A great Filipino historian passes into history

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On Wednesday morning, May 14, the Feast of St. Matthias The Apostle, a giant among Filipino historians passed into history.

At age 86, Fr. John N. Schumacher of the Society of Jesus died in hospital. His body lies in state at the chapel of Loyola School of Theology in Ateneo de Manila University, the two institutions where he taught Church and Philippine history for decades. The funeral mass is tomorrow, May 17, at 8 a.m.

This writer was among his fortunate students, having taken two semesters of Philippine history as an Ateneo college student in the 1970s. At the time, countless Filipinos were fleeing martial law and settling abroad. But Fr. Schumacher went the other way, as one of the American priests who sought and, after much effort and patience, obtained Philippine citizenship.

In tribute to a great historian, a patriotic Filipino, and a holy servant of God, the following profile contributed by this writer to the Ateneo 150th anniversary book, To Give and Not to Count the Cost, is condensed for today’s column:


For his achievements as a historian, Fr. Schumacher was awarded with the Grant Goodman Prize in 1994. In his seminal volume, The Propaganda Movement, 1880-1895, he argued that the writings and activities of Filipinos in Europe created the incipient consciousness that flowered into our nationhood. Moreover, his writings on Philippine church history chronicled how Christianity and the clergy shaped our consciousness and culture, including Filipino nationalism and the Philippine Revolution.

Born in 1927 to a grocery manager and his housewife, the young John Schumacher first encountered Jesuit education as a scholar in Canisius High School in Buffalo. At 17 he entered the Society of Jesus at St. Andrew-on-Hudson, near Poughkeepsie, New York state. Two years each of novitiate and classics studies followed, before his being sent to Sacred Heart Novitiate in Novaliches for philosophy and education instruction from 1948 until he earned his M.A. degree in 1951. The American seminarian also taught Latin and English at San Jose Seminary at its former site, now Quezon City Hospital.

Theology studies resumed in Woodstock, Maryland, in 1954-58, with holy orders conferred in 1957. The following year, the newly ordained Fr. Schumacher went to Gandia, Spain, for his tertianship. He worked on his Ph.D. in history at Georgetown University from 1959 to 1965, producing his authoritative work on the Propaganda Movement as his dissertation, with a Fulbright scholarship to do research in the Spanish archives.

In December 1964, Fr. Schumacher joined the Loyola School of Theology, teaching ancient and modern Church history and a Philippine Church history subject he created. At the Ateneo he handled undergraduate courses on Rizal and graduate-level Philippine history. Among the American professor’s students were other history instructors at the time, including Edilberto de Jesus, education secretary in 2003-04.

It was further testimony to Fr. Schumacher’s authority in Philippine history that at the height of student activism in the 1970s, when protesters denounced American Jesuits in the university, three leading activists then, Gerardo Bulatao, Emmanuel Lacaba and Alfredo Salanga, asked for private instruction on Filipino nationalism from Fr. Schumacher. Thus, one of the American Jesuits thumbed down by students espousing patriotic ideals lectured protest leaders about Filipino nationalism.

Seattle-based Filipino historian and professor Vicente Rafael was my classmate under Fr. Schumacher. While I took literature and eventually went into journalism, theater and government, Vince followed our mentor’s footsteps more closely, earning a Ph.D. in history under Cornell University’s esteemed Southeast Asian studies program, and writing books on Philippine history, including Contracting Colonialism, his dissertation on how early Filipinos received the teachings of Spanish missionaries.

In 1977, Fr. Schumacher adopted the Philippines as his country, becoming a naturalized Filipino, and he left the Ateneo History Department to teach Church history in Metro Manila and Davao seminaries. Having delivered sermons against martial law injustices, Fr. Schumacher was not too surprised when the lady processing his NBI clearance said he was in their database. But that did not dissuade the American from his wish for Philippine citizenship. During one of our classes, Fr. Schumacher told us that he was, after nearly three decades in the country, officially a Filipino.

Reflecting on the Ateneo’s contribution to Philippine society from a historian’s perspective, Fr. Schumacher cites three major periods among the many achievements of the university: the rise of Filipino nationalism in the 19th century; social action in the 1930s and 1950s, plus the guerilla movement against Japan in the 1940s; and political activism since 1970, from anti-Marcos agitation and Namfrel election watch to the 1986 and 2001 people power uprisings.

In these and other flowerings of patriotic fervor and action, the Ateneo’s ideals of Godly principles, Christian social concern, and love of country spurred its products to struggle and sacrifice for the national and common good. Jose Rizal’s debt to his Jesuit mentors, underscored by his return to the faith and confession before his execution, is mirrored by other 19th-century Ateneans who helped give birth and defend the new Filipino nation, from Juan and Antonio Luna to Gregorio del Pilar.

Decades later, Fr. Schumacher recounts, Fr. Walter Hogan instilled the drive to advance workers’ rights and welfare in unionist Johnny Tan and Federation of Free Farmers founder Jerry Montemayor. In the 1950s Fr. Joseph Mulry inspired fellow historian and leading Jesuit Fr. Horatio de la Costa and politicians Raul Manglapus and Francisco ‘Soc’ Rodrigo. Today, the same man-for-others ideal has spawned movements for political reform and social action.

From his retirement at the Jesuit Residence, how does the priest, professor and historian assess the state of the nation today? “Lots of good people and idealism, but politics pollutes the atmosphere,” he says. The challenge: “how to make idealism at the local level operative at the national level.” Filipinos go abroad, the rich for pleasure, ordinary people for jobs, Fr. Schumacher observes. “You can’t say, ‘Don’t go’” to those seeking a better life. To the country’s troubles he offers no quick answers: “I’m beyond the stage of seeing solutions.”

Yet it is Fr. Schumacher’s historical eye that offers the sorely needed perspective in these times of instant gratification, get-rich-quick schemes and short-sighted soundbyte politics. From the depths of colonial oppression, the expatriates inhabiting his definitive tome of the Propaganda Movement forged a vision and a hope for national identity and liberation. And amid today’s tribulations, Fr. John Schumacher, S.J. can say with authority that with solidarity and sacrifice, Filipinos had overcome in eras past—and we can do so again.

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1 Comment

  1. victor m. hernandez on

    Rest in Peace, Fr John Schumacher, SJ, my teacher in History of the Jesuits. Amen +