By Wililam Freer, former Schools Superintendent of Camarines Sur
At the time of the fire, preparations were being made by the towns – people of Nueva Caceres for the celebration of the great annual Bicol religious festival in honor of Our Lady – Nuestra Señora de Peña Francia. Of festivals there are many, and at no time of the year is there lack of homage to the Virgin. A very pretty ceremony known as the Las Flores de Mayo takes place during the first days of May. Altars in the homes of the leading families are prepared and prettily decorated. Before these in the late afternoons after family prayers little girls dressed in white stand in line and repeat eulogistic verses addressed to the Mother of God and throw bright colored flowers at her statue at the end of each stanza. Resplendent altars are erected also in the streets and differently dressed on successive evenings, before which the people congregate for prayers are repeated. A crucifix or a religious chrome on a shelf, set off with a candle or a sprig of artificial flowers on either side, may be sufficient for the purpose. The well-to-do families have permanent altars with a statue of the Saviour or a Saint surrounded by many varicolored embellishments. But the fiesta of Peña Francia eclipses all others of Southern Luzon.
During the nine days preceding the great fiesta which takes place in the second half of September, the pious wend their ways daily along the highway called Bagumbayan Grande to adore our lady at her own shrine in the Peña Francia church. The chapel in which her image reposes, visited comparatively little during the remaining portions of the year, then becomes daily the objective points of hundred worshippers; for the honoring of our Lady is not solely a religious duty – besides that she blesses those who pray before her image and even endows the latter with the power to heal. The history of the building of the shrine is as follows:
A devout Spaniard, a devotee of the cult of Our Lady of Peña Francia in Spain having been healed of disease by praying to a stamp of the Virgin, was minded to erect a shrine in her honor. Receiving in book form an account of the miracles wrought in Spain he kept this constantly by him, even during sleep. By applying this book to the seat of pain he immediately got cured of it. Grateful for these continued blessings he vowed to erect a shrine in honor of his benefactress then she might be worshipped in the land of his adoption and her healing powers made known to the natives; and he carried out his designs, building a chapel near the right bank of the Naga river a mile above its confluence with the Bicol. From wood, an image of the Virgin was carved; dog’s blood being required to paint it, a dog was beheaded and its blood caught. The animal with legs tied, was then thrown into the river, at which the devout Spaniard observed, “Since you have given your blood to the Virgin, she may revive you.” The bystanders laughed but were immediately dumbfounded to see the dog swim ashore, climb upon the bank and run to its master’s home. This first chapel of straws was built in 1710. Thirty years later it was replaced by one of brick; and in 1863 the present church was erected.
At the close of the novenario, or nine days’ prayer, and the evening before the fiesta, the sacred image is taken by the priest from the church to the cathedral, a distance of nearly a mile. There it is placed in a position of honor in anticipation of the festivities of the following day. Among the people, preparations have been making for weeks. Relatives, friends and strangers arrive from every portion of Camarines and even from the neighboring provinces of Albay and Sorsogon. They come by banca, barotos, carromatas, on horseback and afoot. Every family, high and low, has its guests. Many of the visitors sleep in their boats or camp under portable shelters of nipa. The public buildings and better residences are adorned with palms and foliage, bunting and lanterns, and the humblest dwelling has its spray or its banner. Fresh banana trees are planted in the principal streets, making wide avenues of graceful foliage. Triumphal arches are set up here and there under which the Virgin and her procession will pass. Men are seen going about the streets with long, stout poles dressed smooth and ornamented at the small end with bells. These are the bogadores or pole men. Others, members of the comparsas, wear gay uniforms with trimmings of many colors. Some are rehearsing for the last time their orations, their songs and their dances. Excitement fills the air.
During the morning of the eventful day, solemn high mass is celebrated in the cathedral, the clergy of the neighboring parishes, as well as some from a distance assisting. Bands play in the vestibule and the bells ring frequently. The finishing touches are placed upon the barge on which the image is to be taken back up the river, to its own chapel. It may rain; indeed, it is very likely to do so; but no matter how much water may fall during the day, say the faithful, the skies are sure to clear when the Virgin leads her procession from the cathedral. The comparsas parade the streets in military formation; the men are brave in gaudy uniforms and the officers valiant with the swords of tin, their artificial mustaches and goggles supposedly lending them a distinguished air. Presently they come to a halt in the plaza, and present themselves, one company at a time, to the president and judges occupying the band stand. With each is a speaker , sometimes a man and sometimes a precocious youngster, who indulges in spread-eagle oratory accompanied by more or less affected gestures in eulogy at the occasion. The oration is followed by a dance by selected and drilled performers, by a chorus by the company, or by some other exercise, which, together with the general appearance and the maneuvers of the comparsas, is made the basis of the award of prizes. During the day and evening these performances are repeated in the streets in different portions of the town for the benefit of the appreciative citizens. By five o’clock in the afternoon the banks of the rivers are lined with masses of humanity standing and sitting, from the point of embarkation to the Peña Francia church. Dozens of huge barotos with their crews, each man with his pole, are moving hither and thither in the river, preparing to take their positions ahead of the great barge, in order to tow it and its sacred burden. The bells clang out from which it is known that the image is leaving the cathedral. The skies have really cleared. The procession is made up of a score of priests and another of acolytes; of choirs and bands of music. The sacred banner of the Divine Face is borne in front, while farther in the rear are the boy students from the seminary and young ladies and girls from the college, with others silken banners. Thus is the image of Our lady escorted through the principal streets and under the arches to the barge of state at the river bank. Upon this it is placed; all may behold it and acquire virtue commensurate with their faith. The clergy occupy seats behind the statue, after which the principal citizens go aboard the find room where they may, and immediately the barge is towed.
The people shout and the bogadores stretch taut the strong ropes reaching from their several barotos to the barge. Into the mud at the bottom of the river they dig their poles, throw their weight upon them and push with might and main, thus towing the barge into the stream. Scores of men jump into the waters and wade or swim to the side of the barge to aid in propelling it. “Viva! Viva Nuestra Señora de Peña Francia! Viva el Divino Rostro!” is shouted by hundreds, thousands of throats. The greatest enthusiasm is manifested. The people on the banks ad their cheers to those of the devotees in the boats and the water. The incense burning before the image and the sacred banner sends its smoke aloft. The barge moves up the stream, the various crews vying with each other in the labor of drawing it. At intervals men spring out from the shore to take their places beside the barge, so that a fringe of wet humanity two or three deep surrounds the float; for if a man be ill, he will be cured by such act of devotion. Some of my neighbors told me that notwithstanding the hundreds of men and boys in and upon the water on these succeeding anniversaries, no accident had ever occurred; the Virgin protects those who thus serve her hence nothing of the kind is possible. This afternoon a man was drowned; but the faithful say “He died of very joy.”
Darkness falls; but, with the aid of the torches there is light enough to make out the course of the narrow stream. In a short half-hour the ornate and prettily lighted floating pagoda built by the Chinese merchants comes into view. Then the cries and shots are redoubled; and as the foremost barotos arrive opposite the landing; their occupants jump into the water by twos, and threes and fours, to be the first to assist in the labor of disembarking the statue. Happy is he who can actually place his shoulder under the pedestal and help to bear a part of the precious burden up the slop of the road cut through the river bank. Following the long live of ecclesiastics march the bogadores, by twos, each with his pole – an interminable procession. At the top of the ascent stands a tall, handsome Filipino, the administrador, who performs the functions of the bishop in the diocese; he is arrayed in magnificent robes and surrounded by service boys. As the statue approaches close he raises his arms; immediately the procession pauses and the confusion is hushed; all over, silence and solemnity reign. The administrador bows profoundly to the image, once, twice, thrice, making each time the sign of the cross. The scene is truly impressive. The statue is now borne into the church, the administrador and the procession following behind. The façade of the building is brilliantly lighted by scores of coconut-oil lamps, which at a distance present much the same effect as incandescent electric lights, outlining the belfry, pinnacles, gable, the windows, pilasters and arched doorways.
The inside illumination is with candles. The image is replaced in its own niche by the altar, while the clergy chant a Te Deum and burn incense in its honor; all classes of people through the auditorium, not the least in evidence being the wet bogadores, some of whom may be seen chattering with cold. The same evening the municipal presidente gives a baile worthy of the occasion in town hall- a function seldom surpassed in elaboration of adornment and animation of the dancers – the social piece de resistance of the year. So for almost two hundred years have the people of the Bicol region rendered homage to their most excellent patroness, Nuestra Señora de Peña Francia. In some respect, the Spanish friars did their work well.