ZAMBOANGA CITY: An orphanage founded by a Canadian missionary in Zamboanga City celebrated its 27th anniversary over the weekend as it continues to shelter street and abandoned children in this southern port city.
Rev. Father Arthur Winikoff of Our Blessed Mother of Victory Mission Foundation, Inc. founded the Saint Francis House in October 1987.
He started his missionary work by going around at night in Zamboanga, bringing with him hot porridge and freshly-baked bread and giving every single street child and the hungry food to fill their empty stomachs, and offered them home and new hope in life in “God’s care and mercy.”
Father Winikoff is currently in Canada seeking donations for his orphanage. He has devoted much of his life in helping street children. He said that as long as he is healthy and strong, he would continue caring for the dozens of Christian and Muslim children now at the Saint Francis House.
Archbishop Romulo dela Cruz of Zamboanga City held a Mass attended by dozens of mostly children fostered by Saint Francis, and a few guests, including some nuns from the Dominican Sisters and Mayor Maria Isabelle Salazar.
Archbishop Dela Cruz told the children about the life of Saint Francis of Assisi and led them in singing spiritual songs. It was the first time a Catholic bishop has visited and officiated mass at the orphanage house. He appealed to the public to help and support the Saint Francis House in the village of Pasonanca.
“Orphanages like the Saint Francis home should have as many people working for them, working for Saint Francis home and working for the children because a program, project like this should be truly supported,” said Archbishop Dela Cruz, adding that he understands the difficulties that Father Winikoff is going through in getting people to donate or help the orphans in Zamboanga.
“Father Art is telling me that it is so difficult to get funds in Canada and Europe because the former benefactors are getting older and older and they don’t have children to continue the work they have been doing,” he said.
When asked how a private institution such as Saint Francis House can partner with the government to be able to further help more street children following last year’s rebel siege in Zamboanga, Archbishop Dela Cruz said: “I have to admit that the government really has resources and we see that in the papers everyday.So much money is being wasted and going to the pockets of politicians and that money can easily be used to ameliorate the conditions of our people, especially the poor, the jobless and so on. But maybe it’s a question of putting emphasis on the part of those politicians or those people who steal the money of the government and they should think about the consequences of their actions.”
“Eventually they will die and they will not b able to bring all that money to heaven, (and) heaven will not admit their money and so that money should go where it should go so I call on the government to look at the possibility of continuing its partnership with Saint Francis home because I understand that this particular site, the land where the Saint Francis is located (in Pasonanca village) was a gift of the City government, so clearly the gift can be extended to something more like giving immediate help to the orphanage (with) necessary amount rather (Saint Francis) just depend on help from abroad,” the archbishop added.
A simple party capped the celebration of the founding anniversary which was highlighted by interpretive dances and songs by foster children.
Salazar mingled with the children and gave a brief talk and later helped served dinner. She also handed out chocolate rice crispy bars “Beng Beng” to all the children and guests.
Marissa Basilio, the caretaker of Saint Francis House, said the children at the foster house also bake breads for their own consumption. She doubles as the mother and nanny to about five dozen children now under her ward.
Two local journalists, Ronald Lledo, who works for a television station as a news anchor; and Bong Bue, who also teaches at the Western Mindanao State University, are actively helping Father Winikoff in running the Saint Francis House during their spare time and mostly every weekend.
Lledo has been volunteering at the foster home for 27 years now. “I have been here since the start after I saw Father Winikoff going around in Zamboanga every night and gathering the street children and feeding them and so I joined him in this mercy mission and it feels really good to help the children, the poor children in Zamboanga.”
Not only does Father Winikoff shelter and feed the street children, he also sends them to school. Many of those who graduated have returned to Saint Francis as volunteer workers – taking care of the children as what Father Winikoff did when they were in his ward.
The 65-year old missionary has always cited the passage in the Holy Bible – Matthew Chapter 25, Verse 40 – “And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, In as much as ye have done [it]unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done [it]unto me.”
Father Winikoff said the vision of the Saint Francis House is to promote the Kingdom of God – both in words and deeds – especially through the service to those most in need.
“Our main apostolate is with the less fortunate children – the out of school youth, orphans, abandoned and neglected children, abused kids, street urchins. Our aim is to give these children a dignified and brighter future – a future they can in turn offer to their very own children,” he said.