Articles and Readings

The Veneration of Our Lady of Peñafrancia, How it Started in Los Angeles
(by Hermito San Jose, Jose Factora and Alice San Andres-Calleja)

In reading the tales of Granada and the Alhambra (remember the story of Zayda, Zorayda Zorahayda and the epic of El Cid), we usually take the readings as pure literary enjoyment of romance and adventure in old Spain. Scarcely have we paused to consider that those goings-on of yore have led to important consequences in our lives as Bicolanos, particularly in so far as our veneration of Our Lady of Peñafrancia has shaped our religious and cultural orientation. For without the Mohammedan invasion of Spain, we would not be celebrating the Peñafrancia fiesta.

The Peñafrancia Story

Devotion to our Lady of Peñafrancia may well be said to have started at the turn of the 18th century when the young Spanish Cavite-born Padre Miguel Robles de Covarrubias was assigned to Caceres (the old name of Naga City) by the incumbent Bishop who had ordained him, Msgr. Andres Gonzales, O.P.

But the devotion, Spanish in origin, can trace its history too much earlier than the 18th century.

From the archives of the Spanish shrine in Salamanca, the story is recorded of the French Franciscan Lay-Brother, Simon Vela, and of his successful discovery -- after a wearying search of five long years - of an ancient image of our Lady, long-hidden on top of the rocky mountain called Peña-de-Francia, on May 19, 1434. Through his effort, a shrine was constructed by the Dominican Fathers from whose ranks in the late 16th century would come missionaries to the Philippines bringing with them this particular Marian devotion.

 

It was not a Dominican priest, however, who introduced this devotion to Bikol. The young Spanish "Caviteno" was a secular priest. As a seminarian in the Dominican University of Santo Tomas, he had conceived a great personal devotion to the Blessed Mother of God under this particular title. The recipient of constant favors from our Lady, he had vowed to build a shrine to her by the Pasig River. But Divine Providence decreed otherwise. He was called to Caceres and there, by the bank of another river, he would have his vow fulfilled.

The first Peñafrancia shrine built by the Bikol River (more or less on the same site where the present one stands), a bamboo-and-nipa affair, was surely a far cry from the stone church envisioned by Padre Miguel in his seminary days. But from the outset, Heaven would manifest the divine seal of approval. A wooden image had been diligently carved after the original at Salamanca. Fresh blood was needed to dye it. A dog was slaughtered and the carcass thrown into the river. The sight must have been so pathetic it moved Padre Miguel to utter a fervent wish. Those who heard him laughed, but not for long. The lifeless carcass was suddenly seen swimming for shore and shaking itself, the dog ran back to its master's house -- sound and frisky as ever.

 

This was the subject of a report made by Padre Miguel to the Father-Custodian of the shrine at Salamanca in 1710. Cited as eye witness of that particular event were three Dominican Fathers. Two subsequent letters dated 1711 and 1717 reporting other prodigies at the Bikol shrine were received in Salamanca. Even in his lifetime, Padre Miguel had the satisfaction of knowing that God was looking with favor on his work of propagating his particular devotion to the Blessed Mother. Before he died (c.1723), Padre Miguel had intensified his efforts at spreading this Marian devotion among the Bikolnons. And the stone church he had envisioned by the Pasig River was now a reality in Bikol.

The present-day Church of Peñafrancia is not the one built by Padre Miguel but seems to have been the construction of Bishop Isidro Arevalo in 1750. The image of our Lady, above the main altar, is still the very same one carved in Padre Miguel's time and thus is some 254 years old, and -- all told -- she has seen some twenty-two occupants on the Episcopal See of Caceres.

 

As with her 15th-century servant, the Franciscan Simon Vela, Padre Miguel did not seem to have been favored by many apparitions of our Blessed Mother. At Guadalupe, Lourdes, and Fatima -- the three great international Marian shrines of Christendom -- such apparitions were recorded. Roses bloomed in midwinter on the barren hill of Tepeyac for Juan Diego; water gushed forth from the earth for Bernadette Soubirous at Lourdes; and the sun danced for the three little seers (Jacinta, Lucia, Francisco) at Fatima. But Naga is just as blessed. For here, in the heart of Bikol, flanked by Labo and Isarog, Mayon and Bulusan, God has chosen to place a special shrine for His Blessed Mother, and here, as in Cana of Galilee, Christ works His miracles of faith and grace at the intercession of His Mother.

Now, the Virgin of Peñafrancia is permanently and safely enshrined at the Basilica where countless devotees come at all times of the day and all days of the year especially during her feast day, the third Saturday in September. Bicolanos from all over look up to the Virgin of Peñafrancia as their Patroness and "Mahal na Ina".