Peῆafrancia Festival: A Story of Devotion
and Endless Love for Virgin Mary
by Apolinario Villalobos
The Peῆafrancia festival is a manifestation of the Filipinos’ strong and unwavering Catholic faith. Miracles had made Our Lady of Peῆafrancia even more popular that account for the ever-increasing number of devotees who came from all over the country to pay homage every year during the festival in her honor. The 10-day festival is celebrated starting on the second Friday of September.
A bit of history about the image tells us that it was named after the mountain situated between the provinces of Salamanca and Caceres in Spain. It is said that the image was found by a French friar, Simon Roland, on a rock in that mountain, hence, “peῆafrancia”, because rock in Spanish means “peῆa”.
In the 17th century, the image was brought to the Philippines by Don Miguel de Cobarrubias, a Marian devotee. He built a chapel in Paco where the image was temporarily enshrined. His original plan was to have it enshrined in a church built by the bank of the Pasig River. But this was never fulfilled because he was sent to the Bicol region, particularly, Naga. He brought along with him, the image which he enshrined in the church that he eventually built in its honor.
In 1655, the Peῆafrancia Church (Peῆafrancia Basilica Minore, today) could no longer accommodate the influx of devotees, so the religious authorities thought of having it “transferred” to the much bigger Metropolitan Cathedral, days before the actual feast day. Thus, the traditional “Translacion” began. For the devotees, the festival actually starts on the day of the transfer, during which the image is carried on the shoulders of male devotees amidst the shouts of “viva la virgen”.
On the day of the image’s arrival, the cathedral begins to teem with devotees, some of whom still came from as far as Mindanao and Visayas. Among them are the sick that came with a hope to be healed.
Early in the morning of the following Saturday, a Mass is held, after which the devotees are allowed to kiss the image. As soon as the last devotee has kissed the image, preparations are made for its return to its shrine, the Peῆafrancia Basilica Minore. But this time, it is transported on a gaily-decked barge or “pagoda” as part of the fluvial procession on the river.
First timers like me who witnessed the activity are overwhelmed with awe in seeing the heartfelt devotion of the Lady’s followers, as they fill both banks of the river and the two bridges that span it. As the image is taken out of the cathedral, a heavy line of devotees follow it through the heart of the city, preceded by a band, white-robed male church attendants, priests and old devotees. The rest of the devotees join the tail end of the procession, with some of them on bare feet.
By the time shouts of “viva la virgin” are heard and barefoot male devotees clad in shorts and t-shirts with a strip of cloth tied around their head come into view, the onlookers should brace themselves for what will happen next.
A wave of devotees, mostly males clear the streets for the procession. The onlookers give way by staying on the side lanes for safety, lest they get trampled. The scene is similar to that of Quiapo’s Black Nazarene procession. Everybody wants to touch the image. To prevent untoward incidents, some of the devotees hold arms to protect the “voyadores”, carriers of the image, as their mobility is hampered by the crowd.
At the main riverport of the city, a colorfully-decorated “pagoda” awaits the image. On hand to escort it on its way back to its shrine is a long line of bancas. The streets leading to the river are all filled with devotees. The two bridges that span the Bicol River are also filled with crowds. During a celebration in the past, the bridge gave way and injured many devotees. The braver ones, dared to stay on the roof of houses that line the river banks just to have a glimpse of the famous fluvial procession.
As the image is nearing the river, chants of “ina co” (my mother) can be heard together with the shouts of “viva la virgen”. The sound of a siren signals the arrival of the image at the riverport to alert the boatmen. As the image is being loaded into the decorated barge, pandemonium breaks loose. The chocolate-colored river comes to life with splashes of water from the elated devotees. Confettis thrown by those crowding the bridge engulf the barge with the image, as the shouts of “viva la virgin” accelerate. Along the banks, the devotees wave their handkerchiefs and bandanas as the procession passes by.
The fluvial procession indicates the climax of the festival. But for the devotees, it doesn’t end there. Another link is added to their chain of devotion that enriches their lives. They know that they will never tire of coming back every year to go through the same ecstatic experience. For those who came for the first time, they know that the month of September will be marked for another rendezvous with the “Lady”. For them, a special kind of love for her has just developed in their heart, and they expect it to be nurtured with a faithful devotion.