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Catechist couples in Philippines embody holiness in ordinary life

Couple Catechist Fred and Emen Tundag with converts to the Catholic faith

Fifteen (15) catechumens ushered in the Easter vigil (March 30, 2024) of the Archdiocesan Shrine of Our Lady of Lourdes, a popular Marian shrine located in an urban village in Cebu City, Philippines.The shrine, run by the Salesians of Don Bosco, attracts many devotees from all over the Cebu Archdiocese.  Parish priest Fr. Lamberto Paradiang, SDB, described the Easter vigil as a significant event due to the sheer number of baptized converts.

The group included six former followers of the Philippine-based Iglesia ni Kristo, two former Baptist church members, two former cultists, two Muslims, two Mormons, and one self-proclaimed free thinker not affiliated with any particular religious sect.

Under the guidance of the parish catechetical ministry and members of the Archconfraternity of Marian Devotees ARMADE, the catechumens underwent doctrinal instructions on the Catholic faith for three months. 

The youngest catechumen was a 7-year-old boy, an ex-Baptist follower and the oldest was a Muslim woman in her late 40s. The lessons included church history, 12 articles of faith, and the 7 sacraments. 

As news of this joyous occasion spread over social media, attention shifted from the converts to parish catechists, mainly a couple who had been teaching young and adult catechism for the past 38 years. Sixty-seven-year-old Alfredo “Fred” Tundag and his wife Simeona (nicknamed Emen), 61, are both catechists who have served the parish longer than any parish priest assigned to the Marian shrine. 

In an interview, Fred and Emen said they taught the catechumens catechesis for three months, minus any fixed schedule, because the converts were not available simultaneously.  Some are available only after work or after school. 

For the catechist-couple, it was not simply catechizing, but a virtual spiritual warfare.  They went to Mass every day, received communion and prayed all the time.  According to Fred, there were times when he would feel very exhausted, an experience that he described as harassment by the devil. He called on his clergy friends and asked for their prayers.  After a while, the spiritual oppression stopped.

Fred and Emen both come from poor families. Married for 43 years,  they used to live in a mountain barangay in Liloan in the northern part of Cebu province.  Communist rebels, who indiscriminately killed people who refused to join the movement, were in charge of the town's mountainous area in the late 1980s.

The armed band hunted Fred for indoctrination but somehow they were unable to get inside their house because the family prayed the holy rosary day and night.  Emen, a devotee of the Virgin Mary who never fails to say the rosary every day, believes they were spared from disaster because of Mary’s intercession.

The Tundag family eventually moved to Cebu City in 1992.  To support his growing family, Fred did some odd jobs at a furniture firm. He did not prosper because of labor issues and the factory was later burned down.  He found a job at a real estate development company where he did field and documentation work but he was not happy with this job either.

In between, he became a member of a charismatic group and took up Bible studies in Cebu City under the tutelage of a well-known lawyer and Catholic faith defender.  His knowledge of the Bible encouraged him to bring the Good News and charismatic practices to far-flung areas of Cebu.

In 1987 or two years after the Vatican declared 1985 the Year of Mary, Fred and a fellow faith defender headed out to Mantalongon, a mountainous village in Dalaguete town in western Cebu, and paid their respects to the parish priest and asked his permission to preach the gospel and teach the congregation a charismatic way of worship. Charismatic worship was gaining popularity in Cebu City but according to Fred, the priest vetoed the plan.  

However, when Fred mentioned that he was a “dawn rosarian” (a devotee of the Virgin Mary who regularly attends dawn rosaries in a foot procession), the parish priest agreed.  Fred and their companions then set in motion preparations for the "Aurora,” or dawn rosary.  They brought an icon and rosary beads to Mantalongon, where they taught the people how to pray the rosary and share reflections on bible readings.

The first dawn rosary in Mantalongon attracted only a few devotees but as time went by, the villagers came out in droves.  According to Fred, when the village celebrated the Virgin’s birth, many people came to participate.  “It was as if the whole population of Mantalongon showed up,” Fred said in Cebuano.

The dawn rosary, coupled with Bible sharing in a setting known as Basic Ecclesial Communities or “little churches,” later became a mission for Fred.  His program attracted 10 more parish volunteers and this became the seed of the Archconfraternity of Marian Devotees, ARMADE.  Together, they would head up to remote villages on weekends, bring an icon of the Virgin Mary, teach people Marian values and devotion, and share reflections on the Bible and faith-based experiences. If a priest is available, a eucharistic celebration caps the program.

So far, the mission has covered 50 chapels in many far-flung villages where people are not able to attend Sunday Mass, let alone hear Catholic teachings. 

After more than three decades of mission work, Fred is pleased to report that, with the Archdiocese's assistance, ARMADE established a praying community in a remote village in Lusaran, a mountain barangay in Cebu City, home to more than 2,500 people, according to a 2020 census. The ARMADE was also able to mobilize the villagers to help build a church. Construction began a couple of years ago and is now nearing completion. The Cebu Archdiocese has assigned Fr. Larry Soedarjanto, an Indonesian priest, to oversee Lusaran as a quasi-parish.

As his children grew up, his service to the Church became problematic because he had a family to feed and educate.  Fred said that the dilemma prompted him to ask the Virgin Mary to take care of his family while he attended the mission in far-flung areas.  “Mama Mary, I will be your hands and feet in this mission; just take care of my family,” was how he brought his domestic concerns to the Blessed Virgin Mary.

To be continued..


Radio Veritas Asia (RVA), a media platform of the Catholic Church, aims to share Christ. RVA started in 1969 as a continental Catholic radio station to serve Asian countries in their respective local language, thus earning the tag “the Voice of Asian Christianity.”  Responding to the emerging context, RVA embraced media platforms to connect with the global Asian audience via its 21 language websites and various social media platforms.