By: Virginia G. Guzman-Manzo, MD
The Philippines is a devoutly Marian country which means the Filipinos have a great love and intense devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God. The Filipinos are known as El Pueblo Amante de Maria or a people in love with Mary.
The many churches we find today scattered all over the Philippines dedicated to the Mother of God speak eloquently of the Filipinos’ love for her. The big crowd of devotees flocking to her shrines is a concrete testimony of their gratitude to her for the many favors she has been granting them.
This article on our Lady of Penafrancia is in commemoration of the 300th year of her veneration in the Philippines. Under this title, she is known to be the patroness of the entire Bicolandia where her miraculous image has been enshrined in Naga City for the past 300 years.
Not only Bicolanos are recipients of her miraculous powers, but countless Filipinos from all over the country and people from other nations as well attest to the love and care she has shown them. The Bicolanos fondly call her INA which means “Mother” for, indeed, she has shown more love and care than any mother could ever do.
The history of Our Lady of Penafrancia can be traced back to the city of Paris, France when a child was born on 4 September 1401 to wealthy and pious parents. The child was christened Simon.
In spite of their material affluence, Simon grew up without inclination to material goods. When his parents and only sister died, Simon inherited all their property which was quite substantial. Believing that wealth spelled trouble, he sold all his patrimony and donated the proceeds to the church, the poor and to charitable institutions. With nothing of his own, he applied as a chamber boy in a convent of a Franciscan church in Paris.
Simon was a very religious person and had a great love for the Blessed Virgin Mary. He would often spend hours in front of her image, contemplating her beauty and asking her many times what he can do to please her.
One day, while he was alone deep in prayer in front of the Virgin Mother’s image, he lost consciousness. He heard a voice telling him, “Simon, be vigilant, wake up, be on the watch… From now on your name will be Simon Vela. Go to Pena de Francia, west of this country, and look for an image similar to me. There you will be told what to do.”
Upon regaining consciousness, he vowed to do what the Blessed Virgin was asking him. He started his mission and traveled far and wide in search of a place called Pena de Francia. For five long years, he had reached and explored many caves, hills, mountains and plains in the western part of France but he could not find Pena de Francia nor could anybody tell him where it is located.
He began to lose hope and felt so dejected that he wanted to go back to Paris. However, he heard the same voice urging him not to give up but rather to persevere for his labors will be compensated. With renewed inspiration, he continued his search and went to the neighboring regions outside France.
One day, while in Salamanca, Spain, he happened to pass by a marketplace. He witnessed two men quarreling. One got seriously wounded and when the offender was apprehended by the crowd, Simon heard him shout that if he was not caught, he could have escaped to Pena de Francia where no one could find him, not even the king.
On hearing this, Simon’s spirit rose when he learned that there is really a place called Pena de Francia. He tried to trace back the way the man came from until he reached a place called San Martin de Castanar. Coming out from the church after hearing mass, he saw a coal vendor and asked him if he knew a place called Pena de Francia. The man accompanied him to a place some distance from the church and pointed to him a hill in the far distance where Pena de Francia could be found. He also learned that in the distant past, the place was occupied by French people who valiantly resisted the vigorous attacks of the Moors, hence the name Pena de Francia or “Rock of France.”
After a long and weary journey, Simon finally reached the rocky hill. By this time, he was exhausted and very hungry but he continued the steep and craggy climb. (Today, we know that the place rises to 1,723 meters between two Extramadura provinces: Caceres and Salamanca). When he reached the barren top, he was surprised to find a packet of bread and meat on the path. This relieved his hunger and gave him renewed vigor. He continued searching during the day and seeking shelter in caves during the night.
On his first night at the mountaintop, a storm dislodged a piece of rock that fell on his head causing a wound. As he lay prostrate, the Virgin appeared again and told him, “Do not be afraid. Look for the image I told you to find.”
Early dawn on the third day, he saw at a distance a glaring and dazzling light filling the place with an unusual brilliance. He approached the place and there, to his overwhelming delight, he came face to face with the Virgin Mary with the Child Jesus cuddled in her arms. He could not contain his joy. Then the Virgin Mary told him to dig on the spot and he will find the treasure he was looking for. He was to place it on the summit and there build a church. Then the Lady suddenly disappeared.
Immediately, Simon started digging but he heard again a voice telling him not to do it on his own but to get help from some men in the village. Obviously, the Virgin Mary wanted to have witnesses to the veracity of the events and to the credibility of Simon.
So Simon went back to the town of San Martin de Castanar and asked five men to help him. These men were Antonio Fernandez, Juan Pascual, Pascual Sanchez, Juan Fernandez and Benito Sanchez. The men thought that they were digging for hidden treasure. On 19 May 1434, after removing a huge stone, they found embedded among the rocks the image of the Holy Virgin with a child in her arms.
Thus the original image of Our Lady of Penafrancia was found. She did not lose time showing her miraculous power. Immediately, the wound on Simon’s head was healed. Pascual Sanchez’s eye defect disappeared. Juan Fernandez was cured of his ten-year-old stomach illness. Antonio Fernandez who was deaf began to hear clearly and Benito Sanchez’s congenitally deformed finger became normal.
Word spread like wildfire and that was the start of the devotion to Our Lady of Penafrancia.
Sometime in the later part of the 17th century, a Spanish government official, a native of San Martin de Castanar by the family name of Covarrubias, was assigned to the Philippines. He settled in Cavite with his wife. They had a son named Miguel Robles de Covarrubias. The young boy grew up with a great devotion to Our Lady of Penafrancia. Obviously, this devotion was learned from his parents who came from the same area where the original image was found.
Miguel was a sickly young man. He had a picture of Our Lady of Penafrancia to whom he would always pray when he was ill or confronted with difficulties and she would always answer his prayers. He studied at the University of Santo Tomas in preparation for priesthood. He promised himself that when he has the financial resources, he would build a chapel for the Virgin by the bank of the Pasig River in Manila.
However, he was assigned to Nueva Caceres (now Naga) and there was ordained a priest by Bishop Antonio Gonzalez. To fulfill his vow, he built a chapel of local materials, not by the Pasig River as he once envisioned, but at the slope of Mt. Isarog, as requested by the Aetas, also called cimarrones, living in the mountains. The cimarrones who had embraced the Catholic faith had a hard time going to mass because the church in Naga was a couple of kilometers from where they lived.
Fr. Miguel contracted a local artisan to make an image of the Virgin of Penafrancia. When the image was made, a dog was killed to stain the icon with the animal’s blood as a preservative and in order to make the color dusky to approximate the complexion of the cimarrones.
The dead dog with its four legs tied was thrown into the river. In a few minutes, the dog was witnessed swimming to the shore and running to his master’s house. That was the start of the countless miracles that Our Lady of Penafrancia would perform throughout the next 300 years. Today, that first chapel made of nipa and bamboo is now a minor basilica evolving from a series of changes in its architecture and structure, from Chinese influence to baroque style to the neoclassical design that it is today.
Every September, a fiesta marks the feast of Our Lady of Penafrancia or INA. The highlight of the celebration is called the traslacion, a procession to transfer the image from its shrine in the minor basilica to the cathedral in Naga where she stays during the entire novena. The image has to be transferred from the smaller shrine to the bigger basilica (which is almost two kilometers away) to accommodate the great crowd attending the festival. At the end of the fiesta, the image is brought back to its shrine, this time by means of a colorful fluvial parade.
Why does INA have countless devotees? It is because throughout the past three hundred years, countless miracles have been experienced and continue to be experienced by numberless people. For space constraints, testimonials attesting to the miracles and favors received through her intercession cannot be detailed here. Suffice it to say that reading these various stories of favors received will deeply touch the reader leaving him or her in wonder and awe, complete with goose bumps. These testimonials are truly soul-fulfilling and faith-uplifting. Very substantial information about Our Lady of Penafrancia can also be found on http://www.penafrancia.net/ .
There is no doubt that INA has kept the Christian faith strong and vibrant, not only in Bicolandia but all over the Philippines which is known to have a great love for the Mother of God. In keeping with the theme of the 300th Anniversary of the devotion, truly, Our Lady of Penafrancia is “A Gift received, a Gift to share!”
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