Msgr. Fred Bitanga: Beloved pioneer of Filipino apostolate in archdiocese
February 15th, 2016
By Catholic San Francisco
The unexpected death Feb. 3 of Msgr. Fred Bitanga, retired pastor of St. Patrick Parish and the first priest entrusted with the Filipino apostolate in the Archdiocese of San Francisco, brought an outpouring of prayers from around the world, many expressed in hundreds of comments and shares on Facebook. He had been a priest for 51 years.
Msgr. Bitanga’s death at age 82 following an outdoor Mass at the International Eucharistic Conference in Cebu was posted on the Archdiocese of San Francisco’s Facebook page. Within days, the Facebook page had nearly 70,000 views, 756 likes, 470 shares and 217 comments, many from former parishioners of St. Patrick and St. Joseph in San Francisco as well as from St. Joseph in Pinole, where he lived after retirement.
“Monsignor Bitanga … you are a legend, you will never be forgotten,” wrote Carol Orduna. “Every time I attend services at St. Patrick, I always seem to see you.”
“God bless your soul, Monsignor and may you rest in peace,” wrote Milagros Valdez. “So grateful for all the blessings on our wedding day (9/08/1979) at St. Patrick’s Church. Thank you Monsignor Bitanga for the great memories.”
“Monsignor Bitanga pretty much baptized all the SF natives I know including myself. May he rest in peace,” wrote Greg Gilvison.
Father Raymund Reyes, archdiocesan vicar for clergy, served as Msgr. Bitanga’s associate pastor at St. Patrick’s 1998-2003. The time went quickly because they were so busy, he recalled. “One of the strong traits that he had was to welcome the Filipino immigrants and bring the celebrations, especially the devotions that we are familiar with, to St. Patrick’s,” said Father Reyes, including Santo Nino, Simbang Gabi and Tuesday devotion to Our Lady of Perpetual Help.
Many Filipino immigrants, when they first come to San Francisco, live on Natoma Street in downtown San Francisco before they get jobs and move to Daly City or the East Bay, Father Reyes said. The parish also served families in about five senior complexes, as well as tourists, and those working downtown who enjoyed the fact the church was busy during the week as well as on weekends. “The parish grew. As a parish, it welcomed everyone,” Father Reyes said.
That includes bishops, even cardinals, and priests, who knew they would find hospitality at St. Joseph, where Msgr. Bitanga was pastor from 1982 until it closed in 1994, and then at St. Patrick where he was pastor until he retired in 2006, said Father Reyes.
Msgr. Bitanga caught pneumonia concelebrating Mass at the International Eucharistic Conference, and then suffered a series of heart attacks at Cardinal Santos Medical Center in San Juan City, Metro Manila, Philippines where he died, according to the archdiocese.
Born July 19, 1933, in Pampanga, Philippines, Msgr. Bitanga studied at seminaries in the Philippines and was ordained April 11, 1964 in Dagupan City for the Archdiocese of Lingayen-Dagupan, Philippines where he served there in roles including superintendent of schools until coming to the United States where his parents and additional family already lived in 1969.
Msgr. Bitanga was incardinated into the Archdiocese of San Francisco June 24, 1974 and served as parochial vicar at parishes including St. Monica and St. Joseph in San Francisco as well as St. Augustine in South San Francisco.
In 1981, Archbishop John R. Quinn named Msgr. Bitanga coordinator of the Filipino apostolate of the Archdiocese of San Francisco acting as a liaison between the archbishop and the Filipino people.
In 1982, he was named pastor of St. Joseph Parish and in the years that followed coordinated the visits of many priests and bishops to San Francisco, said the Office of Vicar for Clergy in a statement.
Msgr. Bitanga was named a Prelate of Honor by Pope John Paul II with the title of monsignor March 27, 1989. Archbishop Quinn wrote to him later that year, stating, “Our archdiocese is particularly blessed by the presence of many faith-filled Filipinos who constantly enrich our church community with their resplendent traditions of faith and spirituality. Your ministry has been a source of inspiration to the Filipino community and I join them as well in expressing my best wishes.”
In 2013, Msgr. Bitanga took up residence with family in Pinole.
Survivors include brothers Rudy and Cesar, and sister Elizabeth Lagade.
A funeral Mass was to be celebrated Feb. 18, 10 a.m. at St. Mary’s Cathedral, Gough Street at Geary Boulevard, San Francisco, with interment at Holy Cross Cemetery, Colma.
Remembrances may be made to the Priests’ Retirement Fund, One Peter Yorke Way, San Francisco 94109.
From February 18, 2016 issue of Catholic San Francisco.