John Staunton and the Sagada Mission: An American Missionary in the Philippines Cordillera

John Staunton and the Sagada Mission: An American Missionary in the Philippines Cordillera

By Steven Rogers

Copyright 1998 Steven Rogers. All rights reserved.

The Mission of St. Mary the Virgin, of the American Episcopal Church, was established in 1904 in the mountains of the Philippine island of Luzon, among "naked, head-hunting, trial-marriage savages," as one missionary called the local Igorot tribes. Historian Dr. William Henry Scott describes the mission at its peak, 11 years later:

"The mission was already known as one of the outstanding accomplishments of the American occupation of the Philippine Islands. Visitors intrepid enough to reach the savage heights of the Cordillera Central on horseback could ... look down in dumbfounded amazement at 80 acres of activities connected by 20 miles of telephone wire. Four stone quarries were in operation and two lime kilns; long lines of Igorots carried lumber in from the sawmill and a planing mill reduced it to timber, boards, and shingles; electric-lighted gasoline-powered machine and carpenter shops turned out tools and furnishings. Spring water was piped into the compound under sufficient pressure to make coiled fire hoses practical in many of the 20 building which housed the shops, stores, supplies, and considerable herds of cows, water buffalo, and horses. Vegetables were grown by schoolboys and professional gardeners ... schoolgirls were already producing salable lace and hand woven cloth ... Fifty apprentices were under industrial training and 150 others on the payroll, 175 school children under instruction, and the beautiful frame church ... listed 2,000 baptisms and 600 communicants, all of whom were privileged to make purchases in the Igorot Exchange, whose $10,000.00 worth of stock had been hauled in on bullcarts over a trail surveyed by the Priest-in-Charge himself."

"The Priest-in-Charge" was the Rev. John A. Staunton Jr., engineer turned churchman, a man described as a "Christian Civilizer." In 1925 he was to resign in the midst of doctrinal and financial dispute; in 1933, when the mills and telephones of the Sagada mission were already long silent, he was ordained a priest in the Roman Catholic Church.

On May 1, 1898, six days after the start of the Spanish-American war, Commodore George Dewey sailed into Manila Bay and in a two hour engagement sent the Spanish Pacific fleet to the bottom. The victory generated considerable debate over what ought to be done with the islands. President William McKinley later told a Methodist congregation that "I went down on my knees and prayed Almighty God for guidance ... it came to me this way ... there was nothing left for us to do but to take them all [the islands] and to educate the Filipinos, and uplift and civilize and Christianize them." Whether the decision to appropriate the archipelago was a result of divine guidance or the more worldly urgings of McKinley's friends in the sugar industry remains uncertain, but a number of Americans leaped at the opportunity to Christianize the new colony. Among them was John Staunton, then 34 years old and Rector of St. Peter's church in Springfield, Massachussets.

Staunton was born on April 16, 1864; his father and grandfather were Episcopal priests. The young Staunton apparently had another calling, taking a degree in Mechanical Engineering from the Columbia School of Mines before proceeding to Harvard for a BA degree. But destiny caught up with him, and from Harvard he proceeded to the General Theological Seminary; he was ordained deacon, then priest in 1892. He married the same year. In 1898 Staunton became assistant minister in the Church of St. Mary the Virgin in New York, a church noted for its devotion to Catholic ritual: the New York Sun once commented that "It is difficult ... to distinguish high mass at St. Mary's from the same celebration at St. Patrick's Cathedral." Staunton had already been deeply impressed by Anglo-Catholic teachings during his college days, and for the rest of his career he considered himself a Catholic, albeit not, until the very end, a Roman Catholic. Before leaving St. Peter's he wrote that "the solemn service of the mass with its lights, vestments, incense, and music must be presented to be appreciated." He took these beliefs with him to the Philippines, where two decades later they became a factor in the confrontation that cost him his career.

In late 1901 Staunton and the Rev. Walter Clapp, the first two Philippine appointees to of the Board of Missions, sailed from San Francisco, expecting to sow their seeds in what military chaplains had called "a fertile field for American missionary endeavor." On arrival they discovered that the vast majority of the Filipinos had been "civilized and Christianized" by the Spaniards some 300 years before, and showed little inclination to change their religious allegiance. Staunton took a temporary assignment with the civil government as Deputy Superintendent of Schools in the island province of Cebu, and devoted himself to studying native ways while awaiting instructions from the Board.

In August of 1902 Charles H. Brent, first Episcopal Bishop of the Philippine Islands, arrived in Manila. He quickly concluded that the most promising areas for missionary endeavor would be the remote mountains of Luzon and Mindanao, where indigenous tribes had escaped all but the barest contact with the Spanish regime. Brent moved Staunton north to Baguio, at the southern end of the Luzon Cordillera, and set off with Fr. Clapp on an epic journey across the mountains and down the unmapped valley of the Chico river. Brent had an adventurous streak, a quality he shared with Staunton, and the wild life of the Igorot tribes impressed him so deeply that he declared "if I were free to do it I would not ask for a greater privilege than to give my life for these people." He sent Clapp to open a mission in Bontoc, the administrative center of the Mt. Province, and in March 1904 he dispatched Staunton to the town of Sagada, an enclave etched into a limestone valley 10 miles east and 1000 feet above Bontoc.

The Sagada Igorots were living in 1904 in the early metal age. Houses were made of reeds or crudely hewn wood, with small doors, no windows, and peaked roofs of grass; cook-fires inside the homes provided light, along with abundant smoke. Children left home in their 7th or 8th year to sleep in communal shelters under the supervision of elders. The girls' house, or ebgan, was the scene of courtship practices which scandalized the early missionaries; the boys' shelter, the dap-ay, was by day the ritual and political center of the community, where councils of elders performed religious rites and settled disputes. The Igorots grew rice in intricate systems of stone-walled terraces, supplementing this staple with root crops, wild greens, and an occasional wild pig or deer taken by hunters. Clothing consisted of bark-cloth skirts for women and loincloths for men; children generally went naked. The overall picture was consistent with the American notion of heathen savagery, and presented an altogether more appealing picture to the missionaries that the pseudo-Spanish culture affected by lowland Filipinos.

The community was situated on the Spanish cart-trail from the Ilocos coast to Bontoc, where the Spanish had established a civil and mission center, so the Sagada Igorots had some contact with the outside world. A Roman Catholic mission was founded in Sagada in 1884, but it made little impact on the community, and no trace of it remained when the Staunton mission arrived.

The Sagada elders welcomed the new arrivals; missionaries later claimed the reception as evidence of eagerness to adopt new ways, but the real reason was probably more practical. In the waning years of the Spanish regime colonial authorities in Bontoc got word of Filipino nationalist activities in Sagada, and organized a punitive raid. The Bontocs leapt at the chance to strike at their traditional enemies, and in a single gory night took over 80 Sagada heads. The property that the Sagada elders gave to Stauton's mission sat astride the trail to Bontoc, and it is not difficult to conclude that the elders reasoned, fairly astutely, that an American presence would deter future raids.

The Stauntons arrived in Sagada in July, 1904. Finding the native houses unsuitable, they constructed a 12-foot square grass hut which served as their house, school, and church. They administered their first baptism on Oct. 2, 1904, and in May 1905 moved to a larger structure, still of "wretched" materials and construction. Here they embarked on a routine of two daily services and "ordinary and special ministrations"; here, also, Staunton's vision of the Sagada mission began to take shape, influenced by his engineer's training. Finding no native materials of sufficient quality for the type of construction he wanted, he devoted most of his budget to the construction of a water-powered sawmill, a planer, a shingle-mill, and a lime kiln, machinery for which had to be shipped from the United States and carried, piece by piece, over mountain trails. Staunton payed his workers at prevailing rates, which proved a major aid to his spiritual quest: converts received priority in employment, and by 1907 the mission boasted 517 baptisms, and had expanded to include outstations in Bagnen, to the east, and in the adjacent township of Besao.

In October of 1908 three typhoons struck in quick succession, demolishing the Staunton house, destroying most of their personal possessions, and seriously damaging the newly constructed church, the sawmill, and other mission properties. Staunton transformed the damage into opportunity, and his 1908 report to the Board of Missions was an extended harangue against "ill-advised economy" on the part of the American church. He proclaimed that "white persons who live (or are supposed to live) in a civilized manner, who have property to protect and lives to guard, cannot live in houses made by native workmen, according to native methods ... money expended in temporary or makeshift buildings is as good as thrown away." The harangue was accompanied by the threat of Roman Catholic invasion: Staunton reported that "the new Roman Bishop of Nueva Segovia" had entered Sagada, and that "true to the amiable religious ideals of his kind, he immediately determined that it was more important not to let us get established here than to take care of people already christianized in other parts of his diocese.... Belgian priests ... have arrived and more are coming. They are apparently provided with all resources and are preparing to develop their work on a large scale with medical work, school, and a resident sisterhood ... they are taking a hostile attitude toward our mission work; indeed it is their avowed purpose to break it up." Later Staunton was to become famous for his friendly relations with the Belgian priests; in his final resignation he proposed turning the mission over to them.

The threat was followed by a request for $51,000 for construction and development. Plans included $10,000 for a stone church and budgets for two schools, houses for a priest, a physician, and workers, a hospital, and a church for the outstation of Bagnen. The request ended with a declaration: "that faith can move mountains I do not doubt for an instant, but neither do I doubt for an instant that American faith can build storm-proof houses and churches on the top of Philippine mountains unless such faith takes the form of N.Y. draughts signed by wealthy churchmen." The report, which was accompanied by a glowing endorsement from Bishop Brent, ended with an appeal for "prayers, money, and men." All three were soon forthcoming, launching the next phase of Staunton's dream.

Dr. Radcliffe Johnson and his family arrived to supplement the medical work done by Mrs. Eliza Staunton, whose application of her nurse's training had been a major drawing point for the fledgling mission; a second priest, the Rev. Frank Meredith, arrived in 1909, along with Miss Clara Mears, a schoolteacher. The old church, the bell-tower, an office building and shop, and a dispensary were shingled in the same year, and the Stauntons moved into a new "American-style" house in 1912. The report for 1911-12, printed on the Mission's own press, dwells extensively on Staunton's belief in the importance of industrial work. "Material development is a necessity of true spiritual progress among any primitive people" he wrote. "There is no hope for the Christianized savage who has no discontent with his former surroundings, who does not want to be cleaner in body, better clothed, better fed, better house, better educated, more industrious, and to push his children upward ... it is unthinkable that a man should be ascending to Christ while at the same time he is degenerating as a social being." Lest anyone suspect a neglect of spiritual matters, the report, now a product of "The Catholic Mission of St. Mary the Virgin," reported that baptisms had reached 1,124. It also requested an additional $22,000, including $5000 for the completion of the new church. The report for 1913-1914, which presented laudatory statements from Bishop Brent and the Bishop of Carpentaria, Australia, included summaries of the mission's medical work, the progress of the Girl's school, and the advancing work in Bagnen and Besao; the financial request increased to $37,000.00. The church, still incomplete, received another $5000.

By 1915 Staunton's work had reached its peak, and was widely known. The Living Church declared that "no mission has received greater publicity, none has been more frequently illustrated for missionary lectures and appeals, none has been so remarkably successful." Staunton was described, in a book titledLives That Have Helped, as "fifty years of age, rugged and sturdy, his whole appearance bespeaking a virile courage, whether you find him in cassock and bireta at the door of his church or in khaki riding clothes superintending the day's work."

The virile priest ran his enterprise with an efficiency that bordered on the tyrannical. Attendance was mandatory at periodic lectures on subjects of interest to the Priest-in-Charge, and office procedures were specified, down to the format of letters, in dictatorial memos. All photographs taken were developed in the mission darkroom; pictures of pagan ceremonies were forbidden and images considered inappropriate were censored. Office workers remember Staunton as "stern and unsmiling," and conflicts with American staff were common: Dr. Scott reports that "some of Fr. Staunton's subordinates departed abruptly, and few returned for a second term."

Mrs. Staunton more than made up for the warmth her husband lacked: to this day he is recalled with reverence, she with genuine affection. Aside from supervising the housekeeping of the entire mission, and teaching sewing and lace-making to the girls and cooking to the boys, she was tireless in her medical work, staffing the dispensary and performing house-calls, even in remote villages. She learned to speak the Igorot language, a feat her husband never managed, and on calls was sometimes known to name all her patient's children, and even to inquire after the welfare of distant relatives, no small accomplishment given the complexity of Igorot kinship ties.

In 1916 Staunton and Brent went home on furlough, spending most of their trip on triumphant fund-raising. Brent himself took Staunton's latest request to the Board of Missions, raising his praise of Staunton to the highest level ever. "He is a man of extraordinary gifts ... he is the chief spiritual influence of that entire country; he is the most informed man, whether in government of business, of ... conditions of that entire country." Brent concluded with a passionate plea: "we have people here who have not had a chance to know about the bread of life, are you going to fail to feed them because of some financial risk? ... let me beg of you, in the name of Christ... not to close the door of opportunity, but to think in terms of the kingdom of God first, and dollars and cents afterward."

But looking after the dollars and cents of the Church was the job of the Board, war was approaching, and money was hard to find. Staunton's 1916 budget request raised a furor among the Board. The Christian Civilizer asked for $126,000, including $25,000 in "working capital," $30,000 for a technical high school, $12,000 for a hydroelectric plant, more schools and houses, power shops and machinery, a hospital, and $6,000 for the completion of the still-unfinished church, the cost of which was now approaching three times the original estimate. Brent had warned in the past that "in a country where labor conditions are uncertain and material hard to procure, estimates of costs are liable to be inaccurate through no fault of the builder," but many of the Board's members thought this excessive. The total amount requested was over three times the previous budget of what was already the Board's best-funded mission, and previous requests had been justified as necessities for the attainment of eventual self-sufficiency. No less distressing was evidence of financial juggling: the Stauntons were fond of recounting how for years they taught school in their house, but seldom mentioned that the house had been built with money intended for a school. Dr. John Wood later reported that Staunton "was completing a hospital building with funds given for a technical school ... later he hoped to make an appeal for a hospital, reimburse the technical school funds, and erect a separate hospital building."

Staunton did not get his $126,000, but his mission remained the best-funded in the church, and he returned to Sagada with substantial private donations and pledges. But the war years proved hard for the mission: the high price of fuel stilled the power plant, and the lights and power tools went out in the mission compound. Plans for a high school and the hydroelectric plant were abandoned. Bishop Brent resigned in October 1917, recommending "curtailment and retrenchment" and forcing Staunton's mission to carry expenses previously covered by he Bishop's discretionary fund.

Brent's departure was not only a financial blow. Since his arrival Staunton had been managing the spiritual side of his work as he saw fit, in a manner which naturally reflected his own preferences. In 1907 he reported that "the work of this mission has been from the first conducted along what are sometimes called 'Catholic lines.' Appeal is made to the eye as will as to the ear. Our services are made as ornate as possible. Every symbol or devotional practice which appeals to these people is freely made use of." The passage of time only reinforced these tendencies, to which Bishop Brent offered no objection.

On Brent's resignation, temporary jurisdiction was given to Bishop Frederick Graves of the Diocese of Shanghai, who visited Sagada in November 1918. No impartial account exists of that visit, but Dr. Scott reports that "the tender age of many of the children confirmed he (Bishop Graves) considered questionable, and the burning of light and singing of hymns before the reserved Sacrament and the Virgin's statue downright illegal." Graves issued directives banning the practices; Staunton and the Rev. A. E. Frost of Bontoc refused to comply, and Graves asked the Board of Missions to remove the two from the field. Staunton replied with an open letter, widely circulated, that painted an unflattering picture of the Bishop.

The conflict ignited considerable concern among American Episcopalians. The Living Church issued a passionate editorial titled Save Our Work Among the Igorots, claiming that a recall would be a "gross injustice" and reminding readers that Staunton had in 12 years converted "considerably more than half as many as bishop Graves and 36 other clergy have in ... 75 years." No mention was made of Staunton's questionable definition of conversion: Dr. Scott records that "he was willing to baptize people he had never seen before ... or present confirmation candidates with no catechetical training." Dr. Scott attributes this practice to faith in the power of sacramental grace; it is likely that Staunton was also aware of the weight statistics carried with the Board of Missions.

Bishop Graves was considered a moderate, and it remains unknown whether the religious controversy was the real reason for his cracking the whip over Sagada. It is possible that the Board, recalling Brent's words about putting dollars and cents before the Kingdom of God, had simply chosen to engage its uncontrollable missionary on doctrinal, rather than financial, grounds. Either way, their solution was to appoint a new permanent Bishop, the Rt. Rev. Frank Mosher, and pass the problem to him.

When Mosher took office he found resignations from Staunton and Frost waiting for him; they were promptly accepted, upon which the two missionaries reconsidered and decided to remain. For a time Staunton seemed restrained: his report of 1919 was positively humble, ending on a note more plaintive than demanding: "There are 16 of us white workers at the mission ... please do not forget us." Sagada was not forgotten, but it was in many ways the victim of its own success. The church was finally consecrated in 1921, leaving many workers idle; with no funds for more construction, and the Government curtailing its building in Bontoc, there was no market for the products of the sawmill, the quarries, and the lime-kilns. Bishop Mosher did not interfere with what became known as "the Sagada rite," and he passed on all of Staunton's requests for funding, but the Board of Missions was unwilling to meet the requests, preferring to distribute its resources more equally among its charges. Staunton felt that successful missions were being penalized to support unsuccessful ones; inevitably he blamed Mosher, and relations between the two men deteriorated. Staunton ranted against "the virus of pan-Protestantism," to the point where The Living Church, so recently his strongest supporter, commented that "really, it is perfectly clear that the beloved missionary's nerves are unstrung." In Sept. 1924 the Sagada press once again printed open letters to the Bishop, accusing him of "protestantizing the district" and recommending that the mission be turned over to the Roman Catholics. The letter ended with a resignation, which Mosher once again accepted; a desperate attempt by Staunton to retract the resignation was promptly squashed by the Board. On Dec. 17, 1924, the Board informed Staunton by cable that "your resignation and retirement from Sagada is regarded by the Board as an accomplished fact and final." On Feb. 23, 1925, at the age of 60, John Staunton left the Philippines for the last time.

Staunton took charge of St. Michael's Mission in Seattle, but adjustment to an American congregation proved difficult, and his efforts to revitalize St. Michael's failed. The 1930 Lambeth conference finally dashed his hopes for a Catholicized Episcopal Church, and on Sept. 22, 1930, he was formally received into the Roman Catholic faith. Mrs. Staunton, suffering from tropical ulcers and pining for her home in Sagada, died a year later. In 1933, at the age of 69, Staunton entered the Colegio Beda in Rome, but was unable to complete his studies due to failing health and glaucoma, which rendered him nearly blind. In September 1934, the Catholic hierarchy, moved by the circumstances of his case, agreed to his ordination, and he finally celebrated the mass as a Roman Catholic. A month later he retired, peacefully ending his years in a nursing home near the house of his brother. He died on May 24, 1944.

The Sagada mission never attained the lofty goals of its founder. After Staunton's departure work continued at approximately the level of the early 1920's, but the Depression marked the end of the large subsidies the mission had enjoyed, and forced an inevitable decline. During the Second World War the entire American staff was interned and the mission buildings occupied by Japanese forces. During the American reoccupation the church was damaged, and many mission buildings destroyed, by American bombing raids. Missionaries returned after the war, remaining until the late 1960's, but their work was educational and spiritual. Staunton's dream of an "Industrial Catholic Mission" was never revived.

Many writers have attributed the early success of the mission solely to Staunton's presence. Lives That Have Helped proclaimed that "these things exist because one man has had the grace to stay at his post and preach the Cross, and has given himself to the work of uplifting these mountain people." The large and constant infusion of outside funds necessary to sustain the entire edifice was not mentioned. Dr. Scott refers to the "Godlike" reverence the Igorots had for Staunton, again not mentioning that the ability to produce apparently limitless material resources would inevitably seem divine to those with little prior contact with the developed world. As an experiment in material and industrial development, the Sagada mission must be considered a failure, doomed by a financial dependence that made it impossible to sustain or replicate.

The lasting legacy of Staunton's work has been spiritual and educational. The region served by the Sagada and Bontoc missions remains a staunchly Episcopalian enclave to this day, and produces most of the entirely Filipino clergy that make up the Philippine Episcopal Church. More important, the quality of the mission schools made it possible for Igorot youths to enter learned professions on an equal footing with their lowland cousins. This cadre of educated men and woman has been an invaluable help to the Igorots in their continuing -- and so far successful -- struggle to maintain control of the land and resources of their ancestral domain. Perhaps ironically, Sagada has seen a resurgence of interest in the original Igorot religious practices. Traditional rituals are held in the Sagada dap-ays to this day, attended by many graduates of Staunton's schools, including Episcopal clergymen, who set aside western dress and don the G-string, spear, and shield of their ancestors for the occasions. The Sagada mission changed the lives of the Igorots, but their cultural identity remains as strong as ever. This is a rare accomplishment for any missionary endeavor; that it was an accomplishment not intended by the mission's founder makes it perhaps even more remarkable.

Steven Rogers
March 1997


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