‘Hidden’ Sto. Niño for 300 years to rise
More than the flamboyant dancing and merrymaking that every year engulf the streets of Pandacan in honor of the Sto. Niño, this tiny, ancient district in eastern Manila has all the trappings of what its parish priest calls a “Little Nazareth.”
While it is known that its patron saved the town from being crushed by Spanish colonial troops in the 1890s, Pandacan’s story has been overshadowed by the more spectacular tales of the miracles wrought by the Holy Child in other parts of the country, including another old Manila district to the north, Tondo.
But parish priest Fr. Lazaro Abaco believes that after being unknown and “hidden” for hundreds of years, the Sto. Niño de Pandacan will rise and begin to “do its public ministry” come Nov. 23, its 300th anniversary.
“If you look at it with a spiritual eye, it’s just right because if you look at the Nazareth experience, Jesus was hidden for 30 years. In our case, it is 300 years of hidden life of Jesus in Pandacan,” Abaco said in an interview.
A Buling-Buling (vernacular for “polished” or “well-prepared”) dance festival and a solemn High Mass officiated by the new Manila Archbishop Luis Antonio Tagle were held Saturday to kick off Sunday’s Feast of the Sto. Niño, usually marked by far more extravagant parades in other regions of the country.
Sunday’s festivities were part of a string of activities that the parish has prepared in the run-up to its tercentennial anniversary celebrations in November.
From ‘Little Italy’
According to Abaco, the grand occasion will bring to mind how Pandacan—previously depicted as “Little Italy” for its many estuaries leading into the Pasig River—became a “Little Nazareth” to a centuries-old wooden image of the Holy Child that was found among clumps of vegetation by a muddy pool where carabaos wallowed.
As the story is told, sometime in the 17th century a group of children playing in the sleepy barrio suddenly spotted a mahogany image of the Sto. Niño among some pandan reeds that thrived near a waterhole.
In his book, “The Child of the Pandan Reeds: The Spiritual Journey of the Santo Niño de Pandacan Parish,” Abaco quoted a passage from a narrative by historian Ricardo Mendoza:
“The children were startled and [they] stopped playing, then admiringly gazed at the small and beautiful image. In a moment, they all felt terrified, and some knelt and prayed because it crossed their mind that this may be the image of the Holy Child.”
According to Abaco, there could only be one plausible explanation for how the image ended up there: it may have been part of the cargo carried by a ship plying the galleon trade between Manila and Acapulco, Mexico, during the Spanish colonial period.
A storm that often disturbs the Pacific Ocean may have sunk or destroyed the galleon, and the currents may have swept the image into the Pasig River leading to one of its arteries in Pandacan, which was then part of the parish of Sampaloc.
“The discovery of the little statue of Sto. Niño was only the start in the train of miraculous happenings,” Abaco wrote.
Over the years, some elders of Sampaloc attempted to transfer the image to their parish church following the discovery. But strangely, the image always found its way back, reappearing at the very site where it was discovered.
After this peculiar reappearance, residents began to revere the site, building a nipa hut to enshrine the miraculous image. The water hole frequented by carabaos was eventually turned into a well, where a natural spring thrives to this day.
Eventually, the Franciscan friars and the townsfolk had a stone chapel built on the hallowed spot, also incorporating the well. This was finished in time for the formal creation of the parish of Pandacan in 1712, when the district was ecclesiastically separated from the Loreto Church of Sampaloc.
The original stone chapel was destroyed by powerful earthquakes in the 1800s. The renovated structure and the well, which existed until the early years following World War II, had to be demolished because of the expansion of Jesus Street into a major road.
It was revived sometime between 1951 and 1971 when Msgr. Guillermo Mendoza was the parish priest.
Though parishioners continue to believe that the well is a source of healing water, the parish has advised them not to drink it after the water tested positive for impurities.
To avoid further contamination, Abaco had a replica of the well constructed in the inner part of the church property near the Blessed Sacrament Chapel, redirecting the flow of the water from the original spring.
The wooden image of the Sto. Niño remained enshrined in the stone chapel even after the church that took nearly 30 years to build was finished in 1760.
It was only transferred permanently to the church in 1906 when the church compound and the convent, taken over by revolutionary priests of the Iglesia Filipino Independiente (the Philippine Independent Church, more commonly known as the Aglipayan Church) in 1902, were legally reclaimed by the Archdiocese of Manila.
Aside from the miraculous healing among sick devotees and the protection the Holy Child had offered to Pandacan during the revolution, the Sto. Niño was also believed to have performed other wonders in the town.
When a massive fire struck near Pandacan in 1911, a priest placed the image on a church window facing the sea of flames. Suddenly, the wind changed its course, saving the town from what could have been a tragedy.
The image is also known to have averted an explosion after troops of the United States Armed Forces in the Far East (Usaffe) supposedly ignited oil tanks in Pandacan before retreating to Bataan on Dec. 18, 1941. It also reportedly healed a boy named Mark of a threatened blindness in April 2002.
“[But] most often, the Sto. Niño comes to us as He is, a child in His way—unobtrusive, ordinary, simple, hidden in the guise of a little boy,” said Abaco.
He said residents often spot a curly-haired and dark-skinned boy, his plump face smeared with dirt, roaming the streets of Pandacan—recalling the wooden image caked in mud when it was found among the pandan reeds 300 years ago.
The boy, who frequents the church patio, is seen mingling with people and talks to them as if he knew what was going on in their lives. “Residents believe that this little child is their beloved patron, the Sto. Niño,” said Abaco.
Aside from these stories, the Holy Child is also believed to have healed the age-old rift between the Iglesia Filipiniana Independiente (IFI) and Catholic parishes in the area.
Another icon exists
Unknown to many, one of the festering issues between the two church communities was the existence of another icon of the Sto. Niño—an ivory image brought by the Franciscans and installed as the patron of the IFI church in Pandacan.
“Both community of believers, the Catholic and the Aglipayans, [were] vocal about their claim that their image of the Sto. Niño was ‘the original,’ implying that the other image is not authentic nor worthy of veneration by Christian believers of the town,” noted Abaco.
Somehow, the argument has been settled with this piece of history: at one point, when devotees did not want the wooden image of the Child Jesus to be removed from the stone chapel, the ivory statue was installed as the centerpiece icon in the main church after it was built in 1760.
(The IFI, founded by a Catholic priest and revolutionary named Gregorio Aglipay gained many adherents by exposing the venality of the Catholic clergy and by canonizing heroes of the Philippine revolution. After breaking from Rome in 1902 and a five-year campaign to take over Catholic Church properties in the Philippines, the IFI acquired nearly one-half of Church properties in the country. In 1906, the Supreme Court ruled that all properties of the Roman Catholic Church that had been occupied by Aglipay’s followers had to be returned to the Church.)
The ivory statue was later installed at the IFI Sto. Niño Church after its priests were expelled from all Roman Catholic churches following the Supreme Court order.
A caretaker, an IFI adherent who grew attached to the ivory image, was said to have brought it with her at the time of the expulsion, which prompted the IFI priests to build a separate chapel, which still stands today on Central Street.
“Clearly then, both the wooden and the ivory images are ‘original icons,’” said Abaco.
The hostility between the two churches ended in 2007, when both agreed to jointly participate, for the first time, in the colorful Buling-Buling festival and grand procession held yearly on the eve of the Feast of the Sto. Niño.
“Before that [turning point], we made sure that our respective parades didn’t run into each other or else there will be a commotion … you’ll see sacristans of the two churches hitting each other with their candles,” Abaco recalled with a chuckle.
Two icons reunited
But following the reconciliation, the Buling-Buling festival has always been an anticipated event among devotees, wherein they witness the meeting of the two icons of the Sto. Niño like two brothers reunited after being estranged for centuries by war and religion, said the priest.
Happy about the reunion, the small district has been abuzz with stories about the sight of two children—one dark and the other fair—playing in the neighborhood in the early evening, noted Abaco in his book.
“When twilight gives way to the night, the two young boys disappear into the dark … townsfolk surmise that the toddlers are the ivory image of the Sto. Niño enshrined in the IFI church and the dark image in the high altar of the Roman Catholic church perhaps echoing their longing to pray and worship as children, Romanos and Aglipayans, of the same God,” he wrote.
First posted 12:20 am | Sunday, January 15th, 2012
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