TACLOBAN, Philippines (AP) — Hours after the storm hit, the Rev. Amadero Alvero was on the streets, sprinkling holy water over the dead and praying for them. By late afternoon, the 44-year-old priest had blessed about 50 corpses in the remains of this Philippine shattered city.
He then returned to his half-destroyed Santo Nino church and led Mass. On Sunday, Alvero was again overseeing worship at the peach-colored building, leading services for hundreds of survivors of one of the worst storms on record.
"Despite what happened, we still believe in God," he said. "The church may have been destroyed, but our faith is intact, as believers, as a people of God, our faith has not been destroyed." Sun shone for the first service, but by the second, rain was falling through a gaping hole crisscrossed by wooden beams in the roof of the downtown church and landmark. Its windows were blown out, and winds now snap at a silver cross on top of its steeple, which hangs upside down.
It was one of dozens of churches across the region holding services that were attended by thousands, many homeless and grieving. More than 80 percent of the 90 million people in the Philippines are Roman Catholic, the largest in Asia by far and a legacy of its history of Spanish colonial rule.
Some came to give thanks for surviving. Others to pray for the souls of the departed. "Coming to Mass gives people hope that things will eventually get better," said Marino Caintic. Also on Sunday, Philippine President Benigno S. Aquino III visited the two hardest-hit islands, Leyte and Samar.
Aquino, who has faced a succession of crises over the last year, is facing criticism in some quarters over his administration's preparation for the typhoon, as well as its response. Tacloban, a city of 220,000 people, was largely leveled by the Nov. 7 storm.
Alvero carried on his work until the fifth day, blessing bodies wherever they lay — in smashed cars or floating in water. He stopped when the smell became too much for him, though he said other priests have continued doing so.
Asked why would God allow a storm so powerful and so deadly to obliterate the region, claiming the lives of so many innocents and causing immense suffering, Alvero used an argument familiar to followers of the Abrahamic faiths.
"We are being tested by God, to see how strong our faith is, to see if our faith is true," he said. "He wants to know that we have faith in him in good times, as well as in bad." Santo Nino and other churches have also been helping care for those who survived.
About 30 families are living in the church, and there are boxes of water and canned goods and food piled up on the promises. The seawater flooded much of the first floor of the compound. The Nov. 8 typhoon killed more than 3,500 people and destroyed or damaged hundreds of thousands of homes in what was already a poor region. A major international relief effort, spearheaded by the U.S. military, is underway to assist survivors.
While food, water and shelter, along with medical teams, are now flowing quickly into the region, there is still tremendous need. Reconstructing the region will be a challenge, requiring good leadership and millions of dollars in assistance.
Filipinos elsewhere in Asia also remembered their homeland in their prayers Sunday. In Hong Kong, home to 133,000 Filipinos, volunteers outside one church were collecting food, medicine, blankets and clothing to send to the affected region. Most of Filipinos working in the city are low-paid domestic workers.
"We can't really afford to give much money, but we can help them by praying," said Jovie Tamayo, 32, from central Iloilo province. The roof of her family's house was ripped off in the storm, but her family members were uninjured.
Chelly Ogania said she had been unable to contact her mother and brothers on Samar Island, where the storm made landfall, though she had heard from friends that the village was safe. "We pray that they are really safe, we pray always," said the 35-year-old. "That's all the things I can do, just pray and trust the Lord, because I'm very far from them. No communications, just praying, praying."
Associated Press writer Kelvin K. Chan in Hong Kong contributed to this report.