Mondragon’s relatively cool climate – enhanced by a balmy sea breeze, lush forests on sloping hills – serves as natural attraction for locals and visitors to this suburban town of Catarman.
The fresh ocean mist from Samar Sean and clean air seems to have immediately drawn not just the missionaries of old but even today’s religious congregations, a number of whom have established their residence and mission bases in this bucolic town.
The town is gradually established a reputation as the Baguio or Tagaytay of the Province, with motorist traversing the road from the Pacific towns to the capital quick to note the nip the air in this part of the Samar Sea coastline.
On certain occasions too, there is a draft of a marine aromas – fish drying and aging in sea salt, san and sun – with the promise of hearty meals at the break or end of day.
The coastal settlement that is today the town of Mondragon was one of the earliest established in the entire island of Samar. Prior to the Spanish period, it was called Quinay, in honor of one of the first women settlers, who reportedly came from Palapag and chose to make her home on the midst of forestlands close to the Masaguipot creek, not too far from where the present poblacion is located.
Years later, however, with the arrival of Spanish missionaries fulfilling their task of introducing Christianity to the people, one of the friars assigned to minister to the people in the settlement renamed it Mondragon. It is the name of a town in the Basque province of Guipuzcoa in Spain, where the priest was said to have been born and raised.
On September 22, 1883, by virtue of a Spanish Royal Decree, Mondragon was recognized as a pueblo, under the rule and administration of Gobernadorcillo Juan Basarte. The title of pueblo then was equivalent to what is now the recognition given to a town or municipality. But the official title of municipality was given to Mondragon only in 1912, with the appointment of Santiago Chitongco as president municipal, the equivalent of today’s municipal mayor.
Vast plains and sloping hills
A feature of Mondragon distinct from other towns of Northern Samar is it terrain, consisting of fairly large tracts of plains and flat areas close to the coast, with gently sloping hills toward the interior Barangays. More than half of its agricultural lands are planted to coconut, abaca, banana, and rice, in that order of volume.
Mondragon’s forest lands are almost equivalent in size to its agricultural lands, roughly about 13,000 hectares each, which translate to more areas for possible eco-tourism, usually in the south, towards the forested town of Silvino Lubos and the hinterlands of Calbayog in the next province.
What the town shares with its neighbor municipalities, on the other hand, is the present dearth of roads leading to the upland Barangays, which may hold fascinating nature destinations but for now are not accessible even to the local folk.
Local tourist draws are largely concentrated close to the Maharlika Highway and the beaches along the town’s coastal Barangays. While the houses and chapels of various religious congregations that have made Mondragon their home or mission center are really not intended to be stopovers for visitors or tourists, they have become a pilgrimage site of sort for many devotees who happen to be in or passing by the town.
Some of them do provide lodging for volunteers coming from major Catholic schools in Metro Manila and foreign missionaries and volunteers.
Monastery in Mondragon
The most famous of the religious houses is the Monastery of Saint Clare in Brgy. Makiwalo. Within the sprawling compound, religious women of the Order of Saint Clare, also known as the Poor Clares have made their home, and a life devoted to prayer and reflection in perpetual adoration of God.
The monastery in Mondragon, one of 23 such monastery of Saint Clare in the Philippines, is tucked away by the side of the road, but its gates are perennially open during the day. The chapel, the most imposing structure on the landscape grounds, is surrounded by well-manicured orchard ad flowing garden, ideal for those looking for a lush and quit surrounding for quiet reflection.
The townsfolk speak with pride and awe of the monastery, some attributing to the chapel and the Sisters’ presence since 2005 the fact that devastating typhoons have miraculously and mercifully skirted the province over the past few years.
In another compound, just a few meters from the monastery, is Sophie’s Farm, the mission house of the Sacred Heart Institute for Transformative Education Foundation (SHIFT). It is one of the ministries of the Religious of the Sacred Heart, a congregation of women dedicated to promoting education, youth development, justice and peace, and volunteerism in Northern Samar.
Sophie’s Farm is a farm in the strictest sense of the word, with rows of organic vegetable plots planted to ampalaya, tomato, and eggplant, depending on the season. It is the foundation’s training farm for nearby residents, with their harvest sold to restaurants in nearby Catarman.
Almost next door to Sophie’s Farm is the Diocese of Catarman’s John Paul Seminary House of Formation. The seminary compound, located atop a hill in Alisyao Brgy. Makiwalo, has a vast, cool and breathtaking view of the town.
Beaches and islets off the highway
Like most towns along the northwest coast of Samar Island, the town of Mondragon has its share of white beaches and islets, ideal for water activities such as swimming, snorkeling, and kayaking. The most popular of them are Malobaroc beach in Brgy. Chitongco and the islets of Mombon and Hirapsan.
Malobaroc Beach is 25 minutes from Catarman airport and located close to the poblacion, which makes it a top-or-mind fun place among Mondragueños. It is accessible by land vehicle or a long leisurely walk over unpaved roads in summer. Not surprisingly, many foreigners have bought beachfront properties in Brgy. Malobaroc. This may augur well for the long-term development of the barangay, but many native Mondragueños are threatened by possible isolation from their favorite playgrounds in the near future.
Mombon Island is only a short three-minute ride by motorboat from the town proper. A traditional swimming destination, the islet is the tip of an atoll with stone pebbles of various textures and colors, similar to other pebble beaches common in the Pacific.
Hirapsan Island is seven minutes away by banca from the poblacion. At seven hectares, the island is larger in size compared to Mombon. It is surrounded by clean, crystal clear sea water and a white beach which makes it ideal for swimming and snorkeling.
It is also home to many species of migratory birds escaping a cold environment from distant places to warmer locations for food and nest. Their presence on the island makes it an ideal location for bird-watching. Environmentalist, however, are quick to caution bird enthusiasts to avoid disturbing them and cause undue stress during their migratory journey.