AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

In parts of the Philippines ravaged by Typhoon Haiyan, the Catholic Church has stepped in to help survivors where the government has yet to act. Eighty percent of Filipinos are Roman Catholic and NPR's Anthony Kuhn has the story of one parish and its priest.

(SOUNDBITE OF DIGGING)

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Three young men are digging a grave in the San Joaquin Parish Churchyard.

(SOUNDBITE OF SQUEAKING TROLLEY)

KUHN: They roll an unidentified body wrapped only in blue plastic sheeting up to the grave on a squeaky trolley. They drag the body into the pit, which is too small for it. The soft, sandy soil falls from their shovels and in a minute the crumpled blue figure has disappeared unto the earth.

The local priest, Father Kelvin Apurillo, watches nearby as his parishioners are buried in these temporary graves. He has developed a close bond with his parishioners since his archdiocese transferred him here in June. San Joaquin Parish is just outside the ruined provincial capital, Tacloban. Father Kelvin points to the grave of a mother and child he knew.

FATHER KELVIN APURILLO: When the news came to me, I was really down because we were talking that day, because we celebrated the Mass at 5:30, since they always came to attend the Mass. I was shocked. I would say that I also was affected.

KUHN: Father Kelvin road out the storm on the second floor of the church. When the waters subsided, he said, bodies lay scattered around the building.

APURILLO: I was able to recover a bottle of holy water, so I started blessing the dead bodies. You also feel destroyed emotionally, but I have to be strong. I don't want them to see me crying because they would also feel down.

KUHN: Now, two-thirds of his 600 parishioners are either dead, missing or have left for somewhere else. Father Kelvin says many of those remaining worry that he's going to leave too.

APURILLO: Whenever they see me walking, they would ask me, Father, are you leaving? No, I'm not leaving. I just want to talk to you. If you suffer, I suffer with you; if you laugh, I laugh with you. The experience of one is the experience of all.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL RINGING)

KUHN: That bell, that didn't sound like a normal bell sound. Did something happen to the bell?

APURILLO: Yeah. The normal sound is really very beautiful, but I guess that it was also destroyed by the typhoon.

(Speaking foreign language)

KUHN: Father Kelvin presides over Mass in the damaged church, where shreds of corrugated roofing flap in the breeze. Before the government could deliver any aid, assistance began to reach San Joaquin Parish through church networks. Jennifer Hardy of Catholic Relief Services says the church has been a crucial institution in helping communities to recover from the typhoon. It's an effective channel for distributing aid and...

JENNIFER HARDY: Often the church is one of the best record keepers in the community. So to understand where people are living, what they have lost, which people have left after Typhoon Haiyan hit this area, when they will be coming back, the church can often be one of our best resources for that information.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing in foreign language)

KUHN: As he struggles to make sense of the loss his parish has suffered, Father Kelvin says he feels a huge sense of gratitude for his parishioners. He says they, in a sense, have converted him, and continually reinforced his sense of his calling as a priest.

APURILLO: I would experience every week a little conversion, from them and from myself. It's not that I do something for them. Actually, it's they doing something for me. You become more prayerful. You become more dedicated as a pastor. That's how I see it.

KUHN: Anthony Kuhn, NPR News.

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