By Alexandra Zavis
8:57 PM EST, November 17, 2013
TACLOBAN, Philippines — In the chaos after Typhoon Haiyan, Malou Cabiao had lost all track of time. It was only when she heard church bells ringing that she realized it was Sunday.
For the first time since the monster storm swept through the central Philippines on Nov. 8, the 22-year-old nurse washed and dressed for church.
As a priest offered prayers for the storm's victims, Cabiao sat at the back of Santo Niño Church, fighting back tears.
"Hold on to your faith, be strong, and Tacloban will rise again," the Rev. Isagani Petilos told his flock. But Cabiao and the other parishioners didn't have to look far to see the scope of the task ahead.
Rain poured through blown-out windows and gaping holes in the roof, soaking the broken pews. Worshipers opened umbrellas and lifted their voices in song.
Survivors of one of the worst storms on record, many of them homeless and grieving over lost loved ones, sought solace Sunday at ruined churches in Tacloban and other hard-hit cities. More than 80% of the country's 100 million people are Roman Catholic, a legacy of Spanish colonial rule.
The Philippines' main disaster management agency said Sunday that 3,681 people were confirmed dead across the country with 1,186 still missing. The number is expected to grow, as bodies buried beneath the rubble are recovered.
President Benigno Aquino III arrived in Tacloban, where he is expected to stay for the time being — although it was unclear where he might find suitable lodging. Virtually every building in the city was damaged or destroyed in the storm; there is no running water and electricity is available only via diesel generator.
Speaking to reporters, Aquino said that though there has been some progress in the aid effort, he is not satisfied. A massive response by the international community is beginning to ease some hardships, but many people remain in desperate need of housing, medical care, food, water and other necessities.
"We really want to ease the burden of everybody as soon as possible. As long as I don't see any more improvements, we'll stay here," Aquino said, referring to his official team. There has been rising criticism of Aquino's government for its handling of the disaster.
In better times, worshipers would fill Santo Niño Church for Sunday Mass and spill outside its ornate iron gates, now dangling by their hinges. This week, the church was less than half full, its parishioners scattered by the storm known as Yolanda by Filipinos. Many were surprised to learn that services were being held at all.
When the storm hit, Cabiao sought shelter with her sister-in-law and two nieces at Tacloban's Astrodome sports stadium. Fierce winds battered the seafront building, shattering the roof and sending rain and debris pouring down on the frightened people below, she said. Rescue workers shepherded the evacuees into the basement. But then the building was hit by storm surges, sending everyone racing up into the stands.
"We thought it was the end," she said.
Her brother stayed behind to try to save their house. But when the water started to rise, he broke into a neighbor's vacated three-story home and weathered the storm there. The family was reunited the next day at the Astrodome. But when they went home, there was nothing left, Cabiao said.
They are now living with a co-worker of her brother, a bank security guard. Cabiao wonders how they will recover. But as she knelt in prayer Sunday, she quietly offered thanks that her family remains intact.
Fifteen-year-old Brandon de la Cruz was on his way to a food distribution center when he noticed that a service was underway and slipped inside.
"It feels good" to be back, he said. "But my city is destroyed, and I don't know if it can recover quickly."
The priest, Petilos, who lives in a compound that was devastated by the storm, told his flock to "clap for Jesus Christ." God will always be on their side, he said.
He invited them to add the names of lost loved ones to a list posted at the back of the church, so that the congregation might pray for their souls. By the end of the morning service, there were 175 names on the list. Worshipers clustered around it, looking for the names of missing friends and family.
After Sunday's service, Petilos joined two other priests from Santo Niño at a hilltop cemetery, where more than 780 bodies have been deposited in a communal grave. The priests sprinkled holy water over the bodies and prayed for their souls.
"Many of their relatives don't even know they are buried already," Petilos said.
The priests praised the handling of the bodies, which they said was being done with respect. They also praised the strong stomachs of those doing the work. Nine days after the storm, the corpses are decaying rapidly, and the smell is overpowering.
"We hope we can come up with a more decent memorial when the relief efforts have finished," Msgr. Alex Opiniano said. "And perhaps we can better assist the relatives emotionally, spiritually and, I don't know, maybe even materially."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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