Origin of the Chamorro Protestant Congregation on Guam

Origin of the Chamorro Protestant Congregation on Guam

Luís Custino, 1902
Luís Custino, 1902

The first Protestant missionaries on Guam were two Chamorro brothers, Jose and Luis Custino, who came to the island from Hawai’i in 1899. The Custino brothers’ surname was actually Castro, of the “Kaban” branch of that family. They had left Guam many years prior, during the Spanish era, on the whaling ships and, after their travels, eventually settled in Hawai’i. By this time, both brothers had become Protestant. Hearing that their birthplace had become an American territory, they decided to return to Guam to evangelize.
The Custinos made a few converts within a short time in the northern part of the island and started the first Chamorro Protestant congregation by August of 1899. They converted the Flores Brothers, including Jose (Enko or Cabesa) who later served as the Congregation’s leader. They also made contact with fellow whaler, Jose Mendiola Taitano (Cueto). The Cueto and Cabesa clans had five marriages that produced hundreds of children and grandchildren, many of who continue to attend the Baptist Church that their elders had helped establish.
The community worshipped in the Custino home in Hagåtña. Help came from Major A.C. Kelton, the Protestant Marine chaplain, and William Coe, originally from Samoa, who had acquired land in Adelup.
At the same time that the Custino brothers began their evangelistic efforts on Guam, the American Board of Commissioners for the Foreign Missions also began to take an interest in Guam. The Board was connected with the Congregational Church and had its offices in Boston. The Board had a historic link to Micronesia, supplying Protestant missionaries in the area since the 1852. A mission in American Guam was thought to present advantages to the Board’s work in the whole region.

First Chamorro Protestant families

Early Chamorro Protestants, 1902
Early Chamorro Protestants, 1902

The Reverend Francis M. Price and his wife were sent by the Board to Guam, arriving on November 27, 1900, more than a year since the Custinos had laid the foundations of the Chamorro Protestant community. Besides the Flores and Taitano families some of the prominent pioneer Chamorro Protestants were the families of Tomas Cruz Gutierrez, Manuel Flores Torres, Jose, Joaquin, and Jose Guerrero Flores, Jesus Fausto Cruz, Jose and Vicente Manajane Taitano, Ramon Diaz Sablan, Jose Diaz Sablan, Joaquin Indalecio de Leon, Juan Pangelinan Guerrero, Manuel Ulloa and Vicente Arceo.
Land at Adelup was acquired for the Protestant mission. In time, houses for the American missionaries and Chamorro caretakers and school rooms were built. Worship services continued in Hagåtña, but the Adelup location was considered better than the crowded neighborhoods of the capital. A single woman by the name of Channell assisted the Prices for a short while. The Price’s daughter and son-in-law, Reverend and Mrs. Arthur C. Logan, also assisted in the Guam mission for a brief period.
Besides leading church services, Sunday school and evangelizing, the Prices taught school, especially since English classes were attractive to some Chamorros. Price also started to translate the Gospels and Psalms into Chamorro with the help of several Chamorro Protestants. The Gospels and Psalms in Chamorro were later published by the Board. In 1903, the mission was officially organized as the Iglesia Evangélica de Guam (Guam Evangelical Church). It totaled sixty-one members. A small mission in Inarajan, under the care of Jose Aguon Flores, was also begun.

Social isolation, taunts endured

The emerging Protestant mission faced many challenges. The overwhelming Chamorro reaction to the mission was negative. On some occasions, rocks were thrown at the Protestant buildings. But the greater opposition came in the form of verbal taunts and social isolation. The Spanish Capuchin friars on Guam at the time forbade their flock from any interaction with the small Protestant community.
Relations with the U.S. Naval Government, which at times could be neutral or somewhat positive, could, at other times, be strained. In December, 1903, Governor William Sewell issued an order forbidding religious preaching in the streets, which hampered the evangelistic work of the Protestants. It seems the Naval Government, though officially neutral in religious matters, did not want to upset the Catholic majority. There were some complaints by the missionaries that the small American community on Guam did not support the mission enough and, at times, even behaved in ways harmful to the mission’s reputation.
In 1905, Reverend Herbert E.B. Case and his wife replaced the Prices as head of the Protestant mission. In Case’s view, the mission had grown stagnant by then and had little hope for any further significant progress. His opinions prompted the Board to start evaluating its presence on Guam. Episcopalian missionaries working in the Philippines were asked to consider taking the Guam Protestant mission, but Episcopalian Bishop Charles H. Brent, visiting Guam in 1909, declined. The Board closed the Guam mission in 1910.
Before leaving Guam, Case appointed Jose Flores to lead the congregation. However by the following year, a new Protestant denomination was willing to assume care of the Guam mission. The General Association of General Baptists, centered in Oakland City, Indiana sent Reverend and Mrs. Arthur U. Logan to Guam in 1911. Under the Logans, the Hågatña church was renovated with concrete walls. A mission station was started in Umatac under Vicente Taitano. Eventually, the mission facilities at Adelup were given up. Just before the Logans left Guam for a new assignment, the renovated church was dedicated in 1922.

Joaquin Flores Sablan ordained in 1935

Rev. Joaquin Flores Sablan
Rev. Joaquin Flores Sablan

The Baptist congregation was then led by Reverend and Mrs. D.R. Thomas (1922-1925), Reverend and Mrs. A.L. Luttrell (1925-1928) and Reverend Dale Tennison (1928-1930). When Tennison left Guam in 1930, the General Baptists did not send a new pastor to Guam from the mainland. In 1935, however, Joaquin Flores Sablan, whom Reverend Luttrell had accompanied to Oakland City for schooling, returned to Guam as the first ordained Chamorro Protestant minister. Another Chamorro, Manuel de Leon, was also educated in the mainland under Baptist auspices but did not return to Guam to become a pastor.
When the Japanese occupied Guam during World War II, Reverend Sablan moved to Yigo and, from there, traversed Guam to attend to his scattered Baptist congregation. After the war, a new church was completed in Agana Heights in 1955. The missions in Umatac and Inarajan eventually closed but new congregations were started in Yigo, Agat and Talofofo after the war.
By Eric Forbes, OFM Cap.

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For further reading

Forbes, Eric, OFM Cap. “The Origins of Protestantism on Guam.” In Guam History: Perspectives, Vol. 1, edited by Lee Carter, William L. Wuerch and Rosa R. Carter. Mangilao, GU: University of Guam Richard F. Taitano Micronesian Area Research Center, 1997.
Pesch, William D., Esq. “Praying Against the Tide: Challenges Facing the Early Prostestant Missionaries on Guam, 1900-1910.” Master’s thesis, University of Guam, 2000.
Sablan, Joaquin F. My Mental Odyssey: Memoirs of the First Guamanian Protestant Minister. Poplar Bluff: Stinson Press, 1990.
Reference Guampedia.com