Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Father Mick: A fighter for victims of injustice

Philippine Daily Inquirer/Feature
TWO MONTHS SHY of 80, Irish priest Fr. Michael Sinnott has worked as a missionary in the Philippines for more than four decades, devoting the last few years helping disabled children, whether Christian or Muslim.

His abduction by armed men on Sunday night has shocked not only his fellow priests belonging to the Missionary Society of St. Columban but the leaders of the Philippine Roman Catholic Church.

Fondly called Father Mick by friends, Sinnott is the latest in a lengthening list of foreign and Filipino missionaries kidnapped by lawless elements in the volatile Mindanao region.

An aunt of his, Sr. Theophane Fortune, a Columban missionary sister, also served in Mindanao years ago.

In recent years, Sinnott had been in ill health.

Fr. Pat O’Donoghue, regional director of the Missionary Society of St. Columban, said Sinnott suffered a heart attack in 2005 and underwent a quadruple bypass surgery in Cebu City.

“Father Sinnott has recovered, but he has to be on medication every day. He has no medicine with him right now and that is a big concern for us,” O’Donoghue said.

‘Kind to victims of injustice’
O’Donoghue described Sinnott as “a very dedicated and humble man.”

“He is exceedingly kind and generous to the poor and the suffering and those who are victims of injustice. He has spent 55 years of his life for them,” O’Donoghue said.

In 1995, Sinnott and several others filed a complaint in court related to what they deemed was a miscarriage of justice in the murder of a church lay worker.

Most of Sinnott’s life has been spent in parish work in Zamboanga del Sur province.

Love for children
Eleven years ago, he set up Hangop Kabataan Foundation and a small school that attends to special children, including the blind, deaf and mute, colleagues said.

The school is about half a kilometer from the Columban house in Pagadian City, where Sinnott was seized.

After his heart surgery and needing to reduce his workload, Sinnott devoted his time to his charitable project.

“He considers the life of the children as more valuable than his own,” said fellow Columban missionary Fr. Sean Martin.

“Father Sinnott is very well-loved here,” Pagadian Mayor Samuel Co said. “He takes care of children, whether Christians or Muslims, especially those who are in need of attention due to physical disabilities.”

No stranger to violence
Typically Irish, Sinnott, who speaks Cebuano, has a very good sense of humor, O’Donoghue said.

“But he can be quiet and a little reserved. He is very incisive in analyzing things. This I must say, he is a very respected and a much loved priest in the diocese of Pagadian because of his gift of himself,” he added.

The Irish Columban missionaries are not strangers to danger and violence.

In 1997, Msgr. Desmond Hartford was kidnapped in Marawi City and held for nine days.

A fellow missionary said Hartford was “betrayed” by some people he had helped and that his experience caused his health condition to worsen, eventually leading to his death.

In 2001, Fr. Rufus Halley was on his motorbike when armed men tried to abduct him in Balabagan, Lanao del Sur. He tried to resist and the gunmen shot him dead.

During the martial law years, two Columbans, Fathers Brian Gore and Niall O’Brien, were thrown into prison, along with several church workers.

Malate martyrs
During World War II, four Columbans were killed by the Japanese. They are now known as the Malate martyrs, for whom a commemorative statue has been erected. A book was written about their martyrdom.

Sinnott hails from Ireland. He was ordained in 1954. After studies in Rome in 1957, Sinnott came to the Philippines. In 1966, he was recalled to Ireland to serve as rector of the Columban seminary.

He returned to the Philippines in 1976 and has stayed since.

According to Columban Fr. Kevin McHugh of the Malate Church, most of Sinnott’s missionary life in the Philippines has been spent in Mindanao. He had worked in Iligan City and also in Kapatagan town in Lanao del Norte. "The last 11 years were devoted to the disabled," McHugh said. 

"The last 11 years were devoted to the disabled,” McHugh said.

Fr. Sean Coyle, a Columban based in Bacolod City, responded to a blogger’s criticism that the Irish priests were putting themselves in danger.

The blogger had written: “Having a higher calling doesn’t mean you have to dive into a situation with reckless disregard. I recommend not raising a finger to free him. He made his bed, so let him sleep in it.”

Coyle retorted: “The Columbans have been working in Pagadian for more than 60 years. We are not a foolhardy group of people putting our own lives or those of others in danger. The population of the area covered by the Catholic Diocese of Pagadian is 80 percent Catholic.”

80th year
The missionary group Sinnott belongs to was founded in 1918 and named after the Irish saint, Columban (b. 543).

The Columban missionaries came to the Philippines in 1929. At one time, the Columbans in the Philippines numbered more than 200. Now they are about 40—Irish and Filipinos.

They run parishes and schools all over the country and work with grass-roots Christian communities. In May this year, the Columbans celebrated 80 years of missionary work in the Philippines. With reports from Julie S. Alipala, Ryan D. Rosauro, Ed General, Richel, V. Umel and Jeoffrey Maitem, Inquirer Mindanao