Shrine of Peñafrancia needs help

Shrine of Peñafrancia needs help 
By Walter Ang
April 16, 2007
Philippine Daily Inquirer

Barely twenty years has passed since its last renovation but the Shrine of Our Lady of Peñafrancia in Naga City, Bicol is once again in dire need of repairs. "When it rains outside," said Ninfa Saballegue, "it also rains inside."

Saballegue, chairperson of the shrine's pastoral council, explained that the church's internal wooden supports and trusses are being eaten away by termites, causing structural weaknesses. "Half the year is rainy season and it is difficult to maintain cleanliness because the floors become wet and muddy. The chandeliers cannot be lighted because of fear of shorting out the electrical circuits."

Further aggravation has been inflicted by numerous typhoons, the latest of which were typhoons Milenyo and Reming last year. With not much to go on, the council has spearheaded repair efforts under the aegis of Most Rev. Leonardo Legaspi, O.P., D.D., Archbishop of Caceres, and Rev. Fr. Gerardo Hernandez, the shrine's parish priest.

The council's vice-chairperson Ester Elopre said, "We would like to fast track the repairs, but we desperately need funds." The council is full of women like Saballegue and Elopre who have been working to hold raffles and contests, selling commemorative items, and generally drumming up awareness.

"Every little effort helps but we're not a very big group," said Elopre. "We'd like to get at least the structural repairs done so that parishioners can have a comfortable and safe place to worship. Later on, we hope to raise enough funds to continue with the interior repairs."

While the stone façade of the church stands strong, it's missing a baluster. Also, the painted mural on the ceiling is pockmarked with holes, broken tiles pepper the floor, and the sacristans' ready room has blown-out windows covered with plastic trash bags.

The shrine's current state belies its rich history and lore. Originally made of nipa and bamboo, it was built in the early 1700s by Miguel de Cobarrubias, vicar general of Nueva Caceres (Naga). This Dominican missionary had pledged to build a church to honor the Virgin of Peñafrancia and was finally prompted to do so when fugitives and slaves requested a church for their needs. They wanted a church near the river so they could sneak in and out on their boats without alerting the authorities.

Devotion to the Virgin of Peñafrancia originated in Spain, where a Frenchman named Simoun Vela, following what he claimed was a divine voice, found an old image of the Virgin in a small Spanish village. A miracle related to the construction of the church established the devotion to the Lady of Peñafrancia in the Philippines.

When Cobarrubias commissioned a wooden statue of the Virgin, the sculptor needed blood to color it, so a dog was sacrificed. When the animal's carcass was cast to the river, Cobarrubias is attributed with saying, "The Virgin will work her first miracle in Nueva Carceres. She will bring back to life that innocent animal that gave the blood for her." The dog is supposedly to have started swimming and ran back up to its master's house.

The church was eventually replaced with a stone structure and has undergone modifications since then. An ornate façade donated by the local Chinese community was stripped down and made to look more austere in the late 1870s along with an expansion of the church's length. Chandeliers were donated by Spanish families in the late 1880s.

Malice and miracles
The shrine has had its share of mystery as well. In 1981, the statue of the Virgin disappeared from the altar. It reappeared a year later in Manila in five separated pieces. After confirming the authenticity of the image, it was returned to Naga amidst a roiling typhoon. It is said that the skies cleared and the moon shone during the one hour celebratory mass but became stormy again after the mass ended.

When major renovations were done in the late 1980s, the mural was discovered to have been painted on galvanized iron sheets. The sheets were so rusted that attempts to peel them off only crumbled them to dust.

Despite the loss of some undocumented details like the mural's original design (created by artisans from Pampanga), accounts from that particular renovation has a trove of little miracles. The chandeliers were discovered to be hanging from completely rotted wood that would have given at any moment. Donations would come at opportune times when the coffers ran dry and suppliers needed to be paid. Materials needed for construction appeared mysteriously and totally unaccounted for.

Fit for a queen
The stories from the last major renovation inspire the council ladies in their endeavor to bring the shrine back to its former glory. "We're trying to reach out to Bicolanos throughout the country and abroad to help us generate the money by way of any contributions they might be able to share," said Saballegue.

To this end, the council has been holding brainstorming sessions to come up with new activities to raise money. They've been brushing up on their shrine history so they can share more engaging stories to pique people's interests. Exploratory talks are underway to stage a fundraising dance-concert later this year featuring homegrown talents and with the possibility of an international performer.

"The renovation is a manifestation of our devotion to Ina, the Patroness of Bicolandia. No matter where they are, many Bicolanos come home every September for the feast of Our Lady while pilgrims and devotees come and visit her throughout the year," said Elopre. "We are simply responding to the parishioners' spiritual well-being and to have a home befitting a Queen for Our Lady."

For more information or to support the renovation efforts, email or call (054) 473-8468.