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Father Andrew Albis – A Vocation Story

Bread & Butter is a monthly dinner and storytelling event designed to make you think deeply about social issues. A new storyteller every month shares a personal story with 40 guests in the dining room at the Centre for Stories.

On 31 October 2019, Father Andrew Albis shared his story A Vocation Story at the Centre’s monthly dinner and storytelling evening, Bread & Butter. Father Andrew shares his life in the Philippines, migrating to Australia, and his complicated journey to priesthood.

 

[Transcript]

A friend invited me to tell my immigration story, and I said, ‘I’ll give it a thought’. And after a while, I said, ‘why not?’ And so, tonight, I’m going to share with you my vocation story, my journey towards priesthood that brought me here.

I was born inside a car. We call it a Jeep because it’s a big car, it’s a passenger car; they were taking my mum to the hospital, but I was scared of the doctor, so I got out before we arrived at the hospital. Apparently, I was wearing my umbilical cord around my neck and shoulders, and the old man who was assisting my mum said, ‘This boy will be looking after his grandfather’s cows’, so like a pastoralist.’ Because the image of a pastoralist is one with a rope on his neck and shoulder. Little did he know that I’d actually be a priest.

So, I lived in a village, we call it barrio, in the Northern part of the Philippines. It’s a mountainous area, it’s very remote; we didn’t have electricity. My parents are vegetable farmers, and that’s how we lived. They are not educated, my mum only finished Year Six, my dad a Year Three drop-out. And life for us was not really easy; it was quite difficult.

In the village there’s a chapel built by the Belgian Catholic Missionaries. Once in a while they would come and celebrate mass with us. And that made a bit of impression on me, I wanted to imitate them. My mum was quite religious and made sure that we were all at mass, and I would sit at the front pew.

Then, after mass, I would call my cousins and the children of the neighbourhood, and we play mass. I would cover my shoulders with white cloth, vested like a priest. And I had memorised a few of the parts of the mass, perhaps even in Latin, I would say, ‘saecula saeculorum!‘ And they would probably mumble the words they know.

And for our communion, we sliced banana. My little cousins, my neighbours, even myself didn’t know that I would actually be celebrating mass and distributing to them the consecrated host.

I went to the public school at the village. I had to walk about thirteen minutes uphill, downhill, the rugged trail, barefoot. On my elementary graduation, our teacher wrote a little prophecy, a graduation prophecy, she called it. So she presented us to the community, all the graduates, there was only sixteen of us, it was a very small class. And she said, ‘This is what our graduates have become after twenty years. Andrew Albis: priest.’ And there was this applause from the community, affirming the prophecy. My teacher was not even a Catholic; I didn’t know why she picked me to be the priest. Perhaps I was the most behaved in class.

But would I be a priest? I don’t know, because the not many of the children in the village would actually go to school. I thought I would probably end up just like many of my cousins who would learn the farm work, and after that, married at an early age. But my mum said, ‘I’ll borrow money. Go to high school.’

So, I luckily went to a Catholic school where I grew up a little bit, but at the same time, in the city, I realised how poor we really were. Because I was wearing only one pair of pants, my uniform; that’s what I would use for seven days, maybe on a Sunday I wash it, I dry it.

And at my senior high school I took an exam to enter the seminary, to study for priesthood. And I passed it. But my mother did not allow me to go, because that school was in Manila. I was young, sixteen years old, we didn’t have any relatives there, I might be lost in that sin city.

So, I went to Uni instead. Again, my mum had to borrow money for my fees. But to help them as well, I had to sell vegetables and fruits on the street in the city. And sometimes the police would drive us (away) or confiscate our produce, because we didn’t have the proper permit to sell. So, we just ran when they come.

But also, I worked as a janitor at school. I know all the corridors and the stairs and the toilets of the school. I’ve cleaned them all. And in my third year of Uni, I was studying education. Bachelor of Secondary Education with a Major in Religious Education, or Studies. I found a better place to work; the religious, the Good Shepard’s nuns had a centre to help Indigenous students. Because I come from an Indigenous tribe, and if you come from an Indigenous tribe, you struggle a lot, that’s another story. And in that centre I was trained to cook all sorts of jams, so perhaps I have cooked all the jams in the Philippines. The only jam I did not cook? Traffic jam. I don’t know how that tastes.

But, there were many other programs that the nuns did for us to help us appreciate our culture; that we don’t have to be ashamed of our roots, so in a way I develop a bit of good self esteem and self-respect and confidence in myself. So I finished my degree, and I’m lucky to land a job at the same university I went to at the high school department for boys. So I was teaching RE. It was challenging – I love it, but teaching religious education to boys must be boring for them; and I regret, I should have majored in mathematics, which I’m very good at… but I had to teach what I studied. But on my third year, I resigned from the job that I like, because I like to try to respond to the call that I thought I had at an early age, to study to become a priest.

I went home, I told my mum and dad, ‘I’m going to enter the seminary’. Although they didn’t really tell me, they didn’t have drinks for me. Perhaps, poverty did not allow them to drink, even. For the six of us for the six children. They know that they could not provide for us, anyway. So I told my mum, ‘I’m going to enter the seminary, and try to be a priest’. And I saw joy in her face, she even joked, ‘well, you’ve made one woman feel happy and lucky’. And I said, ‘Is that you, mum?’ and she said, ‘No. The woman you are going to marry. If you were going to marry her, she’d be very happy you are not going to marry her, in a way.’

It was my friend who took me to the seminary. I remember, on our way there, I was crying profusely, and couldn’t stop crying. And my friend said, ‘Don’t you like to go?’ And I said, ‘I’d like to go. Perhaps I am just crying for the things I have given up.’ I know I had burned all the love letters of all the girls I had dated, and knowing that I wouldn’t date a girl anymore in my lifetime, because I’m going to commit to this call, and yes, I left my job that I like, I wouldn’t be seeing my friends, I wouldn’t be having nightlife, but most of all, I’d be leaving my family. I wouldn’t see the very regularly.

When I was in the seminary, well, of course, things changed a bit. I met some good friends, I call them brothers, they are priests there, they are like our fathers, our spiritual fathers, and things were going quite well. Of course, I had also seen the humanity of the priests, the weakness of the priests, the human side of the priests. I thought, ‘I have seen quite a few things. I’m becoming of seminary instead of priest’.

That’s the human aspect of it. I was quite disillusioned. Perhaps I didn’t expect that. Coming from a simple family, I thought that it would all be good and holy. And of course, I discovered my own weakness, my own limits. After the third year I said, ‘I’m not good enough’. And I went back, teaching.

Then, [he sings] ‘I found loovee… for meeeeee…’ I met Pauline. And she’d be the girl I’d marry. We were together for two years. But one day, Pauline asked me, ‘Have you really given up the priesthood altogether?’ Well, we were sitting at the local church, singing with the choir, we were reading, that’s probably why she saw the joy and enthusiasm in me, serving at church. That’s why she asked me. And so I said, ‘Would you allow me to go, and try one more time?’

And she said yes. So, we set each other free, I went to the seminary again. I went to a different congregation this time. I went to a religious missionary congregation. And what attracted me to go to a different country; I’d met quite a few missionaries assigned in Africa or Latin America and they were beautiful stories. And I wanted also to experience that.

But there came a time again when I had to change again. I think burden on my unworthiness, ‘I’m not good enough’, I said, ‘I’d probably be a brother, not a priest’. Because in our congregation, there are brothers, there are priests, and both lead a celibate life. We commit to celibacy. And the brothers would just work on a particular field they are good at. Because I am a teacher, that will be my field.

So Piera said, ‘Okay, yes, you go and study a Master’s degree, you’ll be teaching at the seminary’. I did that, for four years, when I finish it, the priesthood call is still bothering me. And also, my spiritual director was telling me, ‘I see you are more of a priest than a brother’. So I said, ‘okay.’

I have to apply though to the board. And my rector said, ‘yes, put your application, I’m going to support you, I’ll try to convince the board that you are good and you’re qualified to be a priest.’ I have to get three votes out of five. After their deliberation, the result wasn’t good, the rector came back and said, ‘Andrew, I’m sorry. I was the only one who supported you.’ Little did he know that I received a letter that the vote was zero out of five. He didn’t even support me.

I was already rejected when he told me I wasn’t accepted, but I was also pained and hurt when I realised he himself did not support me. When I was quite serious about pursuing the priesthood, it looked like, that’s the end of it. I was already thirty, about thirty-two years old then, and in the seminary that is quite old, because seminaries would come at sixteen. No-one might accept me if I go to a different seminary. So of course it was hard, and I was quite hurt. But I said, ‘I’ll go back teaching. The profession that I only know.’

Then, [sings] I found a lovee… no more, but I did get a letter, an email, from a classmate who was a brother assigned in Melbourne. He belongs to the Society of the Divine Word. And he heard the story of what happened to me, and said, ‘Have you really given up the priesthood? I think you have the call to the priesthood. You might consider coming to Australia. There are not many young people coming here, coming to the seminary, it’s getting empty, and they are recruiting from overseas.’

So he gave me two days to apply to Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth. And Archbishop Barry Hickey, the Bishop of Perth then, was the first to reply. So he told me, ‘Go and meet Father Brian, an Australian priest working in the streets in Manila with the street children for interview.’ So I went to see him, I tried to impress him, and he gave that initial approval. And so Archbishop Barry Hickey, again through the vocations director, came to the Philippines to help me through the process.

And that brought me to Perth. On June 2003, I arrive at Saint Charles Seminary. Another priest came with us too, so we came together but we didn’t know very well each other then, we only met when we were coming to Perth. And at Saint Charles it’s good, it’s a new environment. I had two years more of studies at the seminary and Notre Dame University. I had a bit of inculturation exposure. Visited the parish, schools, even hospitals. And even we volunteered at Saint Vincent de Paul. We just tried to expose ourselves to the Australian society; if we can work with the church here in Australia, with the people here in Australia.

And on December 2005, together with eight other handsome men, I was ordained at Saint Mary’s Cathedral. My mum and my sister and eight other friends and relatives from the Philippines came to celebrate with us. Then, after the ordination ceremony, Archbishop Hickey announced our assignment. He said, ‘Father Andrew is assigned Assistant Priest at Saint Mary’s Cathedral’. And there was this big applause from the crowd.

It reminded me of that applause at the prophecy at my graduation ceremony, but of course it was bigger; it was like an affirmation. I am called to the priesthood. My cousin; I had a cousin who was a nun. When I went home for my thanksgiving she said, ‘Thank you for persevering’. But I said, ‘It’s not me. It’s my caller who persevered. God did not give up on me, on my limitations, on my unworthiness.’ And another one said, ‘You are meant to be a priest’. And I said, ‘Well, it’s a call I responded to’.

And yes, I have been assigned to a few places. Saint Mary’s Cathedral was my first assignment, I went to Kalgoorlie, I went to Cliveson, I went to Floreat, and now I’m presently working as parish priest at Saint Columbus, Bayswater. It’s a long, winding road. I have experienced those hurts, those pains, brokenness, but also, love, support, prayers. And that built a character in me. I believe that, I realised that, I needed to experience all those to make me not only a better person, but even a good priest.

I remember one of the Good Sheppard nuns telling me, ‘Andrew: a good priest, or not a priest at all.’ And yes, I enjoy my ministry, of course, it’s not easy, especially with all the candles in the church, it’s very challenging…

If you ask me, if you were to start your journey all over again, would I change a thing? I wouldn’t.

Thank you very much for listening to my story.

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