Fr. Felix Huerta : Great Benefactor

PHILIPPINE history focus so much on political history that many historical, but nonpolitical, persons of outstanding accomplishments are hardly mentioned in standard history textbooks. Take the case of Franciscan friar Fr. Felix Huerta, the administrator from 1850 to 1878 of San Lazaro Hospital which treated lepers for free. To most Manilans today, Felix Huerta is a street close to the San Lazaro track [1]. Very few know that Fr. Huerta was responsible for two enduring and beneficial projects — Monte de Piedad and Manila’s water supply system.

Plaza Goitti, now Lacson Plaza (after the late Manila mayor). To the right is the rear wall of the newly renovated Sta. Cruz Church. The BPI building, as it is known today, was the Roman Santos building, Monte de Piedad’s first home. (see notes for the building’s brief history)

As early as 1860, the Madrid government ordered the founding of charitable pawnshop in Manila for the poor. But for some reason or another, the order was not carried out. Thus on July 21, 1880, Fr. Huerta, with the backing of the Archbishop and the Governor General and 33,000 pesos from the Obras Pias [2], founded the Monte de Piedad, a bank and pawnshop for the poor. The bank was formally opened on August 2, 1882, with office at the first floor of Santa Isabel College in Intramuros.

Monte de Piedad lent money at 6% annual interest and paid 4% annually on savings deposits. But its biggest business was in pawned jewelry. It was an old custom of Filipinos to buy jewels as capital, and hock them in times of need. Monte de Piedad charged .5% interest monthly on pawned jewelry and other properties which could be redeemed anytime before maturity of renewed when due. Unredeemed jewelry and properties were auctioned every 10th and 11th of each month.

For auctioned properties, Fr. Huerta insisted on a charitable policy, which is said to be a pristine Catholic banking practice. All earnings from the auction exceeding the amounts due to the bank were turned over to the debtors. If the debtors was dead, a search was made for the heirs, while the money was kept in the bank earning interest.

Today, Monte de Piedad is still around. Its banking rates and policies may have changed, but still extends cash and jewelry loans using the deposits as collateral.

Fr. Huerta also made the Carriedo water systems a reality. Before he died in 1743, Francisco Carriedo stipulated in his will that 10,000 pesos be invested in the Galleon trade until it earned enough to build a water system for Manila. But the British appropriated the Carriedo fund, then worth 250,000 pesos, when they conquered Manila in 1762. As a result, the Carriedo fund had to start anew with a capital of 10,000 pesos. With the end of the Galleon trade in 1815, the Carriedo fund was forgotten. Fr. Huerta dogged search of over 300 documents in the archives led to the discovery of the Carriedo fund which amounted to 177,853.44 in 1878. This was used to finance the completion of the Carriedo water system in 1882.

Fr. Huerta, was also a good historian. He wrote “estado geografico, topografico, estadistico, historico, religioso de la provincia de san gregorio.” [3] The history of the order in the Philippines.

in 1960, I was confined for chicken pox at the San Lazaro hospital. The chicken pox ward was the second floor of an old Spanish building attached to the old San Lazaro chapel, which could have been the original hospital for the lepers. As I ascended the stairs to the ward, I saw on the wall a portrait of Fr. Felix Huerta. I did not know then that I was looking at the portrait of a great missionary, a true child of St. Francis, and a great benefactor of Manila.

Just like Fr. Huerta in his day, many priests and nuns today are engaged in development projects for the poor while remaining steadfast in their religious devotion. I will mention several examples:

Mother Milagros of the Assumption Sisters, with the help of her former students, built a school for the poor in San Simon, Pampanga in 1970. She also built an irrigation system and established a farmers’ cooperative in the same town.

Jesuits Gaston Duchesneau and Mr. Benedicto Allanegui in 1961 organize the San Dionisio Credit Cooperative in Paranaque with 38 members and 380 peso capital. Today this cooperative assets are worth over 10 million, making it the largest and most successful credit cooperative in the country.

In 1971, a Filipina nun acquired a piece of land in Antipolo which was transformed into a low cost housing project for the slum dwellers she was serving.

We rarely read these modern counterparts of Fr. Huerta in the press which harps so much bad news. Thus we are deluded into thinking that the Philippines is a basket case with no hope in sight. If the press will print good news as avidly as it prints bad news, then we could say, borrowing the words of William Faulkner, “We, Filipinos, will not only survive, we will prevail.”

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Blogger’s notes & footnotes:

This undated article was written by the historian Pio Andrade Jr.

– Interestingly, the street Felix Huerta in Sta. Cruz does not carry the religious title of “Padre,” as in streets like Padre Burgos and Padre Gomez. It is as if to hide the fact that Padre Huerta was a Spanish priest who dedicated his entire life caring for the people he served.

– The Roman Santos building used to be the site of the first office of the “Bank of the Poor”. First planned in 1884 by the Monte de Piedad de Casa de Ahhoros and by a decree of Governor General Moriones. The first foundation was said to have been laid during the birthday of Queen Ma. Cristina. Initial funds came from the Metropolitan Archbishop of Manila, private donors and loans from Banco Espanol Filipino (todays BPI). The building was opened on 1894. The event was graced by then Manila Archbishop Bernardino Nozaleda. In 1937 the building was sold to Consolidated Investments Corporation. It became a multiple floored structured by this time. The plan was drawn by Juan Luna’s son, Andres Luna San Pedro. The building was under construction during the outbreak of WWII. It became a warehouse during this period. During Manila’s liberation, the building was converted into a Red Cross hospital. In 1952, Prudential Bank and Trust Company founder, Roman Santos, made it the headquarters of his company. Since then the building carried his name. In the following years, the building would be completed. It had 9 floors by 1957.

[1] San Lazaro Hippodrome – Race track that dates back to the Spanish times. Most of the defunct “hippodrome” was bought by Henry Sy and this became an SM mall in 2005 . The art deco styled building was among the casualties of this development. The greatest heritage destroyer of Manila, Mayor Lito Atienza, graced the opening of SM San Lazaro with the owner in 2005.

This race track in Sta. Cruz was home to Asia’s first racing club (1867).

[2] Obras Pias (Works of Piety) – Catholic foundations that received donations dedicated to religious, charitable, medical and educational purposes. Some of these charitable institutions invested in the galleon trade allowing them to widen the reach of their missions.

[3] Estado geográfico, topográfico, estadístico, histórico- religioso de la santa y apostólica Provincia de San Gregorio Magno – The histories of the Franciscan missions in the province of St. Gregory the Great (mission towns under the Franciscan order). This book is an essential resource for local town culture and history.

Related article: Don Francisco Carriedo and Manila’s First Water System


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