Within A Former Military Fortress, Zamboanga City Finds Faith & Devotion
Choose Philippines | Oct 23, 2019
Story and photos by RJ Rosalado
Amid the scorching heat and scores of people gathered at the Fort Pilar Shrine, Helen Gamboa, a mother of two, patiently queued from outside the fort to reach one of the fort's corners, where she lit a candle and silently offered a prayer. She has been asking for guidance and protection for his family, she said, to spare them from serious illnesses. Her devotion to Nuestra Señora La Virgen del Pilar started when she was young, influenced by her parents who were also devotees of the city's patroness saint.
Every 12th day of October, thousands of residents flock to the Fort Pilar Shrine to attend a special mass and offer a prayer, as the City celebrates the Feast of the Our Lady of Pilar. The local government lined up several activities to highlight the month-long festivities, reflecting on the City’s rich culture, tradition, and historical significance.
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How did the devotion of Zamboangueños to Nuestra Señora La Virgen Del Pilar start? Local historian, Icelle Borja gave her standpoint: how this faith and devotion grew over the years and how folktales of miracles added to the believers' fidelity to the city's patroness saint.
Fort Pilar was built by Spanish colonizers in 1635, in a bid to get rid of Moro pirates and sultans of Mindanao. It was a military defense fortress, located strategically to defend against local intruders and pirates. However, the Spaniards abandoned the fort in 1646, after an attack launched by the Dutch forced them to help fight Chinese pirate Koxinga, who earlier defeated the Dutch. In 1669, the Jesuit missionaries rebuilt the fort after it was destroyed by local pirates.
Years later, in 1719, the Spaniards rebuilt the fort, expanding its land area and renaming it Real Fuerza de Nuestra Señora del Pilar de Zaragoza, in honor of the Spain's virgin patron saint, Our Lady of the Pillar. In 1734, the Spanish colonizers transported the relief of Our Lady of Pilar from Spain and placed it above the Eastern wall of the fort. This was also when the Spaniards introduced Christianity to the locals, thus, starting the devotion to the Lady of Pilar.
The faith and devotion of the locals grew over the years, beyond the influence of the Spanish colonizers. Icelle shares that there were several miracles in the past associated with the saint, which she believes became the springboard to the faith and devotion manifested by residents today.
It was on 6 December 1734 when the Virgin Lady made an apparition to a sentinel warning him of a pirates' attack. Though aghast, he quickly checked the fort's vicinity and true to the words of the mysterious lady, he saw scores of Moro pirates who started swarming near the military fortress. The lady was said to be carrying a child.
In 1896, a strong quake shook Southern Mindanao areas. A lady apparition was witnessed by several people off Zamboanga City, floating in mid-air. Many believed that the woman was protecting the city and its people from a total catastrophe.
Eighty years later, on 17 August 1976, another strong and devastating earthquake hit southern Mindanao, including Zamboanga City. Icelle said several people saw a mysterious lady floating mid-air across Basilan strait. The woman raised her right hand, as if stopping the big waves from rampaging the coastal areas of Zamboanga. In the aftermath of the quake, thousands of people were killed, hundreds of thousands were left homeless in other areas of Mindanao, but Zamboanga City was spared from massive devastation.
Icelle relates that in recent times, the latest apparition occurred during the infamous 2013 Zamboanga siege, when MNLF rebels led by their founder Nur Misuari, infiltrated some coastal villages and started an almost a month-long standoff. This left hundreds dead and thousands homeless. Amid the war, some government soldiers saw a woman carrying a child along the vicinity of Fort Pilar shrine. The lady asked permission from the soldiers to enter the war zone so that she could get her personal belongings. The soldiers agreed to the request of the woman but were astounded when they took a second look at the woman's feet entering the war zone, as she seemed to be floating on air. The soldiers never saw the woman again.
It was also a bit surprising and unexplainable when a mortar round hit the altar of the shrine during the war, but it didn't explode. Some people said it was one of the manifestations of the miracles of Our Lady of the Pillar.
Although the present generation of faithful believers did not have the chance to witness the supposed miracles manifested by Our Lady of Pillar, they still lean on a strong foundation of faith, carrying a sense of value and responsibility to preserve and protect this religious tradition in the years to come.