Father David Palacin Varas, OP (1864-1896) Missionary and Martyr
In the days leading to and on October 02, the day of ordination of its true native son, the town of Hermosa was in festive mood. The old people seemed to exhibit the most excitement but with this was palpable contentment and relief. Everyone was cooperative and looked forward with great anticipation to that grace-filled event.
“When you ordain Reverend Noel Nuguid on October 02,” the good pastor of Saint Peter of Verona, Msgr. Antonio Dumaual informed me, “the curse on this town of Hermosa will be over.” “What curse?” I asked. “According to old people,” Msgr. Dumaual continued, “only after ordination of the seventh native Hermosan could the murderous death of a former pastor of this parish be redeemed. That priest was Father David Palacin Varas, OP. And on October 02, Reverend Noel will be the seventh priest of this town.”
Msgr. Dumaual’s remarks surely perked my curiosity about the so called curse. It made me interested to know the life of Father David Varas, OP and led me to make some inquiries and to conduct a little research.
Father David Varas according to oral narrations:
The old people of Hermosa still remembered the cruel death suffered by Father David. The story of his tragic death had been passed on from generation to generation. This is what I learned. When the municipalities of Bataan were falling into the hands of the local rebels, the assigned friars began to leave Abucay, Samal and Orani. Father David, who was serving in Hermosa, opted to remain and continued to administer the parish and still managed the newly opened catholic cemetery in Barangay San Pedro which he personally established.
While he was celebrating the Holy Mass for the fiesta of Nuestra Senora del Pilar in Pilar town, news reached him that the local rebels have attacked Hermosa. Concerned about the well being of his flock, the good father hurried immediately to Hermosa. Upon his arrival he celebrated the Holy Eucharist. Then the local rebels re-appeared and arrested him. Upon learning that he had just celebrated the Holy Eucharist they cut off his hands. Bruised and bloodied he was dragged towards Dinalupihan.
At a remote place called Mandana Father David was tied to a Calumpang tree. A rebel named Marcos Lucban stabbed him in the chest while the rebel leader Mariano Medina beheaded him with his bolo. His head was hung on a branch of the Calumpang tree, after which they brutally cut his body into pieces.
To the old people of Hermosa I remarked that Father David Varas was a true shepherd who gave up “his life or his sheep” (John 10,11). He did not abandon them. He returned to them to be their protection and their strength. For his flock the celebration of the Holy Eucharist was his catechesis that with the pervasive danger and in the face of death Jesus was their only hope, their security and their only salvation. With the Holy Eucharist, Father David Varas affirmed that Jesus is the “living bread which has come from heaven; whoever eats of this bread will live forever”(John 6,51). Truly the death of Father David at the hands of the rebels was his birth to eternal life.
Father David Varas according to the written narrations:
But I was not satisfied with the old folk’s oral narrative. I wanted to know more, especially from authoritative and documented sources. In this effort, the Dominican Fathers Eladio Neira and Guillermo Tejon were of great help. With their valuable and historical sources I learned more.
Father David Varas was born in Revilla Vallejera in Burgos, Spain on February 25, 1864. He took the Dominican habit on December 05, 1885 and was solemnly professed on December 8, 1889. As a missionary to the Philippines Father David was first assigned in Binondo, Manila on March 23, 1893. On November 13, that following year Father David was sent to Calamba in Laguna. In 1895 he came to Bataan. His first assignment was in Abucay, as the temporary vicar. On June 06, 1895 he was appointed pastor of Llana-Hermosa.
The Acta Capituli Provincialis Provinciae Ssmi. Rosarii Denuntiationes described the tragic death of Father David: “He was cruelly assassinated by the rebels, with the help of traitors, in 1896, during the first bandit commotion…He was taken by force from the convent during the night; they cut off his hands, then they extracted his viscera and, finally he was beheaded in a place called Mandana”(pag27).
The violent start of the uprising against Spain happened on August 1896 and the Spanish religious suffered tremendously. They were persecuted and violently put to death. Yet amidst dangers and threats of sure death, the Spanish friars remained steadfast in their priestly ministry. Their pastoral zeal did not diminish. They were still faithfully devoted to their sacramental duties. And Father David Varas was exemplary example of this. The monumental volumes Misioneros Dominicos en el Extremo Oriente 1836-1940 chronicled an interesting explanation of the reason Father David returned to Hermosa.
When all the Bataan Dominican friars in 1896 were reunited in Balanga for their safety and protection, Father David fearlessly decided to return to his parish church in Hermosa. He ardently desired to get the consecrated Hosts in the Tabernacle in order to keep them Hosts from profanation and possible sacrilege. His confreres strongly warmed him and sought to dissuade him from proceeding with his intention. But Father David insisted and went to his parish church. He arrived at seven in the evening. Around three in the morning he was awakened by the sound of the church doors being forcibly opened and eventually destroyed. He fled through the back door. But his cochero, cart driver, saw him, ran after him and hit him hard with huge plank of wood. They tied him and dragged him towards Dinalupihan to be presented to the head of the rebels. But on the way to Dinalupihan, the cart-driver together with other three cruelly murdered Father David Varas.
It was recorded that before his agonizing death, the forgiving father repeated the biblical lamentation, “pueblo mio, que te he hecho, o en que te he ofendido,” that is, my people, what have I done to you in what way have I offended you.
While the oral and written accounts of the horrible fate Father David suffered, one thing is incontrovertible- Father David died for the Catholic faith. He died for the defense of and love of the Holy Eucharist. It was said that by the old people that his hands were cut off because of his celebration of the Holy Eucharist. And it was written that he returned to his parish church to keep and to protect the consecrated Host from possible sacrilege and dishonor. Father David died as good pastor, forgiving his captors.
Reflecting deeper on the heroic death of Father David it made me conclude that he was a martyr. His life was offered to Jesus, given for the love of the Holy Eucharist. Aware of the hostility against Spanish friars and revolutionary atmosphere, Father David showed the virtue of fortitude and courageous profession of his fidelity to Jesus and caring devotion to the Holy Eucharist. He freely accepted what awaited him even it would be at the expense of his own life. Thus, he was not bitter; rather he unconditionally embraced death for the sake of Jesus, and for reverential homage to the consecrated Host. From the oral narrations, that they themselves heard from their forefathers of the old people of Hermosa believed that the hands of Father David were cut off because of his celebration of the Holy Eucharist. The great Dominican historians Fathers Eladio Neira, Hilario Ocio and Gregorio Arnaiz chronicled that Father David returned despite the threat of death for the protection of the consecrated Host in the Tabernacle from sure profanation and sacrilegious acts.
From what I remember from my studies in the seminary, a martyr is a person who offers his or her life in defense of the teachings and truths of the Catholic faith. The shepherding actions of Father David to his flock amidst the revolutionary situation and his faith to the real presence of Jesus in the consecrated Host were a powerful testimonial message of his beliefs and his unwavering obedience to Jesus and His teachings. Father David relied on and accepted what Jesus proclaimed, “I am the bread of life”(John 6,35ff). As from a Greek term, martyr means ‘witness.’ Father David professed his faith in Jesus by living and loving the Holy Eucharist. And he lived his priestly life according to the Magisterium of the Church. In his patient endurance of the physical sufferings inflicted on him, Father David imitated Jesus in His passion and death. He also relived what Saint Paul wrote to the Philippians about Jesus, “humbled himself by being obedient to death, death on the cross” (2,7).
Saint Augustine defines a martyr as ‘martyrem non facit poena, sed causa,’ that is, ‘it is the reason why, not the suffering that constitutes a martyr is.’ Father David as a missionary came to heed the call of Jesus, “go out to the whole world and proclaim the Good News to all creation” (Mark 16,15). He lived to the letter what he preached. And Father David as a martyr bore witness to the life and words of Jesus, “because of this I give my life for my sheep”(John 10,15). Father David Palacin Varas, OP (1864-1896) is, in my judgment, a missionary and a martyr.
+Ruperto Cruz Santos
Bishop of Balanga
Appeard in LIFE TODAY, April-May 2011 issue, pages 21-23.