When we established our law firm in San Francisco, California in the early 1990s, I attended mid-day masses at St. Patrick’s Parish on 4th and Mission Streets. It was during those days that I was introduced to Msgr. Fred Al Bitanga, then the parish priest of that church. My encounters with him, however, was not during masses but rather during outreach programs to our Filipino veterans.
As an active advocate for Filipino WWII veterans, I witnessed how Monsignor Bitanga showed his love, compassion and care to our elderly veterans. Outside of his parish, he would walk through Mission Street to go the Veterans Equity Center and be at veterans’ gatherings and pray for them. Knowing that the veterans live in isolation, he would sponsor regular Saturday breakfast for them at the St. Patrick’s parish hall.
As years passed, I was drawn closer to the monsignor. I started to communicate with him regularly, seek his presence to bless our dying veterans and to pray for them during their funerals. Monsignor Bitanga has been an ally in providing care and services to our seniors and I also felt God’s love and compassion through his doing what we were doing. Perhaps he was a godsend not just to the senior veterans but for me as well.
Monsignor Bitanga was not just a priest, he was also a family man. I have seen him as a caring uncle to his many nephews and nieces. Sometime in 2000, I received an urgent phone call from him. Sounding distressed, he said that his nephew was dying of cancer and that he needed me. I was surprised as I could not figure out how, as an immigration attorney, I could be of any help to someone who is dying. So my question was, “how can I help, Monsignor?” He answered that his nephew’s dying wish was to take an oath of allegiance as a U.S. citizen at the hospital. I then started making arrangements with an immigration officer to go to the hospital to comply with his nephew’s wish. His nephew became a U.S. citizen but passed on shortly thereafter. Monsignor was downhearted, and I witnessed his care and unconditional love for family.
For many years, Monsignor and I would be in the same places and events for our community. We worked as board members in the same non-profit organizations, we shared good memories working with our community until we ended up being really good friends. I called on him for spiritual guidance during moments when I felt weak and facing life’s many challenges. He would put every situation in the right spiritual perspective and reminded me to remain with God always. Just like thousands of immigrants in the San Francisco Bay Area who received Monsignor’s blessings during their milestones, I too, had received God’s blessings through him. He blessed our four law offices including the one in Manila; and, more recently, he blessed me and my husband during our renewal of vows on our 25th wedding anniversary.
On February 2, 2016, as I was about to leave my San Francisco office at around six in the evening, I got a call from my friend Bernadette Sy. She asked, “Have you heard about Monsignor?”, she cried and hanged up. I also cried and felt pain like a sharp knife piercing through my chest, as I got confirmation that indeed Monsignor Bitanga, my friend, my spiritual guide passed away on February 3, 2016 in the Philippines.
For those, who knew Monsignor Fred Al Bitanga, the phrase “…when I am six feet below the ground…” always preceded a statement he wanted to convey; it was also an indication that he was ready to go to the ‘next life’. Now that you are “six feet below the ground”, Monsignor, you had 82 years of life filled with love and compassion. As you used to say, “it’s not our plan…… but God’s plan.” You have touched my life and though I will miss you, I will also celebrate that you are already in God’s presence and I know that you will be a guardian angel watching over us. Farewell, Monsignor Fred.