History and Culture
What Makes Our Lady of Peñafrancia Proudly Filipino?
Choose Philippines | Sep 12, 2019
Story by Jessa Mylce B. Mella
Banner photo from the Instagram account of Albert Saludes Hate
The annual pilgrimage in honor of Our Lady of Peñafrancia can truly claim to be rooted in the history of the Bicol and the Filipino people. Throughout the years, the devotion of the Bicolanos to Ina (a local term for "Mother") as the image is fondly called, has been extraordinary, with millions of pilgrims flocking to Naga annually on the month of September as a pledge of faith and loyalty to the Heavenly Mother.
Reverend Father Francis Tordilla, a Church historian and the parish priest of St. Jude Thaddeus Parish in Naga City, explains it is driven by what the Blessed Virgin symbolizes: the ideology of a mother figure. “Who does not want a mother among them? Whether we call it animistic in nature, whether we call it a sort of superstitious belief, the presence of a mother will always be welcome," Fr. Tordilla relates, "I think, in every culture, this is universal because "mother" symbolizes protection, care, concern, sincere concern. You simply had to trust.”
The Bicolano's piety to Ina, is a transplanted devotion that has its roots in the Spanish colonial period. The original image was brought by a Spanish family who initially stayed in Cavite. The couple had a son named Miguel Robles de Covarrubias, but he was a sickly child. "Every time may (there is a) pain in his body, his sickness, he will always bring near his ailing body part the stampa of Nuestra Senora de Pena de Francia. He would immediately be healed," Fr. Tordilla recounts, "In his letter to the priory of St. Dominic in Spain, he was telling them that I am the miracle of all miracles of Our Lady of Penafrancia because I am a living testimony of all the healing powers of the Blessed Virgin Mary.”
Miguel went on to pursue a religious vocation, graduating from the Universidad de Sto. Tomas Seminary. He promised to build an image of the Blessed Virgin and a church in her name near the Pasig River. As fate would have it, Miguel was transferred to the Diocese of Nueva Caceres (the former name of Naga City) where he would ultimately fulfill his vow to the Blessed Virgin.
Apart from establishing settlements in the new colony, evangelization of the native inhabitants was another mission of the Spanish empire. According to Father Tordilla, the Cimmarones or the people living on the foot of Mt. Isarog became the first devotees of the Our Lady. “Cimmarones is a derogatory term for people who did not want to be under the Bajos las Campanas or the Spanish rule. I think they were already former settlers of the city, but they did not want to be under Spanish rule," he says, "That is why they were also called Remontados because they went back to the mountains and settled in there. They were the ones who initially requested for the image and a chapel where they could go every Saturday and attend the mass."
This early acceptance of the Blessed Virgin was a way for Father Miguel de Covarrubias to "rewrap” the Catholic faith in the clothing of another culture, to convey it in a vessel that will transport the meaning and beliefs of Catholicism to the locals. The early devotees may not want to be under the Spanish government, but they embraced the devotion to the Blessed Virgin, making it their own. “This devotion, no matter how it was imported or whether it has a Spanish origin, it acquired a local color," says Fr. Tordilla, adding that compared to the image of the Our Lady of Peñafrancia in Spain, the color of the image in the Philippines is different. The Philippine image was carved by a local talent who painted it with the blood of a dog. The decapitated animal was found alive, accounting for one of the first of numerous miracles attributed to the intercession of Our Lady of Peñafrancia, inspiring a devotion that would span more than three centuries. "It is something that is very unique to the Philippines,” says Fr. Tordilla.