Ahia Ben, my friend

My ahia Benjamin Sim studied animal husbandry, taught biology in Davao, and became spiritual shepherd to many Tsinoy Catholics. As the first-born son in a Tsinoy family, the path to priesthood for him took determination to follow.

Ahia was tapped to join the family retail business, and his choice to become a priest met with strong objections from Papa (Sim Ka Chiong).

Our parents emigrated from Amoy, Fujian to the Philippines. Papa was a merchant, and through hard work and persistence became successful.

With no formal education, he started up businesses which culminated in a department store on Escolta Street, in Manila.

After World War II, Escolta was Manila’s primary business district and Sim’s Department Store was a prestigious department store.

Father Ben with the children of Maya Daang Bantayan during Stella Maris project turnover of boats to local fishermen on May 4.

Meanwhile, Ahia graduated magna cum laude in Animal Husbandry from Araneta University. As a young man, he was a popular bachelor. He was president of the Jane Powell (a popular American actress at the time) Fans Club in the Philippines.

So, when he said he was joining the priesthood, Papa could not understand. He asked Ahia: “You are good looking and you are bright; why do you want to be a priest?” And when Ahia joined the novitiate and refused to go home, Papa threatened to sue the Jesuits for kidnaping.

With Papa making trouble for the Jesuits, Ahia finally went to Mama (Marcela Yap) and said: “You have always said that you want only the best for me so I will be happy. I will be happiest in joining the priesthood. So why don’t you let me?”

Eventually, our parents let him go.

Ahia becoming a priest had a profound impact on our parents. It led to a radical transformation for our father.

Papa once said that he was proud of his western name Paul. Because just like St. Paul, he started off by rejecting God but later advocated the faith.

Once, he even half jokingly bragged that he was guaranteed a place in heaven: he has special connections up there because his eldest son is a priest.

Papa became very active raising funds and getting the support of other Chinese businessmen to build St. Jude Parish in San Miguel, Manila. He did the same thing with Xavier School in Greenhills, San Juan.

They became very active members of the St. Jude Parish where they became officers of the parish council, Catholic Womens’ League, and Men’s Association.

They became active in the Cursillo Movement, a weekend program like the Christian renewal movements. They went to the provinces and even to Taiwan and Hong Kong to give talks and train the locals to continue the program there.

Father Ben with his family during his ordination.

Papa was not educated in school but he was a natural storyteller. He had a gift for languages so that he could speak Hokkien, Mandarin, a little Cantonese, Tagalog and English. He helped train speakers, volunteered as an auxiliary and took care of the singing, dancing and entertainment.

Ahis is passionate and driven. Once, as a biology teacher in Davao, he had brought his class to the beach for a few days to study marine life. When he returned, he was bothered by his sunburn so much he went to see a doctor, who said what he had was second degree burns, not an ordinary sunburn people get at the beach.

Ahia also knows how to help people remember.

I remember when he, still a school teacher, tried to establish rapport and relationship with me by making me bonggo drums from empty tennis ball cans and frog skins. I was thrilled and a bit grossed out at the same time when playing the frog skin bonggo drums he gave me; there were frog toes still sticking out the side!

That made a lasting impression. It must have been at least 50 years ago, and yet I still remember the drums and see the frog skin and toes clearly in my mind.

Generous and kind, he is always thinking of how and what to share with friends and neighbors. He will even borrow money just to help others who are in need. He has helped many people – including scholars and employees – in many places where he has been assigned, such as Cebu and Zamboanga cities.

Ahia will readily give you the shirt on his back if he thinks you need it. I have received shirts from him even when I did not need them. I know they are good shirts he likes because when I received them they had his name on them.

Recently, when my wife went to Daan Bantayan in northern Cebu to visit the fishermen and see the boats from the Stella Maris project, he noticed that my wife needed a hat for protection from the searing sun. He readily gave to my wife the hat he was wearing.

My ahia, my friend. — First published in Tulay Fortnightly, Chinese-Filipino Digest 28, no. 3 (July 8-21, 2014): 10.

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