Father Leo James English, C.Ss.R. is credited with leading the inauguration of the novena in Baclaran in June 23, 1948. He is more known, however, as the compiler and editor of two of the first most widely used bilingual dictionaries in the Philippines namely, the English–Tagalog Dictionary (1965) and the Tagalog–English Dictionary (1986).
Fr. English was an Australian Redemptorist who was born in Melbourne on the 8th, July 1907. He was ordained to the priesthood on 10th, March 1935 and was assigned to the Philippines in 1936 arriving on December 5th. He had been assigned to Lipa City and went there almost immediately. He soon had a working knowledge of the language and joined the Missions in the Lipa Archdiocese. He remained in Lipa until the Japanese occupation, when all the Australian priests and Religious were called to Manila and eventually found themselves in the concentration camp in Los Banos. While interned by the Japanese occupation forces at Los Baňos, Father English started compiling an English-Tagalog dictionary largely in response to a need which he had long felt for a thorough work of this nature.
After the war and a short break in Australia he returned to the Philippines and was stationed in Baclaran until 1950 when he was appointed Superior of the Redemptorist community in Lipa City. During this time he continued to work on the Missions but the dictionary, that he had dreamed of, was never far from his mind. So he continued his work on the dictionary. In the final stages, he secured the assistance of Dr. Jose Villa Panganiban, Director of the Institute of National Language, and Dr. Rufino Alejandro, then Assistant Director of the Institute, as well as many other Filipino friends. It was completed in 1965. When it was published in 1965 he then began the formidable task of producing a Tagalog -English Dictionary.
The English–Tagalog Dictionary (1965) was published by the Australian Government, and given to the Filipino people as a gift of friendship. In his preface the honorable Paul Hasluck, M.P. Minister of State for External Affairs of the Commonwealth of Australia said: Australians value very highly their friendly and sympathetic relations with the Philippines.
Fr. English’s dictionary was primarily a fruit of his missionary endeavors in the Philippines. Right at the beginning of his missionary assignment in the Philippines he committed to learning Tagalog. He understood fully well that to become a good missionary, learning the local language is a must. While on mission, he would gather every new Tagalog words. He also shared the words he collected to help his fellow Redemptorist missionaries in learning the language. After many years of going out in the mission and at the same time gathering new Tagalog words, he was able to gather several thousand Tagalog words to put into a dictionary. His efforts was supplemented by a scholarly method. Just like a linguistic anthropologist, he spent time working with language. His work was recognized by the Australian government that it agreed to partly finance it.
Near the end of 1973, he was transferred to Baclaran and from then on spent most of his time working on the second Dictionary. We have to remember that he had no access to a computer in those days and everything had to be typed, corrected and then re-typed. His main assistant was Teresita Castillo who faithfully typed all the manuscripts many times as they were corrected for typographical errors, inaccuracies in translation and accentuation. The second Dictionary was published in 1986.
The dual dictionaries of Fr. English pioneered the launching of many bilingual dictionaries and thesauruses in the Philippines. Fr. English’s dictionaries had been influential in the development and propagation of the Filipino language in the Philippines and abroad.
Until the day he died, he still worked each day looking for ways to improve his knowledge of Tagalog and improving the dictionaries if ever there should be a new revised edition. He died on the 19th, October, 1997 in Baclaran. He was 90 years of age and had spent 60 years in the Philippines. He did many other things during his long life but he will always be remembered as the Priest who wrote the Dictionary.
John Maguire, C.Ss.R.
(This article is an excerpt from the book National Shrine of Our Mother of Perpetual Help: Tips, Trivia and Tribute by John Maguire, Joey Echano, et. al., soon to be published)