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CEBU—At exactly 8:12 a.m. on Wednesday, at least a thousand Catholic devotees stood in silence for about a minute in the middle of the Mass at the pilgrim center of the Basilica Minore de Sto. Niño in downtown Cebu City.

They then lit candles and offered prayers for the 223 people who died in Bohol and Cebu when the two provinces were rocked by 7.2-magnitude earthquake at 8:12 a.m. of Oct. 15, 2013.

“Together, we mark this day with prayers of remembrance, of healing and guidance,” said Fr. Jonas Mejares, rector of the basilica who presided over the Mass with concelebrating priests.

“The images of the tragedy of Oct. 15, 2013, are still so vivid in our minds and senses. As we look back, we remember the lives of those who died so tragically,” he said.

Since the basilica’s centuries-old belfry was destroyed by an earthquake, an audio recording of bells ringing was played before the Mass started.

A Eucharistic celebration was also held at the Cebu Metropolitan Cathedral Wednesday morning for all those who perished in the earthquake.

Wake-up call

Mejares, whose uncle in Loon town, Bohol, died when the Our Lady of Light parish collapsed during the quake, urged the faithful to find meaning in the tragedy.

“Of all places in the world, why did the earthquake hit Cebu or Bohol? Why us? Why did God allow this to happen?” the 50-year-old priest asked.

But Mejares said God is capable of bringing good out of bad instances in life.

“Last year’s earthquake was a wake-up call for us. It has opened our eyes to the many realities of life. It has reminded us of death; that everything in this world is passing, and that there is nobody more significant than God,” he said.

Mejares said people should learn to “upgrade their faith” and to move on.

“The earthquake that we experienced last year was a test of faith. Let us be reminded that God’s ways are not our ways, and that His plans are not our plans. We could not fully understand God. Our brain cells are not enough to understand Him. But we know that He’s one with us in our sufferings,” he said.

Despite the damage caused by the strong quake, Mejares said there are reasons to thank God.

“We’re so blessed. For me, it was a miracle that no one got killed when the belfry crumbled. You know how many people gather in front of the basilica everyday.

Until the rubbles were removed, I could not believe that no one was badly hurt,” he said.

The basilica is home to the Sto. Nino de Cebu image, which was given as a gift by Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan to Cebu’s Queen Juana in 1521.

The current structure was built in 1735 and completed in 1740.

But after the earthquake, the basilica has been closed to the public. Daily masses, however, continue at the Pilgrim Center in front of the church.

Pre-restoration activities, which include the installation of scaffoldings, braces and shoring to shield the people from falling debris and to protect the structure itself from further damage, are in progress under close supervision of the Augustinian fathers and the National Historical Commission of the Philippines (NHCP).

Big challenge

The big challenge now is to restore the belfry, the crowning glory of the basilica.

In 2015, the Augustinian fathers, who supervise the basilica, will celebrate the 450th year of the finding of the Sto. Niño image in the ruins of a village in Cebu, the presence of the Augustinian friars in the Philippines, and the 50th anniversary of the church’s title as a “minor basilica” designated by the Vatican.

Fr. Mejares said restoring the basilica’s belfry isn’t likely to be completed in time for the grand celebration next year.

“The task at hand is really very hard. We’re doing our best to finish it as soon as possible. But the process used in restoring the belfry is very meticulous. If we commit one mistake, we may end up losing more parts of the church,” he said in an interview.

A detailed engineering study will be conducted to help heritage experts assess the site’s soil bearing capacity, among others.

Depending on the result of the DES, Mejares said they can re-open the basilica to the public by the end of November or first week of December.

At the Cebu Metropolitan Cathedral, Msgr. Ruben Labajo said they expected to finish restoration work in December since they were about 80 percent done.

“The facade and bell tower of the cathedral have been restored. Workers are just finishing corners inside the church,” he said.

The Cebu Metropolitan Cathedral is among the pilgrimage sites for the 51st International Eucharistic Congress, which will be held in Cebu City from Jan. 24 to 31, 2016.

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