My name is Father Donald Kill. My friends call me “Father Don” when they are not mad at me. Most young people here in the Philippines call me “Lolo” or Grandpa, a term of endearment and great respect here in the Philippines. I am getting old enough to be a “Lolo” because I am now 60 years old.
We are 8 children in our family. I was the fourth son in a row born to our parents. My mother, Eva Marie, never worked outside our home since she had to take care of all of the children.
My father, Bernard, worked during the day as a railroad clerk and at night as a janitor in an ice cream factory. Because of his work in the ice cream factory, even though we were poor and sometimes had little else to eat, we always had a lot of ice cream.
I never knew how poor we were until I went to the Columban Seminary in Silver Creek where I learned how nice it was to have three full meals a day and a nice, warm place to sleep.
As was common in those days, Church was important to our parents and the praying of the rosary was common, though not daily. I believe that my father had a greater devotion to the rosary than to the Mass - but that was not uncommon then either. He could pray the rosary any time, but, because of his work schedule, he would sometimes have to miss Mass on Sunday.
Work was a strong value in our community and in our family. Whenever an addition was needed for our house, we were expected to help to build it and, of course, to take care of it. Such projects seemed to drag on forever because of the limited time my father had free from his two jobs. However, we learned a lot from those projects and that knowledge has served us all well until the present time.
When I was old enough to get a job during the summer months, it was not surprising that I worked in the construction industry. Our pastor got me a job with the construction company who built the new school for our parish. I held that job every summer and Christmas vacation from the time I was 16 until I became a deacon 10 years later.
Because of his work for the Church, the pastor invited my father to send us to the Catholic grade school at the parish. We could never afford to pay the tuition and barely scraped together enough to buy the simple uniform required by the school. The pastor was very kind in allowing us all to go to school for the tuition of one student. Of course, whenever he needed something fixed around the parish or rectory, he knew he could call on my father or one of my older brothers.
I spent my first two years of schooling in public school and then transferred to the Parish School in grade three. We were taught by the Franciscan Sisters who had a large community of Sisters in our town. One of them, who eventually became the principal was a really loving person and an excellent teacher. She was dedicated to her profession, to her vocation and not only to her students, but also to their families, especially to those of us who were known to her to be poor. Her name is Sister Helen Agnes Stack.
It was the influence of Sister Helen Agnes in my life that first stirred the thought of a vocation to the priesthood within me. In grade six she became my teacher. Each year, as our class went up the grades, she also moved up with us. We were always so happy when we would learn that she would again be our teacher. It is not surprising that several from among my classmates in that grade school entered religious life, either as priests or sisters - although I believe I am the only missionary. Sister is still alive and full of the same spirit today at 88. Her faith is obvious, her spirit is undimmed by the years, and her pride in the accomplishments of her students is obvious to all. I thank God for her every day of my life. She meets often with former students who get together and take her out to lunch or dinner. I get to see her once a year when I go to the USA.
The person who influenced me to become a missionary was Father Pete McPartland. He and my own father were class mates in grade school. Later, his father and my father worked together in the same office as clerks for the railroad. Whenever Father Pete would come home to Toledo, he would try to set aside an hour or so to visit with us. Even though he never went on mission to a country other than his own, his dedication to the missionary vocation was always obvious to me. He would often relate stories of other missionaries to us when he would visit. But most important for me was his joy in being what he was.
Between Father Pete and Sister Helen, I was finally convinced to give missionary priesthood a try. I entered the Columban High School Seminary at Silver Creek, NY in 1959. I was entering first year high school and a whole new life. I did not find seminary life burdensome except for two aspects - the boredom of the routine and the lack of challenge in the courses offered.
The routine of seminary life, at that time, was bad enough, but especially when combined with the long winter on the shore of Lake Erie near Buffalo, New York - snow capital of the world.
The courses offered in the seminary were, I suppose, what would be offered in any high school, except that we had a greater emphasis on language studies and less on math - which has always been a subject that I loved. Instead of math we had to study Greek and Latin. I also loved the study of English - but, while we were encouraged to read and comment on writers of English, we were never challenged to write imaginatively nor were we taught what great insights into the human person were contained in many of the writings that were offered as our “English Course”. We were challenged to memorize poetry, written by long dead authors, but we were never invited to write poetry of our own. I believe that such creative exercises would have helped me more in becoming not only a creative writer and thinker, but also a more creative missionary.
The same held true in our Philosophy and theology courses. Generally, Philosophy and Theology were things to be “learned” rather than experienced and “God” became “laws and prohibitions” rather than the object of love and affection. I grew to know the “poverty” of our education when I began to write and study on my own, after ordination.
My real growth and formation for the missionary priesthood began when I went to the Virgin Islands as a deacon for what was, then, our “Overseas Training Program”. We spent seven months in that tropical paradise, but only saw the “paradise” part on Sunday afternoons when we would be invited by visitors to one of the resorts in our parish. During the rest of the week, we were at work among the poor and oppressed people of the islands who served as the servants and waiters in the hotels and resorts and tour drivers for the tourists.
This was my first experience of having something to offer to the poor, to be one among them while offering hope and consolation. My growth as a person and as a minister of the Gospel was deep and intense. One part of that era of my formation that I will never forget was the evening sessions of gin rummy with Father Charlie Degnan. We did a lot more than pass a couple of hours in idle card playing. His sharing of his life with me was a source of inspiration, encouragement, and enlightenment.
I was ordained on June 24, 1972 at St. Jerome’s Parish in Walbridge, Ohio. I was immediately assigned to the Philippines and arrived in Manila on September 29 (Feast of San Miguel), 1972. This coincided with the declaration of martial law by the Marcos Regime. I thought that this was an auspicious beginning to a new part of my life. Little did I know what a profound effect that would have on my missionary career.
When I left the USA from San Francisco for Manila all communications had been cut off to the Philippines and it was unclear what was happening. As a result there was no one to meet me at the airport. We arrived at an airport that had been recently burned to the ground. We were herded through customs and immigration and dispatched as quickly as possible from the small, temporary buildings that served as the airport at that time.
After a few days in Manila, I was put on a boat for Ozamiz City in Mindanao. Communications were still cut off and we had no way of knowing what was going on there or any way of letting them know that I was arriving. Thank God, I was met at the pier, by accident, by Father Damien McKenna who, at that time, was assigned to the Cathedral Parish in Ozamiz City. He loaded my belongings into his jeep and drove me to the Columban House in Catadman. I will never forget his comment about the road leading to the Columban House at that time. He said, “As you see our house is at the end of a pretty bad road, just like most of our parishes.”
I entered the language school a few day later when the rest of the new group arrived from Ireland and Australia. The language school was a great experience. It was my first time to learn a “living language” which I would use for “life”. I quickly became “proficient” in the language and when we graduated some 7 months later I gave the “valedictory address” - in Visayan, the language we had been studying. My “proficiency” was that of about a three year old, but it was a base on which I could build. I decided to use the language as much as possible to build on that base.
My first assignment was to Aurora, Zamboanga del Sur. The Columban area in the Zamboanga de Sur Province had just been made into a Diocese. It was cut off from the Archdiocese of Zamboanga City. The area, as a whole, was war torn, impoverished and down trodden. Aurora was probably the best of all assignments at that time since it was peaceful, itself, while being surrounded by war torn towns. Aurora also has a nicer climate, since it is somewhat elevated. Its economy, while still extremely poor, was somewhat better than other places in the area.
It was the people of Aurora, especially the people of barrio Lantungan, who taught me what priesthood was all about, and to them I owe a deep debt of gratitude for their patience and understanding, for their guidance and for their goodness.
I was only in the parish in Aurora a short time when I had my “baptism by fire”. I was caught in an ambush and shot by Muslim rebels. (See Columban Mission Magazine 1974 for detailed story). Fortunately, our vehicle was able to drive through the ambush and we were saved. Many miracles happened that day as the bullets flew. All the glass in the truck, carrying 11 passengers, was shot out, but I was the only one hit. My taking the bullet saved the driver, Father Pat Reidy, from taking the bullet in his head. Both wheels on the ambush side of the truck were hit by bullets, but not the tires. Bullets bounced around the engine of the truck, but never hit a wire or tube that would kill the engine and cause the vehicle to stop. The lady next to me had her hair taken off to the scalp by a bullet, but never shed a drop of blood.
Father Pat drove on to Aurora where there is a hospital. The hospital was somewhat primitive but served to save my life as it has many others through the years. I was taken later that day to the hospital in Ozamiz City and the next night I was taken to Cebu by boat. On the boat I was accompanied by two priests, two doctors, two nurses and a Columban Sister nurse and 800 curious spectators who all wanted to take their turn trying to keep me cool with their hand fans.
At the time of the shooting, my younger brother, Joe, was a soldier involved in the war in Vietnam. Since he was the closest relative, he was flown by the United States Army to Clark Air base and issued a diplomatic passport so he could come immediately to Cebu to be with me. He arrived the night before I was operated on. I could barely breathe since my lungs were filled with mucous from infections caused by the bullet which had passed through the right lung.
The operation lasted 8 hours. Fortunately, all went well and I survived the operation. There were, however, a few tense moments at one point when my heart stopped beating, but the doctors were able to bring me back to life quickly. That “near death” experience or “experience of death”, has had a deep effect on my life, both physically and spiritually. I no longer fear death, and I know God in a way that no “teaching” could ever give to me.
When I was recovered enough to travel, the Society offered me a trip home to the States. I turned down that opportunity, not because I was brave, but rather, because I was afraid that if I went home at that time, I would never have the courage to return to the Philippines. After two months in Cebu and two more months in Manila, I returned to Aurora.
Since Aurora was surrounded on all sides by war but was, itself, peaceful, we were often burdened with hundreds of evacuees. These were mostly poor farmers and fishermen and their families. War is a fine game for soldiers since they have only one enemy. For the poor, in a time of war, there are at least five enemies. The first enemy is war itself with its economic and human disruption. The second enemy is finding a decent place to live. The other three are breakfast, lunch and dinner. A major portion of my time and energy was spent providing for the evacuees. This effort turned into the birthing process for the Social Action Center in Aurora (SACA).
When the war quieted down to a point that the majority of the evacuees could return to their homes, the Social Action Center was able to become more involved in the helping to change the economic and political plight of the poor of the area. This was done through cooperative movements and community organization. Our work was successful and bore great fruit for the poor farmers and fishermen. The main Co-op, set up with a grant from United Methodist Commission on Overseas Relief, is now the strongest, richest Co-op in this region of the Philippines.
Because of our success, it was not surprising when, in 1978, I was asked to be Social Action Director for the Diocese of Pagadian. I served as Social Action Director from 1978 to 1980. During that time I was asked also to become pastor of the remote mission station called Josefina. I served in Josefina from 1979 until I was assigned to work in the USA in 1983.
My time as Social Action Director and pastor of Josefina parish was draining, physically, emotionally and spiritually. The people of the parish of Josefina, and of many other parishes, were caught between the tyranny of the Marcos Dictatorship with its rampant military abuses, and the Communist New People’s Army, which was equally vicious in its exploitation of the fears of the people. Extrajudicial killing was rampant on both sides, many times involving whole families, women and children included. Fear of both sides was the constant companion of the people. Gun fire at night was an almost daily occurrence.
Throughout all these years of trouble and strife, I was always inspired by the ability of the people to carry on with life in the face of such turmoil and seeming hopelessness. Their faith in God, their hope and trust in God was often the only thing that kept me going.
Another blessing that came to me, during my time as Social Action Director and pastor of Josefina, was my introduction to the Suban’n people. These humble, forest-dwelling people taught me a lot about God, about life, and about the life of God in the Earth. I learned more theology from these so called “pagan” people than I ever learned in the Seminary. In fact, I learned so much from them that I decided to look up the root meaning of the word “pagan”. It seems that the Romans used the word to describe anything that went on in the countryside that they did not understand. I suppose that in that manner, the Suban’n people are “pagan” because they certainly do live in the countryside and their ways are much different from those of those of the “empowered people” who live in cities. Their relationship to God and to the sacredness of the Earth is unquestionable.
By 1983, I was given an assignment in the USA. It was difficult for me to think of leaving the Philippines, but I also knew that it would be good for me to get out of the tension that I had worked under for so many years.
I was requested to work in Mission Awareness and Vocation Ministry. Columban Sister, Sr. Patricia McGuinness, and I worked together. We kept a very full schedule, sharing our “mission awareness” with staffs and students in Catholic High Schools and Colleges throughout Ohio, Western New York, Western Pennsylvania, Indiana and Michigan. Our “rewards and affirmations” were many, but more importantly, we both saw our work as an integral part of the whole work of the Columban Mission.
In 1990, I asked for reassignment to the Philippines. I had given many good years to the mission in the USA and felt that it was time for me to return to my mission abroad. The wounds of war had healed and I felt refreshed in body and in Spirit. I had never broken off my ties with the Philippines. I visited the Philippines almost every year during my time in the USA.
Before returning to the Philippines, I was allowed a one year Study Sabbatical during which I studied Creation Spirituality. I learned that this spirituality was all about being “pagan” - just like the Suban’n people. The Sabbatical time was a time of affirmation of my experience of God rather than a course completed. My life among the Suban’n people, knowing their ways of life, their knowledge of and closeness to God, made me an “expert” in the eyes of fellow students and teachers. My Sabbatical helped me to grasp and to own the richness of my experiences.
During my Sabbatical Year, I co-authored a book on the spirituality behind care for the Earth entitled - Ecological Healing, A Christian Perspective (Orbis Press, 1993). During this reflective period I also wrote many pieces of poetry based on my meditations and finding God in nature. These are, as yet, unpublished.
I returned to the Philippines in late1992 and was assigned for a year in the parish in Sinacaban, Misamis Occidental. During that period I longed to return to the Josefina area, not to serve as pastor, but rather to learn more about the Suban’n people. I was freed to delve into this work in March 1994 and was blessed with two years of research on their language and their customs.
As the first “outsider” to make a real study of their language, I received a very warm welcome from the these humble people. As my ability to understand their language deepened, my awareness of the beauty of their culture also broadened. As part of my study of their language and culture, we collected epic tales, songs and stories and recorded them for the first time in written form. These we translated into both Visayan and English. We also translated the four Gospels from Visayan into the Suban’n language.
In 1996, I was asked to begin the Mission Awareness ministry Dioceses of Ozamiz and Pagadian. I have continued in that work until the present time. My experience here is quite different from my experience of Mission Awareness Ministry in the USA. While working in the USA, we were welcomed into parishes and schools in many dioceses and the welcome was true and warm, but it could never come close to the warmth of the welcome that we receive in the schools and parishes in which the Columbans worked in times past. It is a real inspiration to me that the work of our Columban Priests and Sisters is so well remembered even in schools and parishes where there have been no Columbans for many years already. The gifts of faith and “Columban Spirit” that was shared with the people in those days are still alive and well, passed on to younger generations. We now see the fruit of those gifts lived out in the lives of those who have followed. It is my mission now to keep that Missionary Spirit alive in the people and in the Church of not only Ozamiz and Pagadian, but also in the Dioceses of Dipolog and Ipil.
The task of keeping the Missionary Spirit before the minds and in the hearts of the people is challenging both in terms of work and travel. However, the yoke is made lighter by the inspiration given to us by the Filipino people and by the Filipino clergy. By this we are affirmed in our work and in the work of our Priests, Sisters and Lay Missionaries, now and in the past. Our schedule has left little time for rest and relaxation except summer vacation when we do not go to the schools. With so many places to visit, we were on the road nearly every Saturday and Sunday. During the school year we were in schools, usually, four days a week.
Now, the Lord seems to be calling both of us to slow down and do the work in a different way. I have had health problems involving infection and blood circulation in my right leg. I am no longer able to travel as often or to stand and talk for as long as we used to. Now our ministry is limited, but our new role has given new life to our program. We have developed new lesson plans to be used in the Schools by the teachers. They have been very well received and are bing used in almost all of the schools throughout the region. How long yet the Lord will allow both of us to carry on, I do not know, but for that amount of time, we will continue to strengthen and build on the Spirit of Columban, the spirit of Mission entrusted to us by those who went before and for those who are yet to come.
One of the most rewarding ministries I have been involved in over the years has been providing funds for the education of economically poor but bright young men and women. Through the years I have been the instrument of God’s goodness to hundreds of these deserving young people. The funds for their food clothing and shelter comes from generous benefactors in the United States, Australia, and the Philippines. While we are able to touch the lives of 20 or 30 young people each year, there are still thousands who are in need. Almost all of those we have been able to help are now successful in the practice of their chosen profession. They are in almost all walks of life, - priests, professors, researchers, doctors, nurses, pharmacists, nutritionists, lawyers, accountants, teachers, agriculturists, seamen, mechanics, electricians, electronic repair persons, business people, food handlers, seamstresses and tailors, and probably other professions I have forgotten about. The majority are married and have their own families. We hope to soon begin collecting the stories of many of our graduates so we can present them here on our Web Page.
Balay San Columbano is the fruit of many years of supporting guiding and raising kids, often saving them from tragic situations within their own homes. When I was assigned to Mission Awareness work and based in Ozamiz City, the need for safe shelter for young people was ever before me. Through the generosity of our many benefactors, I was able to purchase two small, adjacent houses in a low income housing development. Over the years, working alongside the kids, we have been able to develop the two houses into one big house and added a second story. The house is now lot line to lot line north to south and east to west. We have 27 students living in the house including three physically challenged young men.
It has always been a blessing to me to be part of their lives and to watch them grow in body, mind and spirit to become successful men and women. It is an even greater blessing to watch their children grow up in a safe and secure family, and to be called “Lolo”, “Grandpa” by them.
What has kept me going through the 34 years of my ministry? An undying faith that this is the life that the Lord has called me to. Without that my mission would indeed be “Mission Impossible”. That faith has been supported and nurtured by the people the Lord has sent into my life. I have found great support, hope and faith among the people that I have worked among and these have strengthened my faith and given me hope. I have learned to learn from the poor and the oppressed and the “pagan”, Who and What God is. Through them, I have found a God that words can not speak or mind truly comprehend. I have found a God who IS, who lives in life, in the Earth, in the Universe, in all that IS and that living, BE-ING God gives life and meaning to all - even to our feeble and faulted efforts to re-present God to the world. If I had never come here, if I had never been a missionary, I would probably never have known that God and certainly would never have known the wonderful people who have helped me to find God in my life and in my world.
If asked what I would do differently, I would reply, “Nothing!”, for my mistakes have been part of the path that has led me to God, and without them I would not know God’s immense and undying love for me, even in my sinfulness and weakness. To anyone who is called to this life, I would only counsel them to live it to the fullest, for IF we carry out the mission given to us by the Lord, our life is fulfilled in and by its happy times and sad times, in its trials and triumphs, in its weakness and in its strength. And, since it is a LIFE that we are called to, I would counsel that we be open to the changes of that life just as we must be open to all the changes that happen in our personal lives. If it is a LIFE, it is ALIVE and will give us life - and, hopefully life everlasting.
I thank God daily for each and every person who has come into my life and pray that they too will know life in abundance as I have known it through them.