Before the eruption of the volcano, the gates of a Redemptorist church in the city of Lipa south of Manila would be closed by nine o’clock in the evening. Now it’s open 24/7.
As of Friday, Jan. 17, at least 200 individuals are housed in rooms that were usually meant for guests or for alternative learning classes.
“It was our decision to open the church even at night so that people would have somewhere to go to,” said Father Leo Mar Arenillo, rector of the 84-year-old Divino Amor Chapel.
Authorities said an estimated 10,000 people lived on Taal Volcano, an island in the middle of a lake in the province of Batangas.
The area has since been declared off-limits and its residents evacuated. All towns within a 14-km radius from the volcano have been declared a danger zone.
More than 144,000 evacuees are estimated to have sought shelter in 436 evacuation centers in the provinces of Batangas, Quezon, and Laguna.
The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs estimates that a further 450,000 are living in the towns within the “danger zone.”
Taal Volcano is the second most active volcano in the Philippines. But the Jan. 12 eruption caught many people by surprise, including national and local government officials.
Observers note that when the eruption began, many people evacuated on their own. Though Batangas is an agricultural province, there was no evacuation shelter for farm animals.
Many people went back to feed their animals, unwilling to abandon them and lose their main source of livelihood.
While the Philippine Congress called for a legislative investigation as to why the eruption took people by surprise, affected communities struggled to cope with the unfolding disaster.
In the first few hours and even days of the eruption, donations poured in for the evacuees.
Father Arenillo, who is in charge of the evacuation center at the Divino Amor Chapel, said they hold regular meetings to determine the needs of the evacuees.
“Everything is [decided] on the go, but we have a lot of volunteers, and organizing has been easy,” said the priest.
The Art Relief Mobile Kitchen, a group of artists and photojournalists who cook for evacuees, set up a mobile kitchen, not just to serve those at the church but also those staying in other evacuation centers.
The Redemptorist Youth Ministry gave lessons to displaced children about the volcano and the volcanic eruption. Art sessions provided children to express their feelings about the experience.
Redemptorist Brother Ciriaco Santiago said donations are pouring in that the missionaries had to pass on the food, bottled water, clothes and other relief goods to other centers.
Other churches and religious institutions have also opened their doors to the evacuees.
The Church is doing more than passively accepting those rendered homeless by the volcanic eruptions.
The priests were out, literally ministering to their flock, even at the height of the eruption. They went to communities to personally check on the families.
Father Dado Castillo, 70, said he opened his church “because the people needed it. These are my parishioners.”
He said people come and go. “We must have helped some 300 people already,” he said.
The ongoing eruption could last for weeks. The priests and missionaries said they could host the evacuees for two to three months, or maybe up to six months.
The volcano seemed to be settling down after the dramatic eruptions with sky-high pillars of ash plume tinged with flashes of lightning.
Authorities, however, were quick to caution that an explosive eruption remained a possibility, and people must stay away from the danger zone until the alert level is lowered.