Fr Séraphin Devesse, CICM
Founder, Saint Louis University
Saint Louis University in 2011 commemorates and celebrates her 100 years of the historic mission of education in this part of the world. Thus, the upcoming SLU centennial celebration must allow every Louisian to pause for moments of reflection of remembrance. We begin our journey of grateful memory to the small beginnings of SLU with her self-effacing founder: Fr Séraphin Devesse, CICM.
True to the missionary virtue of humility (anonymity?), little is known of the circumstances surrounding the life of Fr. Devesse to whom Baguio could significantly trace her Catholic roots, the man who built the first Catholic church and the first Catholic mission school in Baguio. Yet, a deep sense of institutional memory, especially during the auspicious centenary of SLU, finally calls for the recognition of this pioneer missionary to whom Catholic Baguio is silently grateful.
Fr. Devesse was born on 28 April 1883 in Belgium. He finished the classical humanities at the Minor Seminary and later, his Philosophy at the Seminary in Malines. He was admitted into the Novitiate on 6 September 1902, and four years later, on 14 October 1906, was ordained, priest. Fr. Devesse or “Vessius” as he was also known to his companions, was a professor of languages and Sacred Scripture in the CICM seminary in Belgium. The following year after his ordination, Fr. Devesse, eager and enthusiastic at 24 years of age to bring evangelization to foreign lands, embarked on his first mission adventure: The Philippines.
On 2 November 1907 Fr. Devesse, together with his equally spirited eight CICM companions, arrived in the Philippines to start the first CICM mission in the country. Fr. Devesse was the youngest among the pioneer group of CICM missionaries to the Philippines. Upon the urgent request of Bishop D. Dougherty of Nueva Segovia, Frs Séraphin Devesse, Octave Vandewalle, and Henry Verbeeck were immediately dispatched to establish their mission in Baguio and La Trinidad. On 26 November 1907, the three missionaries arrived in Baguio to start out the work. In 1908 Fr. Devesse built in Baguio the first Catholic church, named the St Patrick church, along Session Road. From that small church later grew the Baguio Cathedral we know today. During those early years of missionary work in Baguio, the CICM Fathers were locally known as the “Missionary Priests of the Church of San Patricio,” since they were identified with St Patrick church that they built. Later on, they were commonly called the “Baguio Fathers,” or simply the “Belgian Fathers.”
Fr. Devesse became the first parish priest of St Patrick from 1911 till 1913. Within this period, he also established another church in Campo Filipino. From that other church soon emerged what is now the Saint Vincent Church along Naguilian Road.
In 1911, Fr. Devesse opened the first Catholic mission school using the sacristy of the church he put up along Session Road. “We built a little church and started a school,” summarizes one mission chronicle of the early Fathers’ account of Baguio, which was a testimony to Fr. Devesse’s monumental efforts.
Fr. Devesse zealously went about his parish duties in Baguio till he was succeeded in 1913 by Rev Fr Florimund Carlu, CICM, who came from his mission assignment in Tagudin, Ilocos Sur. Fr Carlu was one of the nine original CICM missionaries to the Philippines. He became the great pastor of Baguio. He was the revered and well-loved parish priest of the Baguio Cathedral till his death in 1950. Also in 1913, the arrived to manage the mission schools that Fr. Devesse built. The fruit of this collaboration between the CICM Fathers and the ICM Sisters was soon realized in the foundation and administration of Saint Louis Schools, from whose consolidation into a system of schools specifically after World War II gave rise to the institution of Saint Louis College in 1952 with an initial enrolment of 75 students. The establishment of Saint Louis College was all part of the reconstruction effort of the Philippine CICM under the visionary leadership of Bishop William Brasseur and the CICM Provincial Superior Fr Rafael Desmedtafter the destruction wrought by the war. Later in 1963 Saint Louis College finally became Saint Louis University.
In 1913, Fr. Devesse was assigned to Bambang, Nueva Vizcaya, to work there as parish priest till 1924. There Fr. Devesse built a Catholic school. He also had a short stint in Abra in 1918 upon the request of the Bishop of Vigan to help in the German mission area (SVD Missionaries) there which was then devoid of missionaries due to the outbreak of World War I.
Aside from attending to the spiritual and educational needs of the people of Bambang, Fr. Devesse distinguished himself as a man of dialogue and an ecumenical pastor where he succeeded in uniting as one people the Catholics, Aglipayans, and the Protestants notably during the turbulent years of religious and political upheavals in Philippine Church history. That earned for this humble priest the respect and love of the people of Bambang that they embraced him as one of their own, even honoring him as an “Imbambang.”
In 1924 Fr. Devesse became the parish priest of Santiago, Isabela. It was there that on 21 March 1945 the Japanese executed him, along with his assistant, Rev Fr Laurent Decaestecker, CICM. Laurent Decaestecker was the brother of the first Rector of Saint Louis College, Rev Fr Gerard Decaestecker, CICM, who held the position from 1952 to 1954. Years after WW II, French missionaries (La Salette Missionaries) to Santiago, Isabela generously pay tribute to Fr. Devesse’s heroism during the dark days of the war by remembering him to be “a great figure” whose name evokes an almost legendary person. (Presumably, that striking recollection of the La Salette Missionaries was for Fr. Devesse’s making a gallant stance before his Japanese executioners.)
Today, in hindsight, and ever grateful for God’s wonderful ways, we read how Fr. Devesse’s name curiously originates in Latin (de+esse) which means “from the beginning.” By providence, his is truly a name that will serve as the foundation of an evolving reality, which we know today as Saint Louis University.
Through the intercession of Fr Devesse and of his pioneer companions to the Philippine mission in 1907, we pray that the good Lord, who has generously blessed and sustained the educational mission of SLU for the past 100 years, will continue to look kindly on SLU as she enters the threshold of another century.