FAST BACKWARD: The street known as Padre Faura

Not too far away from Ateneo de Davao is a street that carries the name Padre Faura, which is familiar to people visiting the Roxas Night Market (which the terrorists bombed on September 2, 2016). It’s the street that passes by a hotel owned by a labor union. As to who adopted the name, for what reason, and who inspired its espousal, there’s no clear identification.

Two clues, however, provide inspiration how the street name  could have come about. First, Fr. Federico Faura (1840-1897), the founder of the Observatorio Meteorologico de Manila (Manila Observatory) who pioneered the study of earthquakes in the country, was a Jesuit. And second, the street that bears his name is just a stone’s throw from Ateneo de Davao, a Jesuit university.

Who is Padre Faura? Born in Artes, Barcelona, Spain, on December 30, 1840, he entered the Society of Jesuits (SJ) on December 16, 1859 and was later sent to the country on October 20, 1866, to teach at the Ateneo Municipal in Manila. Six years later, he returned to Spain for his theological studies and ordination as priest but was back in the Philippines in August 1878.

Actually, the initiator of the Manila Observatory was Fr. Francisco Colina, SJ, who commenced scientific work and was the institution’s first director. But it was Fr. Faura who is honored as founder, according to priest-scientist Fr. Saderra Maso, SJ, due to four reasons.

First, due to Fr. Faura’s enduring influence in his work at the Observatory; second, for being the first to predict typhoons in the Philippines and the Far East; third, for exerting effort in having the observatory recognized as a public utility; and for being instrumental in making MO, as the institution is fondly called, an official state weather service.

Fr. Faura’s first storm forecast took place a year after returning to the Philippines. On July 7, 1879, he predicted a typhoon would pass over northern Luzon, accurately calculating its existence, duration, and course. It was the first time a storm was foretold. His second prediction, however, was earlier by two days before the typhoon made its landfall.

Manila Nostalgia, in its 2015 online post, said: “These successful predictions aroused the interests of a number of merchants of the city, who subscribed money to enable him to continue his valuable work on a larger scale. In 1880, when cable connections between Hong Kong and Manila were established, the merchants of the former colony requested that [his] prediction be sent to them, and their request was… granted. For some time the Jesuit meteorologist had been working on a barometer… specially designed to foretell the approach of baguíos.”

In 1886, two years after the MO became the official weather bureau of the colonial administration, the priest-scientist, who also a teacher of Dr. Jose P. Rizal at the Ateneo Municipal, invented the ‘Faura barometer,’ which became an indispensable weather instrument for sailors and navigators passing the Philippine Sea and China Sea. He died on February 23, 1897, less than two months after he tearfully heard the shots that signaled the execution of Rizal from the Central Tower of the observatory, calling his friend’s death as a “great mistake.”

Another fact that tightly links Ateneo de Davao to MO and Fr. Faura is Fr. Daniel J. McNamara, SJ, later the rector of the Davao Jesuit community, who was assigned at the local Jesuit university in 2010 as part of the congregation’s reshuffle. Before he was assigned in Davao City as dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, Fr. McNamara was a professor of the Department of Physics of Ateneo de Manila University and science director at the Manila Observatory.

A Doctor of Philosophy in Astro-Geophysics from the University of Colorado, USA, he is the lead investigator of the Philippine MAGDAS (Magnetic Data Acquisition System) Project, an initiative done in collaboration with the International Center for Space Weather Science and Education of Kyushu University. As a scientist, he supervises researches on ionosphere, magnetosphere, and the sun, and conducts studies on the applications of Clifford algebra in physics.

Elsewhere, at the Bankerohan Public Market area, another indisputable link to Manila Observatory is United States-trained Fr. Miguel Selga, SJ, the MO director from 1926 to 1945.

Accordingly, Fr. Selga already knew that, as a scientist, he would spend most of his time in Manila, now under American rule. To learn English and complete his Jesuit studies and astronomical training, he went to the US and enrolled at the Lick Observatory in California, USA.

When the first signs of World War I broke out, Fr. Selga was summoned to Manila in August 1915, a year before was to acquire American citizenship. His new assignment was to replace Fr. Robert Brown, a Briton who was recalled to England, at the observatory. Aside from being a lead scientist at the MO, he also taught Meteorology at the University of the Philippines (1924-27). His efficient administration was greatly recognized.

James J. Hennessey, in ‘The Manila Observatory’ (1960), published in Philippine Studies, wrote: “Under Father Selga as director the Observatory continued to enjoy great prestige and to contribute service of great practicality. This was in large measure due to the efficiency of [his] administration. He was efficient despite innumerable outside calls on his time… He felt that his position demanded his very presence in times of catastrophe, when volcanic eruptions or earthquakes had caused panic. His presence, he believed, quieted fears and encouraged provincial officials in their work of salvage and reconstruction. This personal interest in everyone’s safety made him a familiar and popular figure.”

Such legacy, though, is forgotten outside the world of science and the academe.