The Life and Works of Fr. George J. Willmann, SJ

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[su_tab title=”The emergence of Fr. Willmann in the Knights of Columbus”]

The emergence of Fr. Willmann in the Knights of Columbus

willmann_6910One of the few but timely and efficacious blessings with the Order in the Philippines experienced during the lean years of 1930’s, came in the person of an American Jesuit priest, Fr. George J. Willmann.  Born on June 29, 1897, in Brooklyn, New York, he first came to the Philippines in 1922 when he was still a seminarian, to fulfill a teaching stint at the Ateneo de Manila.  Then after completing his studies and being ordained in the United States, he was sent back to Manila and all of his priestly life had been spent there.

A remark by one his contemporary fellow Jesuit reflected the impact which Fr. Willmann made on the Knights of Columbus in the Philippines during the latter half of the 1930’s.

It was in this period of its lowest vitality that the K of C in the Philippines received the infusion of new blood, so to speak.  The “new blood” was Father George J. Willmann, S.J….  Father Willmann’s entry marked a turning-point in the history of the K of C in the Philippines, for he gave to it not only a new vitality but also a new orientation.

Father Willmann was like a glimmer of light in an otherwise dark decade.  He has the following recollection about his first awareness of the Knights of Columbus.

 …in the year 1915, a long time ago, I think I first heard of the Knights of Columbus.  I was about to enter the Jesuit seminary, and I went to say good-bye to a few friends.  One old gentleman was a Knight of St. Gregory and a wealthy man… he was like an uncle rather than a friend.  He prevailed on me to go to the seminary.  I went to his business to say good-bye. He said “wait a minute, George, when you come back a priest try to e a chaplain of the Knights of Columbus.”  I heard of the Knights of Columbus in Brooklyn who are doing a lot of good, but they would do more good if they had a chaplain who was active.”  I said, “I will try to do that.”  And I promptly forgot about it, I guess.

Father Willmann’s early association with the Knights of Columbus in the Philippines may also be established through his participation in the Youth Program that was launched by Manila Council 1000 in the early 30’s.  His article, entitled “The Knights Stayed on the Job,” constitutes the only surviving firsthand account of the development and implementation of the program.  The use of the Ateneo basketball court in Ermita which belonged to Fr. Willmann’s religious Order as one of the first venues for the program’s basketball leagues, also points to his direct involvement in the Columbian activity.  His concern for the underprivileged youth, according to an observation by a fellow Jesuit, motivated Father Willmann to join the Knights of Columbus in 1938.[/su_tab]

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Wartime preoccupation

Moved passionately by the Japanese encroachment upon the homeland, the Philippine Knights reacted in various ways they could, some to the extent of making the ultimate sacrifice of their lives to defend their country and its people.  “Many members of Manila Council 100 rallied to the call to arms and joined the USAFFE.”  Among those stout-hearted Knights were the illustrious Catholic Congressman from Ilocos, Major Benito Soliven, and SK Manuel Colayco, who dared to fight the invaders, and lost their lives.

Some Knights, including Brother Albert, actively supported the resistance movement against the Japanese by involving themselves in guerrilla activities during the Japanese occupation.  Indeed, the high-risk activities into which the Knights ventured selflessly during the war took a heavy toll of lives from Manila Council 1000.  Among its casualties were Brother Soliven, Colayco and Albert.[/su_tab]

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Services for Civilians in Need

During the three years interim, from January 1942 when the first servicemen club on Taft Avenue closed down to February 1945 just before the club reopened on Rizal Avenue, the Knight’s main preoccupation had been to help countless civilian war victims in Manila.  Declared an Open City on December 26, 1941 by General MacArthur, the Japanese, in complete disregard of the international law, subjected Manila to merciless bombings, inflicting havoc upon a defenseless people.

Santa Rita Hall, now transformed from a soldier’s center to a civilian refugee center, was again bubbling with activity.    As in earlier days when it was a soldier’s center, Santa Rita Hall was a place where everybody was welcome, where everything was free.  As Father Willmann recalled:

 Santa Rita now became a haven for fire refugees from burn-out sections of Manila, for students and other provincianos unable3 to return to their provinces, and for marooned sailors or survivors of ships lying in the bottom of Manila Bay.  At one time, early in 194`, it was sheltering refugees of ten nationalities, including even a picturesque and hard-headed Mohammedan from Egypt.

Brothers Jose Galan and Fernando Sison, Dr. Turla and family and about four other families made themselves available for service in the center.

Lack of food was the most serious problem encountered in the operation of the refugee center.  Seeking the isolation ofManila, the Japanese ordered a blockade, Father Willmann described its effect in the following words: “It was next to impossible to bring food past the encircling guards.”

Unfazed by the failed project, Father Willmann turned to hag-raising as a substitute resource.  Assuming it as a personal chore, the humble priest tended the hogs, feeding them with water lilies gathered from a nearby muddy canal and slops collected from the kitchen.  For his activities, Father Willmann was ridiculed and made fun by the Japanese which he did not mind.  What mattered to him was the sale of hogs “brought substantial financial return that was sorely needed.”[/su_tab]

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Father Willmann’s debut in KC-Philippines Top Leadership

By 1948, the first Knights of Columbus District in the Philippines has been organized, with three constituting council:  Manila Council 1000, Cebu Council 3106 and Cagayan de Oro Council 3108.  The Philippine Jurisdiction was thus officially categorized as the “Philippine District,” headed by the District Deputy.

As District Deputy, Father Willmann was vested with a full authority to supervise the constituting councils, by virtue of which authority he represented the highest KC leadership in the Philippines at that time. The period during which Father Willmann directed the affairs of the Knights of Columbus in this country as District Deputy lasted for six years, from a947 to 1953.  It was a period which witnessed the unfolding of some of the significant development in the history of the Knights of Columbus in the Philippines.[/su_tab]

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The first KC National Convention

One of the first major events during Father Willmann’s term as Philippine District Deputy occurred before the end of the second year.  From November 29 to December 2, 1049, the First Knights of Columbus National Convention in the Philippines was held.  Its relevance to the prevailing conditions then was expressed by Most Reverend Alejando Olalia, D.D., Coadjutor Bishop of Tuguegarao, Cagayan, in his “Message,”

 It is high time that the Knights militating under the banner of Christ come together in a convention, uniting their common efforts and brilliant minds to plan on a national basis activities intended to preserve and further our precious heritage, our Christian civilization.  The enemies of god are ever busy in their machinations, introducing foreign and subversive ideologies excogitated for the sole purpose of destroying our present democratic way of life.

The focus of the Convention was obviously in the urgency of the threats of Communism in the country.

…the Knights of Columbus were challenged by the highest Church dignitary of the land to wage the bigger, tougher greater batter against Communism.  They were challenged in all the major fields in labor, government, family, education, the press, the professions in religious, social, political, economic question.[/su_tab]

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Father Willmann’s Term as Territorial Deputy

As its meeting held on February 12-14, 1954, the Supreme Board of Directors conferred upon Father Willmann “the unique status of Territorial Deputy, with authority to appoint District Deputies.  Supreme Knight Hart had his own explanation for Father Willmann’s new appointment.

 Soon after the three new Councils were instituted, Father Willmann asked for permission to institute others.  At almost every Supreme Board Meeting since, he has presented similar requests, all of which have been granted.  In every instance, the result has been gratifying advancement of the Order no only in Councils and membership but in influence and accomplishment and because of it Father Willmann was given the title and position of Territorial Deputy.

The appointment took effect on March 1, 1954.

As Territorial Deputy, Father Willmann was the highest representative of the Supreme Council in the Philippines.  He was the chief authority of the Philippine Jurisdiction, with supervisory power over all Councils and Centers in the country.[/su_tab]

[su_tab title=”The Birth of KCFAPI”]

The Birth of KCFAPI

The authorization to extend the Order to the Philippine which was approved y the Supreme Board of Directors on January 9, 1905, precluded the Knights of Columbus insurance program.  It was explicit in the provision that an association, that is non-insurance, Council would be established in Manila.  The great distance between New Haven and Manila and their different currencies, it was believed, could trigger real insurance hazards.

The suppression of the insurance status from the local Order did not hurt its prewar membership, which comprised well-healed Catholic gentlemen from the social and economic aristocracy. For these so-called Caballeros de Colon, the urgency of the protective coverage of the KC insurance system did not exist.

At the peak of the postwar KC recruitment campaign, however, the composition of the local membership was changed drastically.  Through the influence of Father Willmann, many Catholic men from the lower income groups of society were encouraged to join the postwar membership of the local Order.  The need for a protection plan which only an insurance program could guarantee, was deemed imperative for the new recruits, as it was for the New Haven Knights of Columbus organized by Father McGivney.  Unfortunately, an attempt by the Supreme Council to extend insurance benefits to the local membership encountered, and was foiled by, unfavorable “Philippine government policy.”

On August 1, 1958, the Knights of Columbus Fraternal Association of the Philippines was incorporated and registered with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC).  Although merely a business affiliate and not a part of KC-Philippines, the insurance association was granted permission to use the name “Knights of Columbus” by the Supreme Council, “since the entity would provide fraternal insurance to the members in a country where it had a problem introducing their insurance system.”

September 9, 1958, KCFAPI, having obtained the necessary license from the office of the Insurance Commissioner, became operative. Its initial capital of P32,000 represented the total contributions of 64 founder members, at P500 per contributor.

In its basic aspects, KCFAPI was created to conform with other insurance companies.  It was founded upon scientific and actuarial principles, and governed by the licensing and supervisory rules of the Office of the Insurance Commissioner.  On the basis of its objectives, however, KCFAPI was recognized as a Mutual Benefit Association.[/su_tab]

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Signing Off

In August 1977, Father Willmann was in the United States for the Ninety-Fifty Annual Supreme Council Convention.   That year, it was scheduled from August 14th to the 17th, at Indianapolis, Indiana.  The Philippine delegation then was composed of Father Willmann as its head, and the two other members: Bro. Nicanor Y. Fuentes and Bro Concelio B. Cagurangan.

After the Convention, Father Willmann proceeded to New York, presumably to visit his sister Ruth, a Franciscan nun residing at Roslyn.  Prone to falls because of his fragile limbs, the 80 years old Father, unfortunately, had a fall while he was in New York, which required a hip-bone surgery.  He was confined initially at St. Francis Hospital in Roslyn, then transferred to Murray-Weigel Hall in New York Province, an infirmary probably belonging to the Jesus, on September 8, 1997.  When he was discharged from the hospital to recuperate at the Jesuit House at Fordham, everyone thought that Father Willmann was already out of danger.  On September 14, 1977, much to the distress of those who had anxiously anticipated his recovery, Father Willmann succumbed to a cardiac arrest.[/su_tab][/su_tabs]

(Source:  “A History of the Knights of Columbus in the Philippines (1905-1990)” by Professor Justina S. Ocampo)