Pioneer promoter of the Chamorro language

Father Roman Maria de Vera (1878 – 1959), a Catholic missionary on Guam from 1915 until 1941, was one of the first important writers in the Chamorro language. Prior to him, there was only a handful of literature published in Chamorro. Because the overwhelming majority of Chamorros at the time were Catholic, de Vera’s religious works in Chamorro were widely read and became the norm for many in Chamorro orthography.

Early Life

De Vera was born on 9 August 1878 in the town of Vera de Bidasoa, Navarra, Spain. His civil name was Roman Dornacu Olaechea. The Catholic Church, especially in its missionary endeavors, was a strong social force in Navarra, which was historically and culturally a Basque region of Spain. In his early teens, Roman conceived the idea of becoming a Catholic missionary in foreign lands.

In light of this desire, de Vera joined the missionary arm of the Capuchin Franciscan Order in Spain, called the District Nullius. As a Capuchin friar, he dropped his surname and was known from then on as Roman de Vera, after his birthplace. The District Nullius was charged with sending Spanish Capuchin missionaries overseas with financial help from the Spanish Government. Biographies of de Vera state that he was particularly suited for missionary work, being robust in health and gifted in languages.

On 15 May 1901, he was ordained a priest and sent to the missions in the Philippines.

Missionary in the Philippines

De Vera’s work as a young priest in the Philippines quickly evinced the two main spheres of his life’s mission: linguist and apologist. De Vera quickly learned to speak and write in the Tagalog, Pampango and Bicol dialects. In 1904, he published in Manila a Spanish-Bicol grammar entitled “Gramatica Hispano-bicol seg’ n el metodo de Allendorf.” He also spent time in the Philippines perfecting his grasp of English.

Armed with his fluency in the local languages, de Vera set about preaching a defense of the Catholic faith, then strongly attacked by various quarters in Philippine society. In this, de Vera continued what had been a characteristic Capuchin tradition, which was the popularization of Catholic apologetics among the rural and working classes. He was called on by several bishops in the Philippines to work in their respective dioceses. Some areas he worked in were Manila, Sariaya, Corregidor, Bataan, Pasay, Malabon, Tayabas and Lucena. From 1908 until 1915, when the Philippine Mission was assigned to a different Capuchin jurisdiction, de Vera returned to his native Spain.

Mission work on Guam

On 30 April 1915, de Vera began his 26-year assignment on Guam. He quickly became the acknowledged expert in the Chamorro language among the Catholic missionaries. All missionaries after him had to learn the language from de Vera and pass a final test by him before they were allowed to minister among the people.

As literacy increased on Guam, de Vera appreciated the importance of publishing religious works in Chamorro. By the end of his tenure on Guam, he had translated more than 30 religious works into Chamorro, the first being printed in 1920, five years after his arrival. This was the largest output of literature in Chamorro produced by any individual up to that time, and for many years afterwards. He also published a Chamorro-Spanish dictionary in 1932.

Besides his literary work, de Vera became an influential social force through his preaching in the Chamorro language, made frequent visits to homes and hospitals, and had wide social contacts among all levels of Chamorro society. In 1920, he undertook a census of Hagåtña which included many outlying villages. During the influenza epidemic of 1918, de Vera took the leadership in visiting the sick and burying the dead. For these efforts, he was given a special commendation by US President Woodrow Wilson.

Final Years

In 1941 the last Spanish missionaries on Guam were replaced by American missionaries. De Vera, whose presence was so crucial to the Church on Guam, was in the last group to leave. He resettled in Manila until 1950 when he definitively moved to Spain, where he died on 26 November 1959.

De Vera’s contribution to the promotion of the Chamorro language goes beyond the number of publications he authored in the language. De Vera ensured the wide availability of literature in the language and helped people improve in their grasp of the language. De Vera was committed to promoting the authentic Chamorro word, rather than a borrowing from Spanish, even if the authentic Chamorro word had become archaic. This is evidenced by his choice of words in his translations, and by his Chamorro-Spanish dictionary. Many Chamorro words which would have fallen into disuse and obscurity have thus been preserved for future generations.

By Eric Forbes, OFM Cap.

For further reading

Boletin Oficial de la Provincia Capuchina de Navarra-Cantabria-Aragon. Pamplona, Spain. February, 1960.

Forbes, Eric, OFM. Cap. Historia de la Mision de Guam de los Capuchinos Espanoles. Pamplona: Curia Provincial de Capuchinos, 2001.

Guam Recorder. “Twenty-two Years in Guam.” May 1937.

Sullivan, Julius, OFM Cap. The Phoenix Rises : A Mission History of Guam. New York: Seraphic Mass Association, 1957.

Umatuna si Yu’us. “Father Roman-RIP.” December 13, 1959.