Catholic Vancouver April 10, 2018

Filipinos keep faith despite new country, researcher finds

By Agnieszka Ruck

Alison Marshall, professor at Brandon University, visits Vancouver during a book tour promoting her latest work, Bayanihan and Belonging: Filipinos and Religion in Canada. (Agnieszka Krawczynski / The B.C. Catholic)

VANCOUVER—A Canadian researcher has discovered immigrating to a largely secular country from a religious one is not necessarily turning pious worshippers into atheists.

Alison Marshall, religion professor at Brandon University, has just published research suggesting the vast majority of Filipinos are far from abandoning Catholicism.

“Almost all of the Filipinos I interviewed remained Catholic long after migration,” said Marshall in an interview with The B.C. Catholic.

She conducted 200 surveys in the Philippines and interviewed more than 130 Filipinos in Canada before publishing Bayanihan and Belonging: Filipinos and Religion in Canada earlier this year.

She found Filipinos are by and large not abandoning their faith despite the increasingly secular influences around them.

“I found very few people who converted (from Catholicism). In fact, the opposite: people said they really needed their religion as migrants. That provided them the anchor,” she said.

When immigrants from the Philippines started arriving in waves to Canada in the 1950s, they would enter a town and go to the nearby Catholic church. “It was home, it was their culture, and that has remained to this day.”

Marshall, an ethnographic researcher from Brandon, Man., immerses herself in situations and cultures to understand and describe them. She visited the Philippines, interviewed Filipino immigrants in Canada (with help from research assistants in Vancouver and Toronto), and visited plenty of churches at home and abroad to get a sense of the relationship between Filipinos and religion.

“People often talk about the Catholic Church as being unaccepting, and yet in my research, I found in Filipino culture, they found acceptance in the Church,” she said.

“They don’t convert because the Catholic church is home. They know the songs, they like the feel, it is a place of their culture.”

In addition to a sense of familiarity and belonging, Marshall suggests Filipinos feel at home in Catholicism because of its acceptance of home altars and private devotion. “Devotional groups are huge. I see Santo Nino (the Child Jesus) everywhere – restaurants, businesses, in homes, in kitchens,” said Marshall.

“Life has to change when you move from the Philippines where you can go to a noon service along with 1,000 other people on your lunch hour. That really can’t happen in Canada,” so many devotions are instead on display at work or at home, she said.

“I found lots of Filipinos may work two or three jobs, and for that period they can’t go to church, they will set up a home altar. They will make their prayers, they will say their novena.”

Events like the visit of Cardinal Luis Tagle of Manila to Vancouver in March 19 go further to make Filipino Catholics feel welcome and supported in a new land. “It makes them feel like they are part of home. It’s continuity. It’s like having a rock star come.”

It doesn’t take translating everything into Tagalog to make Filipinos feel welcome either, she added. “Having services in Tagalog is not necessary; all the churches seem to be thriving whether they offer Tagalog or not.”

She observed the same thing Deacon Greg Barcelon, head of Filipino Ministry in the Archdiocese of Vancouver, described when he first launched the program in 2016.

“We realize that, even if as a church we’re not doing anything directly with the Filipinos,” said Deacon Barcelon, “they are still populating our parishes and making the parishes alive.”

Marshall, not a Catholic, visited Vancouver churches this Holy Week and noticed this trend.

“European churches are dwindling. I went to St. Patrick’s on Easter, an Irish church, right? But filled with Filipinos. They are invigorating these churches.”

Despite the good news, some Filipino clergy in Canada told her they are worried about the future of their people. Two priests told her not to be deceived even if churches seem to be packed on Sundays.

One is “worried about screens and media. Because of the needs for work and the demands of putting bread on the table, you have to look at your iPhone. Instead of God first in the morning, it’s iPhone or iPad first,” she said.

“People almost worship their screens now, and it’s a pernicious influence. It can be very negative. That’s a thing that’s pulling people away from church.”

Another interviewee, a Protestant Filipino pastor, said multiculturalism and pluralism in Canada could actually serve to pull people away from their Filipino culture and religion.

But even immigrants she interviewed who don’t make it to church every Sunday would say they value Catholicism.

“I think people feel overwhelmed. They’ve got to make money. They’ve got to be the migrant that sends home remittances. But at the same time, they feel their prayers are answered when they are pious,” said Marshall.

Even less-than-regular churchgoers “said faith and family were paramount, like those were the most important things in their lives. The evidence to me does not show that it’s going to disappear.”

Marshall visited Vancouver to lead a discussion about Bayanihan and Belonging at Simon Fraser University April 5. She has also published two books on Chinese religion and history.