MicSem Publications

Integration of Catholicism into Guam and its People

by Francis X. Hezel, S.J.

2005 Religion

Guam has a distinctive culture that is the product of the long interplay between traditional Chamorro society and the historical influence of colonial Spain, with the multiple strands that made up this influence. Spanish mores, language, and law were important elements of this influence, while the religious faith of Spain was another. Yet, all this was colored by the cultures of Mexico and the Philippines, two of the Spain’s overseas possessions that served to filter Spanish influence into the Marianas during the two centuries of Spanish presence there.

Hardly had early Chamorro-Spanish hostilities ended than the scattered population of Guam was concentrated into a handful of organized villages. Early mission sources make mention of 150 settlements throughout the island at the time of the arrival of the Spanish. Even if many of these were undoubtedly very small, there is no reason to doubt that the early population was widely dispersed over the island. By 1695, six villages were established on Guam–Hagatna, Pago, Agat, Umatac, Inarahan, and Merizo. The size of the towns during the early 18th century ranged from 300 to 500, with Hagatna numbering a few hundred people more than any of the others. New villages were added as the population of the island expanded, but the village organization itself remained a key element in life on Guam ever afterwards.

Central to the missionary plan for the spiritual conquest of the island was the concentration of the Chamorro people into villages where they would live within earshot of the church bell. The people may have spent two or three days a week working on their land some distance away, but it was always to the village that they returned. There life was soon regulated by the church bells, which tolled for daily mass each morning, for rosary in the afternoon, three times a day for the Angelus, and for the De Profundis at the death of anyone in the community. Church liturgy became an integral part of the life of the village community–from the baptism of infants shortly after their birth, to the solemn weddings attended by the village population, to the funeral mass and procession to the church graveyard for anyone who died.

The social geography of the village proclaimed the singular place of the church. The stone church, usually the largest building, dominated the village and was the center of its life. With the convento, or rectory alongside it, the church was the natural gathering spot for the village. Usually there was a plaza, or clearing nearby, that served as a small park where people could pass time with one another or take a stroll with their families on holidays. In the main town of Hagatna, the towering church stood at one end of the plaza, while at the opposite end was the palacio, the governor’s residence. Nothing better symbolized the interdependence between government and church, flag and faith, than the proximity of these buildings in the ancient capital. Government and church remained the twin pillars of Guam society for centuries and, after a fifty-year period of US naval rule in which the close unity was severed, church and government retain a distinctive relationship even today.

Throughout the Spanish period, the annual life of the village rotated around the church schedule in much the same way that the daily schedule did. Lent was a season of fasting and penitential practice, with statues and religious pictures placed in front of the altar to awaken devotion in the people attending rosary and the Stations of the Cross. On Good Friday, a statue of the dead Savior was carried in procession and venerated by all the people. Easter was celebrated with all the flourish that the parish could muster. Even in the early 18th century, a uniformed honor guard of troops fired their muskets at solemn moments in the liturgy, while students outfitted in their finest apparel sang the mass and sometimes provided accompaniment with guitars and other stringed instruments. Any major feast day was the occasion for a procession, led by the standard-bearer, with the congregation singing hymns as they wound through the village passing under decorated arches while waving palm fronds.

The most important event in the year, however, was the fiesta in honor of the patron saint of the village church. The day would begin with a mass celebrated in special solemnity, after which the entire village would join in a procession around the village as they sang religious songs. The village fiesta, which was the celebration of the village par excellence, would normally draw people from other parts of the island as well. The mass and procession would usually be followed by games, perhaps by cockfights as well, and by a feast at which the village would offer its finest food for the enjoyment of its visitors. Like all island peoples, Guamanians were remarkably generous with food and material support. In the island fiesta, with its lavish trays of food, the people of Guam may have found another outlet for the island tradition of competitive feasting, a display of both productive capacity of the people and their generosity. In any case, the central importance of the fiesta in the village life of Guam continues to the present day.

In similar fashion, Spanish Christianity offered a wealth of rituals and items to replace key features in the old life of the Chamorro people. In place of the traditional remedies, usually dispensed by macanas, or magicians, to ward off spells and sorcery and the power of malevolent spirits, new converts often had recourse to Catholic ritual and devotion. The sick began drinking holy water, with the encouragement of the priests, to ward off sickness, while people might bless fields with holy water to kill off the rat population or keep weeds under control. The cross, which was found in nearly every home, was more than a reminder of the mystery of Christ’s death; it was regarded as a means of protection against diabolical powers and other evils. Under the influence of a Creole form of Catholicism, akin to what might be found in Latin America and the Philippines, Guamanian homes were adorned with holy pictures, candles, statues and other religious paraphernalia. What might be called religious shrines can be found in many homes today, as they might have a century or two earlier, while grottoes with statues of Our Lady are sometimes built in the yard. These served as the locus of family devotions at one time.

One of the few things we know with certainty about pre-contact Chamorro culture is the importance placed on respect of the dead. Before the arrival of the Spanish, the bones of loved family members were cleaned and kept in caves where they were venerated. Missionaries inveighed against this practice, which they succeeded in eliminating even before the final "reduction" of the people in 1700, but the church offered other means, no less striking, of honoring the dead. The early Jesuit missionaries mention the sung funeral masses in the parish churches and tell of the line of acolytes and clergy accompanying the casket, draped in black cloth stitched with crosses, to the cemetery for religious burial in a grave blessed with holy water. Already by 1698, we learn in a mission report, the people in the village had begun the custom of gathering nightly to recite the rosary for anyone who had recently died in the village. The custom of the novena, with the rosary recited each evening by a gathering of the family and friends, was an outgrowth of this very early introduction. Food in time became an important part of this ritual, rooted in ancient Chamorro respect for the dead but shaped by Spanish religious customs of the age. Guamanians show every bit as much respect for the dead as they would have in pre-Christian days, but the forms have been changed to accommodate to their Christian faith.

While the features of the government system on Guam reflect the US political heritage much more than the old Spanish colonial system, with its alcaldes and fiscales and other minor officials, the linkage between this government and the church reflects the two hundred years of Spanish rule. Spain’s long colonial presence on Guam was bound to have a lasting effect on its society, especially through its greatest legacy, the Catholic faith, which has shaped the life of present-day Guamanians in countless ways.

Further Readings:

Francis X. Hezel. From Conquest to Colonization: Spain in the Mariana Islands 1690 to 1740. Occasional Historical Papers Series, No 2. CNMI Division of Historic Preservation, Saipan, 2000.

Francisco Olive y Garcia. The Mariana Islands, 1884-1887. Translated by Marjorie Driver. Guam: Micronesian Area Research Center, 1984.