By MEG WATERS     4/9/2024

When recently married, Beverly and Mark Johnson planned a trip to the Philippines to meet Beverly’s family; neither realized that their vacation would also be a journey that revealed their shared religious, family and historical connections.


One might call them “God Moments.”

Beverly grew up in Ormoc City, on the island of Leyte. Like most Filipinos, her family is deeply rooted in Catholicism.

“My Catholic faith has always been very important to me and my family,” said Beverly. “My family was very poor; my mom ran a store that sold baskets, and everyone in the family worked from 5:30 a.m. until 5:30 p.m., seven days a week.”

On the other side of the world, Mark grew up in a Lutheran family in Colorado. The couple met in Dallas. As the relationship became more serious, Mark went through RCIA to be received into the Catholic Church. The process took about three years, partially due to some confusing jurisdictional issues between the Diocese of Dallas and Ft. Worth. Still, eventually, the couple were married in the Church.

From Dallas, the couple moved to Orange County and are now parishioners at San Francisco Solano Catholic Church in Rancho Santa Margarita.

The first order of business for the new couple was to introduce Mark to Beverly’s Filipino family, who lived on Leyte Island. That is also where their family histories began to align.

In 1521, near the end of Magellan’s historic circumnavigation of the world, he had just landed on Philippine soil, sealed a blood compact with the local leader and ordered the ship’s only priest to celebrate Easter Mass and plant the first cross on the island.

Interestingly, this Easter Sunday, March 31, is the same date as that first Mass 503 years ago. It was celebrated on Limasawa Island, a small narrow strip just south of Leyte. In fewer than 100 years, the Philippines were predominately Catholic.

At the time, the religious practice on the archipelago was a combination of Hindu-Buddhist, Muslim and indigenous practices. With the arrival of the Spaniards, Catholicism quickly spread, and for centuries, it has been the most predominant Christian country in Southeast Asia.

Although the site of the first Mass is fewer than 100 miles from Beverly’s childhood home, she had never visited it before her trip with Mark.

“Until the Spanish came,” Beverly said, ” we were boat people; we didn’t have a system of roads to get around.”

Beverly said the Spanish developed roads and infrastructure.

“Seeing the cross marking the site of the first Mass, I thought about what it must have been like for the participants,” said Beverly. “If Magellan hadn’t landed on the islands, we would likely be Muslim or Hindu. I rediscovered how important my Catholic faith was to me at that moment.”

The first God Moment.

Mark’s story begins 425 years later, just offshore Leyte. The Battle of Leyte Gulf was the largest sea battle of World War II and possibly the largest naval battle of all time. His father, Dean Johnson, USN, was aboard one of the nearly 400 Allied and Japanese ships and 200,000 soldiers and sailors locked in a fierce three-day battle. It was the turning point in General MacArthur’s campaign to retake the Philippines from Japanese control.

“I discovered my father’s diary from the war just before leaving on the trip,” recalled Mark. “I brought it with us, but the surprising part was realizing that he was so close to where Beverly’s family lived.” Mark’s father’s diary entry during the battle: “We were patrolling off the coast of Leyte when the lookout spotted what was believed to be mines. We were called to general quarters and dispatched to destroy the mines.”

Mark read his father’s words as he looked at the sea and imagined the battle raging.

“I tried to see and imagine what it was like. I was there on December 26, 2023, and 79 years before, Dad was on that same shore on December 26, 1944.” That was God Moment number two. The God Moments continued as they visited the islands by boat and car – a “baptism by fire” driving in the Philippines, recalled Mark. Retracing the steps of Magellan and MacArthur, absorbing the deep Catholic faith on the island, including daily Mass the beautiful choirs, Beverly and Mark reflected on the importance of family rooted in faith. Their last Mass on the trip was New Year’s Eve, “The sermon today was all about family…The Bible says that God has named every family in heaven and on earth (Eph 3:14-15), giving us the freedom to love the people he has assigned to us. The priest said that our families can be a great blessing through which we experience love, provision and community.”

The most significant God Moment came with the revelation that two families from vastly different backgrounds could discover shared ties. These are the signs that God linked their lives long before they were born.