Penafrancia Festival: A Story of Devotion and Endless Love for Virgin Mary

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.

Naga: The Heart of Bicol

Naga: The Heart of Bicol
By Apolinario Villalobos

Two hundred years before the first shot of the American Revolution was fired in Lexington and Concord, Naga was already a Christian city as Ciudad de Caceres. It was a Spanish city founded in 1575 by Captain Pedro de Chavez, the commander of the garrison, whom the great Spanish conquistador, Juan de Salcedo left behind two years after the conquest.

The city was built across the river from the “native” community which was already thriving when Salcedo came who named the place “Naga” because of the abundance of narra, an indigenous hardwood. Later on, the Filipino “Rancheria” as the other side of the river was called then, and the Spanish city were merged when both came under the jurisdiction of the parish of San Francisco, one of the first to be established in the entire region in 1518, when the “Kabikolan” became the exclusive mission of the Franciscans. To distinguish it from the original city of Caceres in Spain which was the hometown of its incumbent governor at the time, Francisco Sande, it was referred to as the “Nueva Caceres”.

Some local historians aver that “Naga” came from a Malayan term “naga” that refers to dragon or serpent which even the ancient settlers of Pampanga and Tagalos use as a decorative figurehead on the prow of their boats. For the Islamic Filipinos, the “naga” refers to the undulating design that go with “okir” in their architecture and artworks found in brass and wood sculptures.

On August 14, 1595, Naga was made as the seat of a new diocese in the Philippines (Ecclesia de Caceres in Indis Orientalibus), and thus, was made the religious center, not only of the Bicol region but also of a territory that included parts of the southern Tagalog area and the eastern coast of Luzon extending to as far as Palanan in Isabela. Its being the religious heart of the region was further enhanced when Our Lady of Peῆafrancia became the patroness.

Naga lost its city status during the American regime. It became officially known as Naga in 1919. In 1948, however, it became a city once more, through the effort of Rep. Juan Q. Miranda. By then, it had long become a true heart of Bicol…the center of the region’s cultural, religious, educational, and government activities.

Naga is peopled by Bicolanos – hardy, proud, hardworking and adventurous. Their sense of adventurism brought some of them to as far as Cagayan Valley in the north and the Cotabato area in the south. They rival the Cebuanos in their penchant for music. They also have the best hand and taste as regards spicy and coconut milk-based culinary.

It is said that the real Bicol dialect is what those of Naga are using. This is the result of the frequent use of the dialect in Mass and religious literature during the Spanish era. The dialect is a fusion of Tagalog, Spanish, Waray and a sprinkling of Bisaya.

Aside from being the site of the popular Peῆafrancia festival celebrated for ten days starting on the second Friday of September, the city also boasts of old churches whose antiquity is compared to other old churches around the country. The baroque and sturdily built 400-year old Metropolitan Cathedral easily catches the attention of visitors because of is distinct architecture. During the Peῆafrancia festival, it becomes the temporary shrine of the image of the Lady to accommodate thousands of pilgrims, who cannot be possibly accommodated in the small shrine of the image, the Peῆafrancia Basilica Minore. Worth mentioning, too, is the San Francisco church in the heart of the city. It was built after the old one (built in 1578) was destroyed in 1915. It was once the center of activities of the Franciscan missionaries. It was here where the last governor of Ambos, Camarines province, surrendered to the Filipino troops in 1898. A massive circular structure made of bricks and which was once a vital part of the destroyed church stands as a remnant of what should have been a beautiful church of the city.

Naga is the prime city of Camarines Sur. It is also the jump-off point for interesting around the province, such Mt. Isarog, at the foot of which is Lake Buhi, particularly located at Cabatuan. Lake Buhi is the home of “sinarapan” (Mistichtys Luzonensis), the world’s smallest edible fish which measures approximately between 6 to 8 millimeters. A resort is located at Lake Buhi. Visitors should take time to visit Itbog Twin Falls and Malabsay Falls.

Other important landmarks of the city are the Holy Rosary Minor Seminary Museum where one can find artifacts such as burial jars, antique chinese porcelains, rare stones and ritual stuffs, antique religious objects and images; Peῆafrancia Museum, repository of religious objects related to the Marian devotion; the University of Nueva Caceres Museum, one of the oldest museums outside Manila; the Bicol Science and Technology Centrum, a science museum established in 1993 with the aid of the Department of Science and Technology; Metro Naga Sports Complex in Barangay Pacol with its Olympic-sized swimming pools, tennis courts and a track oval; and the Naga City Coliseum, the “Big Dome of the South”.

Nature trippers who are taking flights from Manila, use Naga as their jump off point for Caramoan and Donsol. Caramoan is the habitat of a giant lizard that caught the interest of researchers from other countries during the ‘70s, while Donsol is famous for butanding sightings.

The airport of Naga is located at Pili, and from Manila, it is between 35 to 40 minutes away. By land, it is 7 to 8 hours from Manila, via Quirino and Andaya highways or 10 hours via Maharlika highway.