Påle' Tardio saying Mass right after liberation by the Americans in the summer of 1944
(Notice the tattered sleeve of the altar boy's cassock)
Before the war, Spanish Jesuits were in charge of the Catholic Church in Saipan and Luta (Rota). Tinian did not have a Chamorro community there (except for a few men working there on and off) and didn't have a church.
Unlike Guam, with its ten priests and a bishop, Saipan's population was small enough (around 4000) to warrant only one priest, sometimes assisted by a Jesuit brother. There were also, since 1928, Spanish Mercedarian sisters working on Saipan.
From the early 1930s on, there was one priest for all of Saipan, whose name was echoed on that island up to the present age by the older people : Påle' José Tardio. He had tremendous influence over the people, who were at the time extremely devout Catholics.
Påle' Tardio was born in southern Spain. He was a short man, but his personality was large. He knew everyone in the community and spoke Chamorro.
Like many priests in those days, he was strict. If he saw a member of the Hijas de Maria, the association for young, single women, dancing, he would go straight up to her and remove her association medal from her neck. Wearing lip stick was also a major transgression. One elderly lady told me the story how her family bought a record player, a luxury in those days, and how her brother wanted to play Japanese records (what else?) right away. She, however, cautioned him, "Adahe! Yanggen ha hungok si Påle' Tardio, ha kastiga hit siempre!" "Be careful! If Påle' Tardio hears it, he will surely punish us!"
For a brief stint in the mid 1930s, Påle' Tardio exchanged places with the priest of Luta, Father Juan Pons. But that was only for a couple of years, perhaps just to give both priests a change of scenery, and then they went back to their respective places. Påle' Tardio would always be the "Påle' Saipan" and Pons the "Påle' Luta."
Some time before the war started in 1941, the Japanese imposed restrictions on Påle' Tardio's priestly activities. Mass could be said only on certain days and at certain times, usually at hours the Japanese knew the people could not attend. His sermons had to be examined by the Japanese, submitting them in writing in advance.
Eventually, with the war in full swing, he was more or less put under house arrest. Only the sisters and a few lucky Chamorros were able to attend Mass most days of the week.
The Japanese sometimes paid visits to the priest, and some unpleasant conversations ensued. It was a form of psychological intimidation.
Although Spain was not a participant in World War II, the Japanese believed that Spaniards, being white Christian Europeans, would favor the United States over the Japanese. If Påle' Tardio was not an active spy yet, he would certainly help the Americans one way or another, the Japanese thought, especially if the Americans land and the priest comes in contact with them.
In 1944, with American ships and planes threatening Saipan, the Japanese requisitioned the Catholic priest's house. He and his companion, Brother Gregorio Oroquieta, had to pack their few belongings and find shelter with some Chamorros in their ranch houses.
When the American invasion of Saipan began, Påle' Tardio, Brother Gregorio and the sisters met up and moved from place to place, accompanied by some Chamorros. Hungry and parched, they slept on the ground, sometimes without even a small cave for shelter. One of the sisters was wounded, and Påle' Tardio gave her absolution from a distance while the fighting continued.
One of the first things some Americans did, especially the Catholic chaplains, was try to locate any Catholic clergy or missionaries. "Where is the priest? Where are the sisters?" they would ask. Finally, a Chamorro said he knew where they were and escorted some Americans to find them.
Once Påle' Tardio and the rest were safely in American hands, Påle' Tardio resumed his shepherd's role among his traumatized people. Chamorros and Carolinians were put in their own refugee camp in Susupe in the southern part of Saipan, while the battle continued in the north of Saipan.
The Spanish Påle'Tardio and the American Catholic military chaplains formed a tight bond right away. What he and the Chamorro and Carolinian people wanted most was Holy Mass, which the Japanese had taken away from them. The military chaplains made it possible for Påle' Tardio to offer Mass once again among his people.
Påle' Tardio under better circumstances well after the liberation, when a decent chapel was able to be built