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Another Montemaria shrine rising in Batangas City

/ 08:09 AM March 08, 2014

Healing priest Fr. Fernando Suarez INQUIRER PHOTO

SAN PEDRO CITY, Philippines—The ambitious project to build a Marian shrine with an 88-meter-tall statue of the Virgin Mary—taller than the Statue of Liberty on Liberty Island in the middle of New York Harbor and the Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio de Janeiro—was initially a joint venture between Catholic priest Fernando Suarez and a private holdings company in Batangas City.

The construction of the shrine on the uphill property called Montemaria in Batangas City is under way but “it has absolutely nothing to do” with Suarez or his Mary Mother of the Poor (MMP) Foundation, according to Hermilando Mandanas, former governor of Batangas and member of the House of Representatives.

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At least not anymore, after Suarez, known as a “healing priest,” moved to Cavite province sometime in 2010 when San Miguel Corp. (SMC) offered him a 33-hectare property in Alfonso town, more than six times bigger than the 5-ha lot in Batangas City donated by Abacore Capital Holdings Inc., a real estate holding company, for the same project.

Mandanas, Abacore chair, said the statue and the pilgrimage site were located inside Abacore’s 100-ha property overlooking the Verde Passage.

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“I wanted it stressed that it was not a personal donation but of the corporation,” he said in a phone interview on Friday from the Montemaria pilgrimage site.

Mandanas met Suarez in July 2006. An acquaintance, he said, introduced him to the priest who was a native of Taal town and a former junior engineer at Eduardo “Danding” Cojuangco’s United Coconut Chemicals Inc. in Bauan town, both in Batangas province.

Mandanas said Suarez was asking for a prayer room.

“I told him that there were already a lot of healers in the Philippines and that if he wanted to make a difference, why don’t we put together a project, an attraction. In business [parlance], it’s called the marginal advantage over the other healers,” said Mandanas, who claims to be a Marian devotee.

He said it was his idea to build a pilgrimage site where Suarez could perform healings.

Abacore donated property and “advanced P1 million” to Suarez for the “start-up.”

“Before, it was just one hectare, then it became three, then five,” Mandanas said.

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He said an altar was built and a tent was pitched, and Suarez started to hold healing sessions there.

The project seemed to be going well at first because by 2009, Suarez’s foundation was able to collect around P200 million from donations, Mandanas said.

But the plan to build the Marian statue and develop the pilgrimage site did not move.

Lipa Archbishop Ramon Arguelles, in a phone interview on Friday, said meetings were held with Suarez in 2010 but the priest failed to present a blueprint or development plan for the pilgrimage site.

“The whole idea [was that] he wanted it bigger. By 2010, [MMP] received an offer from Danding Conjuangco (chair of SMC) for a 33-ha lot in Cavite,” Mandanas said.

It was also in that year that a Filipino-Canadian family volunteered to build a healing chapel for Suarez in Montemaria.

The chapel, now called Sto. Niño Chapel, was constructed, although it failed to serve its original purpose because Suarez had already left.

“The donor was angry because he left [for Cavite]. They threatened to sue [Suarez], so [sometime in 2010 or 2011], he reimbursed whatever amount was spent [for the chapel]. That’s why the donor did not press charges,” Mandanas said.

Asked how much the chapel cost, Mandanas replied, “I heard around P85 million.”

He said he did not know where the money for the reimbursement came from.

After Suarez moved to Cavite, Mandanas put up Montemaria Asia Pilgrims Inc. (Mapi), a nonprofit organization, to pursue the pilgrimage site project.

The donation of the property to MMP was “canceled” and the property was later donated to the Archdiocese of Lipa, he said.

Under Mapi and the archdiocese, the shrine is now called Mary Mother of All Asia, with the statue’s face and hands already developed by national artist Ed Castrillo.

The pilgrimage site is expected to be completed by Dec. 8, 2015, according to Mandanas.

“It was my idea to build the Mama Mary [statue], so it’s also my right to push through with it,” Mandanas said.

He said, however, that fewer devotees had been coming to the place since Suarez left.

Asked about his present relations with Suarez, Mandanas said: “No hard feelings. I understand that it’s his choice. What can I do?”

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