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First came Spain

Organized western religion has created two major upheavals in the daily lives of the Chamorro people of the Mariana Islands throughout history, both taking place with the arrival of two colonial powers: Spain and the United States.

Although the ancient Chamorros had their own religious beliefs, these would be nearly quashed after the arrival of Spain’s Catholic missionaries. In 1668, Spanish Jesuit priest Diego Luis de San Vitores established the first permanent mission in the Pacific in Guam and began the mass conversion of the islanders. While some Chamorros accepted this new religion, many others didn’t. This led to violent clashes between the colonizers and Chamorros who resisted and who would be eventually overcome.

Gradually over the next two centuries, the Catholic religion would become the fabric of life for the island people. Chamorro lives revolved around the church: people attended daily masses, children attended Catholic schools where they were taught Christian doctrine, and priests had tremendous power under the Spanish administration.

Then came America

In 1898, after the US became the victors of the Spanish-American war, the US colonized Guam and once again Chamorro religious practices would be profoundly impacted. First, a new religion of Protestantism was introduced. Then, most Catholic priests (with the exception of one Chamorro priest Padre Jose Bernardo Palomo) were expelled from the island, and lastly, prohibitions were placed on religious activities.

Ironically, the first Protestant missionaries were not foreigners, but two Chamorro men who had converted to Protestantism while they were employed as whalers. Brothers Jose and Luis Custino (who had changed their last names from Castro) left Guam during Spanish times, and traveled the Pacific on whaling ships before settling in Hawai’i.

The Custinos returned to Guam in 1899 after it became an American possession. The brothers had help with their efforts from Americans stationed in Guam, including Protestant Marine chaplain Major A.C. Kelton and civilian acting Governor William Coe, in acquiring land in Adelup. A year later, the American Board of Commissioners for the Foreign Missions based in Boston, sent Reverend Francis M. Price and his wife to Guam to continue evangelizing.

Though the Chamorros remained largely loyal to the Catholic religion and their lives continued to revolve around the church, it became more difficult to do so after the 7 August 1899 arrival of the first appointed Naval governor of Guam as restrictions began almost immediately. A mere three days after Captain Richard P. Leary (a Protestant who exemplified the mentality of the day) took command of Guam he issued a proclamation stating that the US now controlled the island, and:

All the political rights heretofore exercised by the Clergy in dominating the people of the Island, are hereby abolished, and everyone is guaranteed absolute freedom of worship and full protection in the lawful pursuits of life, as long as that protection is deserved by actual submission to and compliance with the requirements of the Government of the United States.

Two days later, 12 August 1899, Leary issued General Order No. 4 banning fiestas for village patron saints because the processions interfered with the economic life of the people and prevented them from going to work. It stated:

Public celebrations of feast days of the patron saints of villages, etc. will not be permitted. The church and its members may celebrate their religious feast days whiting the walls of the church chapel, or private residence, in accordance with regulations for the maintenance of public peace, and unless otherwise ordered, the only public holidays recognized will be Sundays and the holidays recognized by the United States statue laws and by the proclamations of His Excellency of the President of the United States.

Later that month, Leary offered Guam’s three remaining Spanish Augustinian Recollects sea transport to the Philippines. Leary’s assistant William Safford made it clear to the priests that if they refused the offer, the new governor would order them off the island. When asked why Leary would do this, they were told that they had great influence on the people whose loyalties lay with Spain, and the priests’; presence would continue to prevent their compliance with laws which the United States must now put into effect here. On 7 September 1899, the priests boarded a ship headed for the Philippines.

Around this time, Padre Palomo was also presented with an order from the governor prohibiting the traditional ringing of Church bells calling parishioners to 4 a.m. mass because it bothered hospital patients.

To bring in the new year on 22 January 1900 Leary issued General Order No. 12, placing public education under the Navy to replace the church school system, establishing a compulsory age (eight-to-fourteen) for school attendance, setting up an English-language policy, and mandating that:

Religious instruction in favor of any particular church or creed is prohibited, and all religious training heretofore required by the late school customs or rules must be eliminated from the course of instruction, as the proper place for religious teaching is the home circle, church, chapel, or Sunday school.

On 14 May 1900, Leary presented General Order No. 19, after learning that provisions of General Order No. 12 were not being followed. Among other things the new order stated:

The gobernadorcillos in the island will immediately remove all crucifixes and saint pictures from the public schoolrooms in their respective towns or districts, and they will direct the school teachers to discontinue instruction in the church catechism and to comply strictly with the requirements of General Order No 12.

Catholic opposition

Leary was dogmatic in his efforts to separate church from state. His actions against the Catholic Church did not go unnoticed. As he reported back to the Navy about his orders and that he disposed of the priests, the Navy shared the reports with the American press. Needless to say, Leary’s deeds angered US Catholic leaders. The Catholic Archbishop of New Orleans, who oversaw the US territories, tried to visit Guam, but Leary denied his request after the cleric asked the governor to revoke all orders restricting religious practices and stated that they violated the Chamorros’ religious freedoms.

In reaction to the American Catholics’ concerns, US Army Major General Joseph Wheeler was ordered to inspect the island. While in Guam, several Chamorros, including Padre Palomo, gave the army general a petition to have Lt. William Safford, Leary’s popular assistant, replace Leary.

In the end Wheeler downplayed the situation in Guam. He stated in an official report that the Chamorro concerns about the religious restrictions were “considered as a hardship and are distasteful to a majority of the people.” He did not mention the petition from the people of Guam. Leary was allowed to stay and the uproar by American Catholics eventually faded.

The only reprieve the Chamorro Catholics would receive came from the next appointed governor, Seaton Shroeder, who modified General Order No. 4 with General Order No. 26 signed 15 September 1900. One of the provisions stated that public celebrations of feast days could be held, but only by special permit.

More than 120 years have passed and Catholicism remains a major religion in Guam. Some remnants of the ancient Chamorro religion have survived as well, manifested in modern-day Chamorro customs and value systems.

By Tanya M. Champaco Mendiola