Viva La Virgen

Viva La Virgen! A History of the Fiesta of Our Lady of Penafrancia

Today, our Lady of Penafrancia will sail back to the Basilica via the Bicol River through a fluvial procession. Read about the history of Ina and one of the most amazing experiences of collective faith.

Fr. Rex Alarcon is the Director of the Naga Parochial School, teaches at the Major Seminary and is President of the CEACEL. (He also blessed the Spiral Sun office in Naga when we opened a few months ago.)

Viva La Virgen
Viva La Virgen

History of Our Lady of Penafrancia
by Fr. Rex Alarcon

The History of Ina, or more properly, the History of our Devotion to Ina is our story. Such story affords us a collective consciousness as a ‘Pueblo amante de Maria.’ The same story affords us a sense of identity. At the mention of the term ‘Bicolano’, the thought of Peñafrancia, if not Mayon, immediately comes to mind and when ‘Penafranc
ia’ is mentioned, the Bicolano or ‘Bikol comes to mind.

Allow me to give some preliminary remarks on our celebration. I shall begin with an explanatory note on the reckoning of our celebration.

A. The Reckoning and the Source of the Beginning of the Devotion

The Reckoning. I have received comments from colleagues and historians, inquiring or even critiquing our reckoning of the Tercentenary of our devotion from 1710. According to some of them, designating the date 1710 may be misleading since the devotion may have started earlier. Or perhaps the image was carved earlier. Or probably the church was completed before 1710.

My reply to these: we are not saying that the image was carved in 1710. Nor are we saying the church was built in that same year. What we are saying is based on the letter of Fr. Miguel which states: “When the chapel was finished the image of Our Lady under the title Pena de Francia was brought there in a procession. Lo, there it granted numerous favors to all; it was visited by everyone, more so every Saturday during Mass. Two children were brought back to life; countless afflicted were cured at times through the invocation of its name, at others upon anointing with oil from its lamps.” (Dated May 1, 1710)

Obviously, this does not say when the chapel was built nor the image was carved. But it certainly speaks of the presence of the devotion. As by 1710 the chapel was already completed, an image was already done and given the title of Peña de Francia, there was already a procession, there were people who were receiving favors and were paying homage to the Virgin every Saturday at Mass. Clearly, these are elements of a devotion.

Outside this text, one can only guess: maybe the image was carved in 1707’. Another may say; ‘perhaps 1708’. In the absence of proof or a document, all other dates are but guesses. The closest would be a deduction from historical circumstances. Besides, it should also be noted that the carving of the image does not necessarily point to the existence of a devotion of a people or community.

And why 1710? because it is the only document at hand. As far as I am aware, no one has even found yet any document that can indicate to us the exact date of the construction of the Church and the carving of the image. But with the letter of Fr. Miguel, are pretty sure that by 1710, there is already a devotion. Thus all the other dates, we can simply guess. In the absence of documents and proofs our narratives will only be filled with: ‘probably’s, could be’s, maybe’s.’ Where the ‘probably not’ is also probable. Nevertheless, we recognize that the task of the historian is not simply to enumerate a list of people, places and events but to engage into the task of interpreting all these.

The Source of our data. The main source of the history of the devotion is Bishop Francisco Gainza who wrote the history, the ‘Agui-agui kan Santuario kan Paramilagrong ladauan ni Ina.” Thus goes the Bikol title. This was however, written 156 years after 1710 as he published his work in 1866.

We rely on Gainza’s work, whose competency ranged from being an ethnographer, to an expert in Canon Law and Latin – a university professor at the University of Santo Tomas, a scientist, a chronicler and missionary to what is now Vietnam and Nueva Vizcaya, the greatest bishop of Nueva Caceres.

It was unfortunate that he could not find documents on the origin of the devotion in the diocesan archives. Such lacuna led him to inquire from Spain. An inquiry that consequently led to the information about the letters of Fr. Miguel Robles de Covarrubias and traced the origin of the devotion to the Lady of Pena de Francia to Spain. And indeed, in Caceres, Spain one finds a sanctuary of the Virgin of Peñafrancia.

We cannot but express indebtedness to Gainza. We have often repeated that at the moment, only best source of the story of the origins of the devotion to Nuestra Señora de Peñafrancia is Gainza. So that without Gainza’s story, we may not have a story. We too are indebted to Fr. Miguel who wrote letters describing the devotion and his personal travails.

B. The History of Ina as a Spiritual Tradition

The History of our Devotion to Ina can be considered not merely as secular history but a history of a spiritual tradition, although not in similar terms as the spiritual traditions of the Franciscans, Dominicans, etc. It is a story that has to be seen from the viewpoint of spirituality. By saying thus, I am not speaking of something entirely supernatural or out extraneous. ‘We must realize that all human attempts to respond to the initiative of God, that by particular historical, social and cultural contexts and that spiritualities embody specific social values and commitments’. (Sheldrake, p. 58)

It is with this background that we call ourselves a Marian People. This invites us to probe deeper on what does it mean to be Marian? How has this affected our lives as a people and as a church? Here we may further ask: ‘what does it mean to be Marian?’ In seeking the answer to this question, it may well be asked as to how the masses or the ordinary devotee understand the term. For all we know, they may not even be concerned about the term.

Such that, the following may well be a more fundamental and intelligible question: ‘What does devotion mean? Ano an boot sabihon kan pagigin deboto? How does the church present devotion? How did the devotees and voyadores view devotion? For isn’t it true that the History of Ina is also the history of her devotees?’

Tracing once again course of the devotion through history, we come face to face with the changes that have accompanied the growth of the devotion. We can enumerate the following: the growth in the number of devotees; the birth and increase I number of Penafrancia Associations; the multiplication of images; the accounts of healing; the Pagsongko ni Ina; the evolution of the andas and the pagoda; the additions to the processions, e.g., the Traslacion and the Fluvial; the establishment of the Cofradia de San Jose; the social and economic aspects of the festivities; the increase in the number of churches/parishes dedicated to the Lady of Peñafrancia; the parades, pageantries, and other civic and cultural activities that have accompanied the celebration; the discourse in the nature of the fiesta; as well as the tragedies related to the devotion.

Certainly periodizing, dividing history according to themes, determining common characteristics are but artificial. Nevertheless we seek, as the historian does, to see the inter-relatedness of these things. Still, there is a wide field to explore in the History of the devotion to Ina which has also become for us a cultural heritage.