There are many unsung hereos in the Philippine history who have been ignored by the living generations because their achievements are not given proper recognition by historians and biographers. One of them is Apolinario de la Cruz, the first crusader of religious freedom in the Philippines. A born religious leader, who passionately loved God but abhorred religious intolerance and bigotry, he heroically fought and sacrificed his life for the inherent right of every man to worship God freely and without persecution by government authorities.
This pioneer crusader of religious freedom, popularly known as Hermano Pule (Brother Pule), was born in the town of Lukban, Tayabas Province (now Quezon), on July 22, 1815. His parents, Pablo de la Cruz and Juana Andrea, were poor and pious folks. He grew up amidst the peaceful environment of his mountainous town – shy and religious boy whose magnificent dream was to be a priest, so that he might be able to serve God and help his people to live the Christian way of life. His mind was then already distributed by the unchristian behavior of some bad friars, who were arrogant, cruel and venal.
After learning the rudiments of education in the town school, he went to Manila with the intention of entering a monastery in order to acquire a knowledge of theology, Christian dogmas, and moral philosophy. But no monastic convent would admit him as a lay brother because he was an Indio (derogatory term applied by the haughty Spaniards to native Filipino). Undaunted by this rebuff, he worked as a servant in the Hospital de San Juan de Dios.
During his spare time, Apolinario avidly read the Bible, Christian catechism, and novenas and attended many sermons in the churches of Intramuros, thereby improving his knowledge of Christian religion. His years of sojourn in the city of Manila aroused his desire to reform the dogmatic practices of the friar-controlled. Catholic faith and to promote greater freedom in worshipping God.
In 1840, Apolinario, who was then 25 years old, returned to Lukban and began his religious reform movement by founding the Confradia de San Jose (Confraternity of St. Joseph), a religious society of Filipinos. The aim of this religious society was “to promote social intercourse and union among the members, of whom was free to worship God according to the dictates of his conscience” . Hundreds of Filipinos in Lukban and other towns of Quezon Province joined the Confradia because of Apolinario’s charismatic leadership and eloquence. The fame of Hermano Pule, as Apolinario now come to be known, spread to Laguna, Batangas and Manila. Not only the poor peasants and laborers of the masses, but also many illustrados and rich folks became members of the Confradia. Among those educated and affluent Filipinos who supported Hermano Pule were Domingo Roxas (rich industrialist), Vidal Marifosque (proprietor), Jose Ramires ( businessmen), Florentino Felipe (landlord), and Teodoro Pantoja (lawyer). Meetings of the Confradia were held on the 19th of each month, with Mass said by Filipino priest, Father Ciriaco de los Santos, and a thrilling sermon delivered by Hermano Pule.
The tremendous success of Hermano Pule aroused the envy and fear of the Spanish cura of Lukban, Fr. Manuel Sancho, who denounced him to the government authorities as “a heretic, an anti-Christian, and a filibuster”. Hermano Pule, with the help of his friend, Father de los Santos, petitioned the Bishop of Nueva Caceres, who exercised ecclesiastical jurisdiction over Tayabas Province, for recognition of the Confradia. The bishop, heading Fr. Sancho’s vigorous objection, rejected the petition. Similar appeals to Archbishop Jose Sequi of Manila, Governor-General Marcelino de Oraa, and the Royal Audiencia proved fruitless.
Infuriated by the religious intolerance of the Spanish civil and ecclesiastical authorities, Hermano Pule went ahead with his religious activities. The members of the Confradia went underground and held secret meetings. Despite government persecution, Hermano Pule’s followers increased to 5,000 mostly in the City of Manila and the province of Tayabas, Laguna and Batangas. On September 19, 1841, the Spanish Guardia Civil raided the secret meeting of the Confradia in Majayjay and arrested many members, including the fraternity’s secretary, Octavio Ignacio. Luckily for Hermano Pule, he was in Manila at that time. When news reached him of the Majayjay incident, he rushed to Pateros and boarded a sailboat which took him across the Laguna Lake to the town of Abe (Bay), where he assembled his armed followers, including those who escaped the Spanish raid in Majayjay.
As the head of his men, who were armed with bolos, bamboo spears, bows and arrows, anting-anting (amulets), and some old firearms, Hermano Pule marched overland through San Pablo, Tiaong, and Sariaya, and established his headquarters in Inlaying Isabang (between town of Sariaya and Tayabas). He unfurled his war flag and proclaimed his religious crusade. His followers, who were ready to fight and die for man’s right to worship God freely, hailed him as the “King of the Tagalogs” The tumult which began as a protest against Spanish bigotry escalated into an armed uprising for religious freedom.
Governor Joaqiun Ortega of Tayabas, with a force of 150 soldiers and some friars, attacked the war camp of Hermano Pule at Ilayang Isabang on October 23, 1841. The rebels fought with desperate valor and won the battle, routing their attackers and killing Governor Ortega. Hermano Pule’s victory was a veritable blow to the prestige of Spanish arms, and it enhanced his leadership. As a far-sighted leader, he knew that a stronger Spanish army would soon come. Accordingly, he transferred his war camp to Alitao at the foot of Mount Banahaw. He fortified this place, which was ideally situated, being protected “by a hill on one side and the Iyam and Ipilan rivers on two sides”.
Worried by the tragic turn of events, Governor-General Oraa hurled more troops against the rebels. At Alitao, on November 1, 1841, Hermano Pule made his last stand. His men fought valiantly, but they were overwhelmed and routed by the superior might of the enemy. Hermano Pule with some brave survivors, escaped. The Spanish victors destroyed the rebel camp and chapel, captured Hermano Pule’s flag and stored supplies and arms, and slaughtered more than 500 of his followers, including women and children. About 300 women and children were taken alive.
A flying column of Spanish troops pursued the fleeing Hermano Pule and overtook him in the barrio of Ibanga, Sariaya, on November 2nd. The religious crusader and his handful of courageous followers resisted, but in vain. He and his surviving men were captured alive, after a furious combat.
Hungry and tired, but with an unconquered spirit, Hermano Pule and his companions faced a Spanish court-martial in Tayabas town. They were promptly convicted of the crimes of sedition and treason and were sentenced to death. On November 4, they were executed near the town hall of Tayabas. Hermano Pule’s head was hung on a pole opposite his house in Lukban, near the road going to Majayjay. His two hands and two feet were displayed gruesomely at the four corners of Lukban.
Thus, Hermano Pule, the first Filipino crusader of religious freedom, perished in the finest tradition of martyrdom for a noble cause. For all his magnificent services and sacrifices for the God-given right every man to worship Him according to one’s conscience, he has remained to the present day – an unsung hero.