Miguel Purugganan prepared for the priesthood first as a high school seminarian in Vigan, Ilocos Sur, then at the University of Santo Tomas, in Manila. He was ordained in Rome in 1957. Subsequently, he took a doctorate degree in canon law at the famous Jesuit Gregorian University in Rome. He completed the degree with the highest honors (summa cum laude). He proceeded to take another doctorate degree, this time in theology, but he was unable to complete it because he received orders to return to the Philippines.
His first job as a priest was as seminary prefect of discipline. Then, in succession, he became a bishop’s secretary, an assistant parish priest, a seminar rector, a vicar-general of the diocese of Tuguegarao, auxiliary bishop of the diocese of Nueva Segovia, and finally, in 1974, bishop of the diocese of Ilagan. At 39, he was considered young for the post. He held the post until 1999.
Priests who studied with him remember him as a caring person, someone who fought for the rights and welfare of fellow priests and seminarians, while keeping the respect of seminary authorities. His students from his Latin classes also respected him, remembering him as someone strict but gentle.
As bishop, he became a strong presence in the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP). He was chair of its commission on lay apostolate, and a member of its commissions on canon law, and on social action. He was also a member of its Permanent Council.
His most significant contribution as church leader rose from his involvement in social action work and his determined defense of human rights under the brutal Marcos regime. This was at a time when his country in general, and his diocese in particular, was wracked by fear and uncertainty, as a result of martial law.
Popularly called Bishop Mike in his diocese and Apung Mike by his priests, Bishop Purugganan is remembered as one of seven bishops who denounced martial law and the Marcos dictatorship when the regime was just beginning. This earned the bishops the tag the “Magnificent Seven.”
Bishop Mike opened diocesan programs to respond to the regime’s repressive policies, particularly to help the poor defend themselves against the regime’s abusive policies. Among these programs was the Community-Based Health and Development Program (CBHDP), which the military charged was a front for communist activity.
He built up his diocesan staff for social action in the communities. These diocesan workers soon joined the regime’s “wanted list” in Isabela. When some of them were arrested and hauled to the military camp for their work, Bishop Mike pursued them there, confronting military authorities and demanding his workers’ release.
Farmers and priests in Isabela cite Bishop Mike’s very strong support for farmers in the province who, under martial law, were struggling to keep their control over a huge tract of land. The land, spanning some 11,000 hectares, was being claimed by the very powerful Marcos crony, Eduardo “Danding” Cojuangco and Cojuangco’s business partner, Antonio Carag, who wanted to convert it to agribusiness uses. Some 20,000 peasants were affected, but the peasants did not readily give way. They took a stand.
Marcos himself sent soldiers to the province to harass the farmers and force them to surrender to Cojuangco’s schemes. For many months, armed soldiers and private guards terrorized the villagers in the two haciendas, arresting and beating up farmer leaders, burning villagers’ houses, and generally sowing fear among the people. All too concretely, martial law made itself felt in Isabela.
Luckily for the farmers, they were not left to fight their battles by themselves. Many church people, led by the Bishop of Ilagan himself, gave aid and support. Bishop Mike placed the entire social action network under his office to help the farmers’ struggles. One day in December 1981, he led over 50 priests, nuns and members of the media to pay the haciendas a visit, evading fully armed soldiers and private guards who sought to keep visitors out.
Bishop Mike and most of his staff were placed under constant military surveillance. Days after the Aquino assassination in 1983, soldiers raided Bishop Mike’s residence in Ilagan and another nuns’ residence nearby. They sought but failed to find firearms and individuals who were on their “wanted” list. Far from being cowed, Bishop Mike denounced these raids.
On the national scene, Bishop Mike helped found the Basic Christian Communities – Community Organizing (BCC-CO) program, and was the program’s chair for many years. The BCC-CO became acknowledged as one of the most effective ways that church people had been able to empower parish communities by teaching people their rights and interests, urging them to struggle for their true aspirations, and to resist the chilling effect of martial law. The BCC-CO encouraged communities to make the regime accountable for its excesses, and often led in demanding a stop to the militarization in the countryside.
Bishop Mike showed other church people how they could act with honor to resist an unjust regime, serve one’s people, and remain fully in the grace of their faith. He served as bishop of Ilagan for 25 years, retired in 1999 and died in 2011 after a stroke.