As we approach the 175th anniversary of the Archdiocese of Melbourne, there is much to celebrate, not least the contributions of the many immigrant communities that have enriched and helped shape the Church of Melbourne. In the first of a series celebrating these communities, we hear about the important contributions of Filipino Catholics over the years to our shared life of faith.

For more than eight years, Monsignor Joselito Asis has been serving the Filipino community of the Archdiocese of Melbourne as their Chaplain. He first came here from the Philippines as an associate to the Scalabrinian Fathers of Australia, who are based at St Brigid’s Church in Fitzroy North, and to whom the pastoral care of Filipino migrants in the Archdiocese is entrusted. He spoke with Melbourne Catholic about the rich history of the Filipino Catholic community in Victoria, and about their diverse and significant contributions to the life of the Church.

A new home

While most Filipino migration to Melbourne—and to Australia—has occurred since the mid 20th century, Monsignor Joselito points out that the presence of this community goes back much further, with the first wave of Filipino migrants to Australia arriving as early as 1879 to work as pearl divers in Broome, Darwin and the Torres Strait Islands. Along with Malays and Japanese, Filipinos—or ‘Manilamen’ as they were commonly called in the 19th century—were respected and sought-after pearl divers and made an important contribution to this burgeoning industry. Since most of them were also practising Catholics, they also made an important contribution to the early mission churches of Broome and Darwin, swelling the numbers of faithful parishioners.

It would be another twenty-two years, though, before Filipino migrants were recorded as having arrived in the state of Victoria, with the Australian Census in 1901 recording just 13 male and three female Victorian residents of Filipino descent.

Monsignor Joselito says that subsequent waves of Filipino migration to Victoria can, in the most part, be explained by the search for a steady income and a better life.

In the fifties, the Colombo Plan—an intergovernmental program to strengthen relationships and promote social and economic development within the Asia–Pacific region—attracted young Filipinos to Australia to pursue further studies and enhance their technical abilities. Today this tradition continues, with many Filipino students still travelling to Melbourne to pursue their education.

In the seventies, after the Marcos regime imposed martial law in the Philippines, others sought a new home in Australia for political reasons, many of them finding work as nurses, tradespeople, teachers and secretaries.

By 2006, the Filipino population in Victoria had soared to 24,777 residents, 15,634 of whom were female. Much of this immigration can be attributed to the Australian government’s family reunion program and to waves of ‘bridal migration’, with many young Filipina women coming to Australia as brides or fiancées, and many older women arriving here to take care of their grandchildren.

As Monsignor Joselito observes, job opportunities continue to drive more recent migration from the Philippines to Victoria, with Filipino immigrants working mostly in the medical and aged-care professions, in the IT sector and in hospitality.

By 2011, Filipino-born Catholics in the Archdiocese of Melbourne had become the second largest group of overseas-born Catholics, after the Italians. By 2016, there were more than 68,000 Filipinos residing in Victoria, mostly in Melbourne, and almost 34,000 Filipino-born Catholics. While Filipino families and communities can be found right across Melbourne, a large proportion live in the western suburbs, particularly in Truganina, Werribee (Wyndham) and Brimbank.

A culture of faith and devotion

Asked to nominate some of the distinct traditions or cultural practices that Filipino Catholics have brought to their practice of faith here in Melbourne, Monsignor Joselito doesn’t hesitate. ‘First and foremost is the beautiful tradition of our Simbang Gabi, the 9-day series of dawn masses before Christmas,’ he says. Currently, 12 parishes in the Archdiocese offer these distinctive dawn masses, running from 16 to 23 December and beginning each day at 5am.

‘In St Brigid’s, we also started three years ago celebrating this Christmas novena in the evening at 7pm,’ he says, noting how this has become a gift of hospitality and inclusion for other cultural groups in the Archdiocese. ‘We have invited other migrant communities to join, assigning them one night to organise the Mass and to sing Christmas carols in their own languages and share their traditional foods after the Mass.’

Another Filipino practice that Monsignor Joselito mentions proudly is the devotion to the Holy Infant Jesus, or the Santo Niño.

The whole of January is practically dedicated to the celebration of the Santo Niño in different parishes where Filipinos are based. The biggest celebration is held at St Andrew’s Parish in South Clayton, on the third Sunday of January, with a whole day of festive celebrations.’

As Chaplain to the Filipino community, Monsignor Joselito directs a range of ministries, formation and pastoral programs, devotions and festivities to cater to the spiritual needs of this community and to connect them to their cherished Catholic practices, culture and devotions.

At least once a month, in any of 11 parishes and two community centres around the Archdiocese, he will be found celebrating a Tagalog or bilingual (Tagalog and English) Sunday Eucharist. Filipino families also regularly ask him to officiate at baptisms, weddings and funerals, to conduct house blessings, and to visit and anoint the sick.

The Chaplaincy coordinates a number of devotional practices close to the heart of many Filipinos, including devotion to Jesus the Black Nazarene, to Santo Niño (Holy Infant Jesus) and to Our Mother of Perpetual Help. And it supports various religious and charismatic groups of Filipino origin by conducting Masses, formation sessions and retreats.

Through an official connection with the Melbourne Port Authority, and with the assistance of the Stella Maris Seafarer’s Centre, the Filipino Chaplaincy also serves the many Filipino seafarers who dock at the Port of Melbourne, with Monsignor Joselito being called on from time to time to celebrate Mass on board.

Perhaps one of the greatest contributions of the Filipino community to the life of faith has been their active involvement parish life.

Along with the rich devotional practices that the Filipino community has brought to the Church in Melbourne, Monsignor Joselito says that perhaps their greatest contribution to the life of faith has been their active involvement parish life. ‘We can see a good number of Filipino choirs rendering services through liturgical music in many parish churches. Many of them are invited to sing in various parishes other than their own.’ Right across Melbourne, he says, Filipino volunteers are serving their parishes and their Church as readers, collectors and ushers, and as the faithful people of God.