Pope Paul VI to the Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Michael Ramsey

"(B)y entering into our house, you are entering your own house, we are happy to open our door and heart to you." - Pope Paul VI to Dr Michael Ramsey, Archbishop of Canterbury.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

John Staunton, Sagada and an Anglo Catholic journey

Sagada in the Mountain Province, Philippines is the only Anglican/Episcopal town in the Philippines. Today it is a small municipality with 11,000 residents and is a major ecotourism and cultural attraction. It's main attraction are the "hanging coffins" a traditional burial practice of the Igorot people which is no longer done.

The town was a small tribal settlement and in 1884 Spanish Roman Catholic missionaries established a presence there but due to the Philippine Revolution left. In 1904 the Rev John A Staunton Jr (1864-1944) established the first Episcopal mission among the Bontoc Igorots. The Bontocs welcomed the Episcopal missionaries.

Staunton was priest of St Mary the Virgin in New York, a church that  today still is staunchly Anglo-Catholic. The New York Sun reported that it was difficult to differentiate the Mass celebrated there from the Mass said at nearby St Patrick's Roman Catholic Cathedral. Staunton came from a family of Episcopal priests. He did a degree in mining engineering at Columbia University, attended Harvard before attending the General Theological Seminary. In college he was attracted to Anglo Catholicism. He considered himself as a Catholic during his entire career as a priest. Although at first not as a Roman Catholic, but a Catholic nonetheless.

He had a deep reverence for the Catholic liturgy and traditional devotional practices. This he brought when he established the mission in Sagada. The mission church in Sagada was dedicated to St Mary and was from the start an Anglo Catholic foundation.

Staunton the engineer-priest started building the community in tandem with preaching the Gospel. He built a sawmill, kilns, mines, taught the Bontoc to plant vegetables that gave the natives a means of employment. Machinery had to be imported to Sagada from the US, carried piece by piece from Manila to the mountains of the Cordillera. Eleven years later, Sagada was a wonder, a Christian town  of 2000 with industries in a largely non-Christian region.

Staunton was a strong authoritarian personality who required the natives to attend Mass. His wife Eliza, a nurse by profession, balanced  him in this regard and taught the women livelihoods at the time centered on the domestic arts.

The mission was supported by contributions from US Episcopalians largely through the efforts of Bishop Brent and Rev Staunton. However the financial effects of World War I and Great Depression the 1920s resulted in the drying up of donations. Many of the what Staunton wanted for Sagada, like a hydroelectric plant for energy self sufficiency, never came to pass.

Staunton's Anglo Catholicism were not without critics and opponents both from the Episcopal/Anglican and the Roman Catholic side. His reports to Bishop Brent clearly outlined the Anglo Catholic direction of the mission. Brent did not oppose his emphasis perhaps Brent realized that  his policy of "not building an altar over another" was consistent with allowing Anglo Catholic practice to flourish.

The Roman Catholic Bishop of Nueva Segovia (Vigan. Ilocos Sur) sent Belgian missionaries to get the Episcopalians out of Sagada. It was a less ecumenical age but still Staunton lived up to the ecumenical ideals we in the 21st century now take for granted and in the end, had good relations with the Roman Catholic priests. When he resigned the Sagada mission, he even suggested to turn over the mission to the Roman Catholics.

Things went head to head when Brent resigned his missionary bishopric in 1918. Temporary Episcopal oversight of the Philippine diocese came under the Anglican Bishop of Shanghai, Bishop Frederick Graves. Graves visited Sagada soon after and was appalled at the Roman Catholic practices  (veneration of the Virgin's icon, Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament, the Rosary etc) instituted by Staunton. Graves forbade these rites. Staunton then wrote an open letter to the Bishop which remains as  definitive about the problems of living the Catholic faith within Anglicanism. The significance of the letter is that this deals with the problem of living the Catholic faith within Anglicanism and of BEING A MISSIONARY in a non-European land.

Bishop Governeur Mosher took over the Philippine missionary diocese and while he tolerated Staunton's Anglo Catholicism now called the "Sagada Rite", he passed Staunton's funding requests to the American Board of Missions who declined most of his requests. The result was Mosher and Staunton had a falling out. Several letters followed about "pan-Protestant virus" and accusations of "Protestantizing the missions" which even those sympathetic to Anglo Catholicism had to conclude that Staunton's nerves "were highly strung"

Staunton resigned his mission in September 1924 which Mosher accepted. In December of that year the American Board of Missions accepted it. He left the Philippines for the last time on Feb 23, 1925 at the age of 60. He then assumed the curacy of  an Episcopal parish in the USA but never was a successful priest like he was in Sagada. In 1930 came the definitive point in his Anglo-Catholic priesthood. In that year the Lambeth Conference allowed contraception in certain circumstances thus departing from traditional teaching. Staunton was received into the Catholic Church on September 22, 1930.  His wife missed Sagada  and died of illness in 1933. Staunton then entered the Pontifical Beda College in Rome as a seminarian. With failing health and eyesight, he was unable to finish his seminary studies but the Catholic hierarchy in Rome was moved by his circumstances, granted a dispensation and he was finally ordained as a Catholic priest. He celebrated his first Mass as a Roman Catholic. A month later he retired and spent his last years at a nursing home. He was called by his Maker in 1944.

In Staunton's day going to Sagada was difficult often on horseback. In the 21st century, we can get there by airconditioned bus to Baguio (300 km from Manila) and another bus for the  8 hour, 140 km  trip to Sagada. We now have mobile phones and Internet and so Sagada is a tad less  difficult to get to and less isolated than it was when Staunton came there in 1904!  Visitors to Sagada today will note that St Mary's Episcopal Church and St Mary's School remain  as the best monuments to Father Staunton. His career and ministry is a example of the journeys taken by numerous Anglo Catholics who in the end entered their own house as Pope Paul VI would tell the Archbishop of Canterbury. Many Anglo Catholics who completed their journeys in the Catholic Church are not clergy, but a vast majority of them are laypeople. No journey is the same. Mine is not the same as other Anglicans and cannot compare to the most famous one of all,  the one by John Henry Newman, but Staunton's journey remains remarkable indeed. First of all it was a true ecumenical journey. Staunton like Bishop Brent laboured to be on good relations with Roman Catholics and other Protestants. Only those who have visited Sagada, would know what I mean. The landscape, culture and people of this part of the Cordilleras are breathtaking. And at silent reflection and prayer in St Mary's we come home.

While St Mary's is only one of two non- Roman Catholic churches in the list of notable Filipino churches (the other one is the central temple of the Iglesia ni Cristo), no one goes to Sagada as pilgrims but as tourists, more likely as ecotourists. Sagada today faces the problems that befall such picturesque towns. Ms Danilova Molintas, a good friend of mine and debating "opponent" who attended the UP in Diliman and hails from the town has written an essay on the social costs of tourism in her Episcopalian town.

She told me that people go to Sagada to "find something or to run away from something" How true is that in the story of Father John A Staunton, Jr!


  1. Thank you for this post. I read Fr. Clifford Nobes' book "Apo Padi" and also "Ten Decades of Praise" but this is the most I have read about Fr. Staunton. May he pray for us who are following in his footsteps.


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