.

Bishop Flores of Guam allowed the same weddings on Guam by Catholic clergy.  These were purely civil weddings, but in Catholic churches officiated by priests and deacons.  Who better than Deacon Ferdinand, who spoke fluent Japanese?  So, in the early 1970s, Deacon Ferdinand would officiate at Japanese weddings at the friary.  He would greet the wedding party, play the wedding march on the organ, then officiate in Japanese.  There was nothing religious or sacramental about it, though it took place in the chapel.

Deacon Ferdinand made some lasting friendships with these Japanese couples he married, who wrote him letters every year, sent him gifts and visited him at the friary on later visits to Guam.

Later, Archbishop Apuron ended these civil Japanese weddings by Catholic clergymen, as they were creating problems in the local church.

Peace Memorial

Brother Ferdinand holding the cross at the Catholic memorial service at the War Memorial in 1966

In 1966, ground was broken in Mataguac, Yigo for a War Memorial.  Mataguac was the site of the last battle between the Japanese and Americans on Guam in World War II.  Thousands of Japanese died in that battle, buried in mass graves in that area.

Year after year, Japanese Buddhist priests would come to Guam and hold prayer services for their war dead.  The Catholics would also hold their own services either before or after the Buddhists.  When he was finally a deacon, Brother Ferdinand could lead these Catholic prayers for the dead in Japanese.  Many years later, when I joined the Order and he was a priest, I assisted him in some of these.
Ordination to Priesthood

In 1976, Saipan was in need of parish ministers and Deacon Ferdinand was sent up there to look after San Roque and Tanapag parishes, while priests would come to say Mass and hear confessions. 

He also officiated at Japanese civil weddings there, too.

Then, a superior by the name of Father James Gavin entertained the idea of having Deacon Ferdinand be ordained to the priesthood to primarily serve in Saipan, where Chamorro was the norm and English was not as necessary.

Other priests were assigned to teach Brother Ferdinand the classes needed.  After several years, Bishop Flores was satisfied with his preparations and ordained Brother Ferdinand a priest, along with the younger Capuchin fresh out of seminary, Herminio Queja.  Their ordination was on April 11, 1981 at the Agaña Cathedral.  Father Ferdinand waited 32 years for that day.

He then flew up to Saipan to offer his first Holy Mass.  Then he resumed his responsibilities over San Roque and Tanapag parishes, but this time as a full-fledged priest and pastor.  In those days, when Father Ferdy would drive into the parish, the village boys would all run out, some barefoot, and chase his car and meet him at the church when he got down from his car, to reverence his hand.

In San Roque, he used an empty oxygen tank, probably rescued from the hospital or a scuba diving place, to bang on to call the people to Mass.

I remember how nervous he was at his first Mass.  And, like the old-fashioned guy he was, he ended his first Mass chanting the "Ite, missa est" in Latin according to the Missa de Angelis.  He sang it well.
He was the first to put me to the test

I had joined the Capuchin community in August of 1981 as a postulant, the same year he was ordained.  So when there were Capuchin events in Saipan, I would go and usually stay for more than a day.  For some reason, Father Ferdy thought I would be able to manage the Chamorro readings at Mass well.  He would ask me, in Chamorro, to read at Mass.  Sometimes I had only a few hours' notice.  I would be very nervous, and sometimes had to ask how a word was pronounced.  But he said I did well.  If I was around, he would always ask me to do one or all of the Chamorro readings.

His Chamorro

People would say that Father Ferdy's Chamorro wasn't perfect, and that they couldn't understand him well when he spoke in Chamorro.  They would say it was because he was in Japan for so long in his teens.  They'd also say he spoke better Japanese than Chamorro.  I never fully agreed with this statement. 

It is true that when I would ask him to translate something in Chamorro, or to explain what a certain Chamorro word meant, he'd often shrug his shoulders or giggle and say he didn't know, but I would say many Chamorros have done that to me, not just those who spent their teen years in Japan!

I'd just say that Father Ferdy just didn't have the gift of gab in any language.  He wasn't the talkative type.  He'd say what he needed to say, and make a joke every now and then.  He had a good laugh from time to time, like the picture above shows.

Semi-Retirement at the Guam Friary

In 1988, at the age of 64, he was recalled to live at the Guam Friary in semi-retirement.  He had no permanent or full-time assignment.  He would cover parishes for short spans.  He would help Mr. Manuel Kosaka, the friary cook, with washing dishes but never in the cooking.  Mr. Kosaka was half-Japanese and half-Chamorro.  The two of them could speak fluent Japanese if they wanted to, and maybe they did but I never heard it.  They'd only speak in Chamorro, and only when they needed to speak.  Those two elderly men were from the generation that weren't gabbers.  They spoke when necessary or to bring a little lightness to the mood, but they focused on their work.  Even when his brother would come visit him once a month at the Friary, they would have lunch, speak a little but many times moments of silence would pass.  Not gabbers, that generation.

His favorite phrase was, "Ai, i tano'," which means, roughly, "Oh, this world!"   He would say it as a follow-up to someone else's comment, or even just when he'd get up from the dinner table, or for no reason at all.  He simply meant, "This world is a crazy place."

He had a close friendship with Father Jose Villagomez, a fellow Saipanese and Capuchin brother.  Father Ferdy would give Father Jose an English sermon out of a book and Father Jose would translate it into Chamorro.  Father Ferdy said the Chamorro Mass on early Sunday mornings at Saint Francis Church in Yoña after Father Marcian got too old and weak to say it.  Father Jose would call Father Ferdy "Shimpu san!"  It means "Honorable Priest" in Japanese.

Father Ferdy was a pious, old-school priest and friar.  He would say his daily rosary by himself in the chapel, and say the Stations in the afternoon.

I would go to him for confession, and when I was a priest he would then ask me to hear his confession.  When I would confess to him, I would say it all in Chamorro, and he would give me penance and absolution in Chamorro.

He had a car which he treated with the utmost care.  Although he probably only put 10 miles on the car every week, once a week he would faithfully spend an hour or more cleaning it.  It was like a brand new car from the car dealer even after many years.

I would sometimes make him laugh with a few Japanese words I knew, or some of my jokes.  I was fond of grabbing Spanish religious melodies and putting Chamorro words to them, and I sang a short one to him once at lunch time and he liked it.  He wanted me to sing it to him several times.

I once had to officiate at the wedding of a Japanese bride and her German husband.  She was Catholic, but he was not so it was a mixed marriage.  Her parents were going to attend, and they didn't speak a word of English.  So I knew I had to say a few words in Japanese, a language I am not fluent in.  I had the bride translate my short remarks into Japanese, but to practice my diction I approached Father Ferdy.  He listened and corrected my mistakes and I jotted down symbols I used to remember the correct pronunciation.

In 1990 I was ordained a deacon and returned to Guam in the summer.  I was assigned to Merizo and Umatac parishes as the deacon, but the pastor left for the mainland to attend a full semester at some program.  So Father Ferdy was sent with me to the same two parishes to act as priest.

He would say Mass, hear confessions and anoint the dying.  But I would do all the preaching, all the sacramental preparations, paper work and baptisms. 

So we lived together for three months until I was ordained a priest in September and Father Ferdy could go back to the Friary.  During those three months, he stayed in the one and only bedroom in the rectory and I slept on a futon (Japanese floor mattress) in an office.  But the combination of living with Father Ferdy and working in a parish where Chamorro was still spoken a lot helped improve my Chamorro.

We got along splendidly, except in one small matter, which wasn't really a sore point between us at all, just a difference.  After the Sunday Masses, I would remain at the front door of the church to greet the people while Father Ferdy would immediately return to the sacristy to divest and go to the rectory.  Someone asked him why he didn't greet the people and his reply was, "That's a Protestant thing!"  I think he was just shy.

In his room at the Friary, Father Ferdy would sit at his desk reading and listen to one of about 30 cassette tapes of Japanese music from the 1940s and 50s.  In the refectory (dining room) where we had a common TV that we all had to share, if no one else was around, Father Ferdy would watch Japanese drama shows or sumo wrestling.

When I was director of postulants, Father Ferdy was always a good source of information on the things those young ones would do thinking I would never find out.  Once, two of them got into an argument and one of them hit the screen door, tearing it.  About a half hour later Father Ferdy saw me and said to me in Chamorro, "Hanao ya un check i lalahi-mo."  "Go and check your boys."  "Ha yamak i petta uno."  "One of them broke the door."  I dealt with it later and the guilty party had his allowance reduced the next month to pay for the door!

One funny incident I will never forget about Father Ferdy is the time they buried his mother.  He was a priest and she was in her 90s.  I attended the funeral in Saipan.  He was at the grave site, reciting the prayers in Chamorro.  But, old school as he was, he said them almost as if plain chanting.  His sisters (in their 50s and 60s) got very emotional and started to cry and moan loudly, so loud they drowned out Father Ferdy, who, as if his scolding was part of the ritual, chanted, "Famatkilo pachot-miyo" which literally means, "Shut your mouths!"  That he would scold his emotional sisters and do it as if he were simply chanting one of the ritual prayers was just precious.


Sometime in 1996, he was diagnosed with cancer.  It was suggested he go seek treatment in Hawaii, where we have Capuchin parishes.  But he didn't want to go alone, and he wanted someone who could speak Chamorro to translate for him if he didn't understand everything the doctor said.  He asked Father Jose Villagomez to go with him.

They stayed at an old plantation house on the parish property at Saint Elizabeth Church in Aiea, which we ran at the time.  Many of his relatives moved to Hawaii to be with him.  When he was down for the count, family were there around the clock.  His cancer progressed; he was in pain and then on pain killers that knocked him out, and then he passed away on January 8, 1997 at the age of 72.

His body was flown back to Guam and he is now buried alongside his other Capuchin brothers at Holy Cross Cemetery in Togcha, Yoña.

Father Ferdy, saying his rosary, walking down a hallway in the Friary

He always used to say, "Ai, i tano'."  "Oh, this world!"  "This place of suffering and, at times, insanity !"

May he now be saying, "Ai, i langet!"  "Oh, the wonders of heaven!"

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