After two storms that soaked Metro Manila and many parts of Central Luzon, Cagayan felt like another country with a heat that seemed eternal. But the fervor was definitely Filipino. Perhaps it added much to the temperature, the gathering of the people and their collective adoration and supplication. At high noon at the courtyard of the centuries-old Saint Peter’s Metropolitan Cathedral in Tuguegarao, Cagayan’s capital city, twelve images of the Virgin Mary, most of them resplendently dressed, were brought in and lined up near a stage. People thronged to each of them, mounted on trucks, many going to one image after another, praying and wiping any part of the image with their handkerchiefs or letting the images’ custodians do it to the inaccessible parts especially the face. The hankies were now blessed. A mannish and swarthy policewoman, with two female companions, was holding a tiny baby and going to as many images as possible. She gave him/her to a custodian, who seemed to offer him/her to the Virgin Mary and had the child touched by the image.
The twelve images, all coming from northern Luzon, are some of the most venerated and are said to be miraculous in the Philippines, a staunchly Catholic country that has a fondness for the infant Jesus and the Virgin Mary. They were gathered here for the so-called Marian Voyage of Peace and Love, one of the major events of the 428th founding anniversary of the province of Cagayan, about 480 kilometers northeast of Manila, called Aggao Nac Cagayan: Fiesta ta Bannag or Day of Cagayan: Feast at the River, which started on June 23 and culminated on June 29, the foundation day.
A plethora of events and activities were prepared for the week—a dog show, medical missions, cook-offs, a jobs fair, dance contests, quiz contests, sports competitions, an art exhibit, recognitions, a fireworks display, among others. Major events were the street dancing showdown, an agricultural and trade fair and a beauty pageant, all staples of a modern Philippine festival, participated in by the province’s 28 towns and one city.
The agricultural and trade fair was at the sprawling and dusty Cagayan Sports Complex, where the different towns set up their own booths, creatively designed to show off their identities, displaying their unique products and promoting their tourist attractions.
These events were meant to show the different aspects of Cagayan as well as the talents, character and skills of the Cagayanos, primarily made up of Ibanags and Itawes and later Ilocanos. The Marian event is said to make manifest the deep religiosity of the Cagayanos. Cagayan is primarily known as the home of Our Lady of Piat, the designated patroness of the Cagayan Valley Region (Region II), a sprawling area between the Cordillera and Sierra Madre mountain ranges and given life by the mighty Cagayan River, the largest in the country.
“We are very happy. As you know, we Cagayanos are very devoted to Our Lady. We can attest that she has always been protecting us from typhoons, from any calamities. She has been covering us with her blue mantle. So we are very happy that twelve Marian images are here right now in Tuguegarao City,” enthused Blessida Diwa, the petite regional director of the Department of Tourism (DoT), one of the organizers of the Marian Voyage together with the archdiocese of Cagayan and the Cagayan North Conventions and Visitors Bureau.
We were having lunch at her residence in the Alimanao Hills, near the Cagayan Provincial Capitol, a beautiful, airy house with a spectacular view. Diwa is Ilocano, born in Bantay, Ilocos Sur, and was educated as a nurse. But she said her heart is Cagayano, and she takes “tender, loving care” of the visitors and tourists, she quipped.
“What we are offering here in Cagayan Valley Region is adventure tourism, and of course, our very own pilgrimage tourism. Not only that, we also have food tourism and eco-tourism,” the tourism official in her talked.
Indeed, Cagayan Valley has them all. For eco-tourism, one can go to the seven-chambered Callao Cave in the nearby town of Penablanca. The Pinacanauan River that flows nearby leads one to more caves from which thousands of bats fly out during dusk, an amazing sight. The province of Quirino is gearing itself to become an adventure destination, and Santa Ana in northern Cagayan is a known game fishing destination.
The food should not be missed when one is in this region. During our lunch, Diwa served sinanta, a soup of glass and flat noodles and chicken made russet with annatto seeds and the accompanying pinacufu, a flat oval, fried rice cake with sugar crust, much like karioka. But my favorite is the pansit Cabagan from Isabela, which Tuguegarao has a fancier version called pansit batil-patung, and the pawa, steamed rice balls with peanut filling, from Piat, Cagayan.
Diwa also said that Cagayan is unique, being the home of the Ibanag people with its own intriguing language. She taught us a sentence: Mattaki y futu megafu nikau. It felt intense and passionate. It means “My heart is aching because of you.” It struck me and became the first Ibanag sentence that stayed with me.
The staying power of the language among young Ibanags may be diminishing. As we walked among the crowd, we kept hearing Filipino being spoken. I thought there were many visitors at that time. Tourism officer Fanibeth Domingo explained that people here prefer to speak in Filipino because of it is a cool thing to do. Mataki, indeed.
Above all else, Cagayan is primarily known as a pilgrimage site.
The region attracts nearly 700,000 visitors yearly for the last five years. Ninety-five percent of which are Filipinos and the rest are foreigners led by the Chinese, Americans and Koreans. Most of the visitors here are devotees, going to pay homage to Our Lady of Piat. Additionally, the region is studded with wonderful Spanish-era churches made of bricks. One can easily visit many of them, being strewn along the Maharlika Highway.
“Why go to Rome when you can go to Cagayan Valley and visit 18 Spanish-era churches. If you include Batanes, there are 22. Five of these are National Cultural Treasures,” Diwa beamed.
My first visit to Cagayan in 2007 was made up of lovely churches—constructed in bricks from clay sourced from the banks of the Cagayan River—of Iguig, Tuguegarao, Alcala, Gattaran, Camalaniugan, Buguey and Lal-lo.
The building of these churches began when the Spaniards arrived in the province. The occasion is recognized here as the foundation day of the province of Cagayan. It is said that Juan de Salcedo traced the northern coastline of Luzon and set foot on Massi, Tular and Aparri in June 29, 1583. Spanish friars soon followed, establishing mission posts. One of the missions is Nueva Segovia, now called Lal-lo, which became the capital of the Cagayan Valley, which was also called Nueva Segovia, and the Diocese of Nueva Segovia was created in August 14, 1595, by Pope Clement VIII, making the town its seat. Churches began being constructed all over the valley, blending Western and local sensibilities and displaying a design born out of unique circumstances. The material itself is not customary for such edifices, thus presenting a different and remarkable way of how churches look and creating other design idioms.
The Saint Peter Metropolitan Cathedral in Tuguegarao, where the Marian event was held, is the largest church in the region. It started out as makeshift shift when a mission pueblo was founded here by Fray Tomas Villa in May 9, 1604, with Saint Peter and Saint Paul as patron saints. Father Antonio Lobato, a scholarly priest who compiled the first Ibanag-Spanish dictionary and laid out and developed the streets of the town, spearheaded the building of the church in June 17, 1761, and finishing it in 1767. The progress of the town was hastened by the opening of the Cagayan-Manila road in 1738 by Fray Jose Martin. As the town prospered, the capital was moved from Lal-lo to Tuguegarao in 1839. In 1910, Tuguegarao was made the seat of the diocese. During World War II, the church was heavily damaged and was rebuilt by Bishop Constance Jurgens.
At the end of Rizal Street, in Bagumbayan, one can find the ruins of hornos, big brick kilns, used to fire bricks for the church.
In the book Philippine Church Facades, published in 2007, Father Pedro Galende describes the façade of the Saint Peter Metropolitan Cathedral: “The façade of Tuguegarao Church follows a touch of whimsy and playfulness. This is evidenced by its broken and crested pediment, bunches of high relief pilasters that come in threes in alternating display of smooth and solomonic forms, and arched windows that have finialed frames and a triangular pediment. A deeply recessed circular window is the pediment’s focal point.”
He continues: “The brick walls of the church and bell tower are set against the smoothly plastered forms of cornices and pilasters. Layers of bricks molded and laid by local masons and artisans are a symbol of the Christianization of the people of Tuguegarao, which survived the lashes of World War II. Clusters of engaged columns crisscrossed by double cornices define the length of the church’s pointed windows, spiral columns and niches.”
He describes the bell tower as “very tall, rising in five tapering tiers with the same motif of smooth and twisted pilasters and framed windows. The bell tower is quaintly capped by a canopied roof surmounted by a cross.”
But perhaps the most visited is the Minor Basilica of Our Lady of the Visitation or Our Lady of Piat. What makes this church notable is not its design but its being the home of Our Lady of Piat, a papier mache image that has remarkably survived for more than 400 years.
The image was fashioned in Macau and brought by the Dominicans to Manila and then to Cagayan in early 17th century. Circumstances surrounding the image’s journey from Macau to Cagayan remain mysterious. Once enshrined in Piat, devotion to the image started and spread from Piat to the outlying towns and other provinces. Now, Our Lady of Piat is one of the most popular Marian images that riddle the Philippines. Our Lady of Piat is held in high esteem by the Cagayanos to the point that affiliation with her is integral to their identity.
Since the beginning, Spanish priests were puzzled by the fact that the natives were immediately taken with her. Perhaps the image is “muy morena,” dark-complexioned, that Filipinos easily identified with her more than the blond, foreign-looking ones, especially the Ibanags, who are said to be very dark in complexion. Domingo said you can distinguish the Ibanags from the other people by the color of their skin, a kind of darkness that can be acquired through exposure to the intense Cagayan sun along the river. Ibanag means “river people.”
The Cagayanos’ soft spot for the Marian image is said to have a long history even before the coming of Our Lady. Among the saints and religious images brought in by the Spaniards, Mary is most preferred, a maternal figure of care and comfort, a symbol of benevolent power.
The ready acceptance of Mary among the Ibanags can be explained by the fact that in old Ibanag communities there were and still are women healers and spiritual figures, who are fondly called kako, “grandmother, the wise old woman or the Ancient One.”
“Among the Ibanags, women then and now perform the invaluable role as kavulun na entero tangaravvun-gan (companions of the whole Earth community),” wrote Rosario Battung, a Good Shepherd nun, in her essay “Kako and the Women Healers of Capatan,” included in the anthology Centennial Crossings: Readings on Babaylan Feminism in the Philippines , edited by Fe Mangahas and Jenny Llaguno and published in 2006.
She explained that Earth to them is part of the whole cosmic reality, whose part is connected by one breath or life.
“This contemplative dimension,” she said, “has made it possible for us to adapt Mary, the pregnant mother of Guadalupe, Mary Magdalene and specially Mary, Our Lady of Piat, the Brown Madonna, introduced in 1604. The three continue to be our ‘companions of the whole Earth community.’
“To us, Mary, as Brown Madonna, our compassionate mother, since 1604, is certainly a domesticated Mary. She has become our people’s beloved mother. As the one who answers with haste when the people pray her rosary, and she responds to the people’s version as taught by kako—pappakanayun na passervimi ta utun na davvun. Over the centuries she goes out into the highways and byways helping the most needy so we too may continue to serve the tangaravvungan, our Ibanag phrase which literally means one earth community, our cosmic community of all related beings, who share the same inango.”
A great attraction is the miracles. Since the early 17th century until now, numerous miracles attributed to Our Lady of Piat have been reported. Diwa herself experienced such a miracle. After our lunch in her home, she showed us a watercolor painting of Rino Hernandez dramatically interpreting Diwa’s thanksgiving for her miracle, an image later echoed by the policewoman with a baby.
Her son John Paul, then six-month-old, was diagnosed with leukaemia and was rushed to Manila from Cagayan for treatment. The situation was dire, but Diwa kept praying to Our Lady of Piat. There were daily blood transfusions, but the doctor could not promise anything positive. On the seventh day, a miracle happened. Earlier findings turned out negative. The doctors and technicians were puzzled, but the child’s doctor, Gene Purruganan, a devotee of Our Lady of Piat, was convinced it was a miracle. Diwa, her husband and son drove to Piat, and upon reaching the altar she knelt in gratitude.
Diwa has been a fervent devotee of Our Lady of Piat. In her house, there is a prayer room with a large image of Our Lady. Every year, she has been bringing a replica of Our Lady of Piat around Metro Manila. Her promotion of the devotion to Our Lady is also a promotion of tourism in Cagayan Valley. The Marian Voyage of Peace and Love, in which Our Lady of Piat is the star, is a show of devotion as well as a tourism attraction.
“We had meetings with the archbishop Diosdado Talamayan. He wants to promote Cagayan Valley. That’s why we have a good partnership,” said Diwa.
The Marian event has been held for three years now, and it is gaining a following.
This year, the twelve images arrived on June 27 at the Cagayan Provincial Capitol and were welcomed with a Eucharistic celebration at the provincial gym, before proceeding to their host schools. Before, the images were hosted by the Tuguegarao’s many chapels and churches. This year, schools were designated as temporary homes for the images, where people can go to pay homage.
At Linao National High School, along Linao Highway, Our Lady of Badoc from Badoc, Ilocos Norte, stood regal. The resplendent image of Our Lady of Guibang from Gamu, Isabela, drew admirers at the Cagayan National High School, along Bagay Road. The Tuguegarao East Central School at the city center welcomed the golden Our Lady of Charity from Agoo, La Union. Our Lady of Namacpacan was carried from her home in Luna, La Union, to the University of Saint Louis Tuguegarao on Mabini Street. From Valenzuela City in Metro Manila came Our Lady of Fatima, simple in white and blue, and was stationed at the Medical Colleges of Northern Philippines on Caggay Highway.
The Nuestra Senora del Mar de Cautiva of Santo Tomas, La Union, was designated to Tuguegarao Northeast Central School, while the Nuestra Senora de Caridad (Our Lady of Charity) from Bantay, Ilocos Sur, to Tuguegarao West Central School on Luna Street. The famous Our Lady of Manaoag from Manaoag, Pangasinan, was given to the care of the Cagayan State University, and Our Lady of Immaculate Conception from Malolos, Bulacan, to the Tuguegarao North Central School.
Our Lady of La Naval from Santo Domingo, Quezon City, which stars in an annual grand procession in Manila, was at the St. Paul University Philippines on Mabini Street, while the Our Lady of Peace and Good Voyage, another famous image, from Antipolo, Rizal, was at the University of Cagayan Valley. On the other hand, Our Lady of the Holy Rosary from Piat, beloved by the Cagayanos, was very special that it was housed at the city’s main church, the Saint Peter Metropolitan Cathedral.
The following day, devotees flocked to the schools and attended forums which included historical backgrounds on the images, testimonials, lectures on the role of Mary and special devotions. Confession sessions were also held.
On June 29, the images were brought to the cathedral where a concelebrated mass was held. At dusk, a grand procession of the images livened up the city’s main streets. It culminated with fireworks.
The following morning, the Marian images were set to be brought to home to their respective churches. Some of the images accompanied Our Lady of Piat as she was escorted home to Piat in time for the town’s Sambali Festival and her feast day on July 2. We joined the caravan, traversing an undulating landscape and crossing rivers, 33 kilometers northwest of Tuguegarao, passing by the town of Solana.
In Piat, there were groups of people waiting along the highway to welcome Our Lady. Some brought out small tables with religious images, lit candles and flowers. Some threw flowers on Our Lady’s path. As we near the town proper, school children lined both sides of the street, waving flags as the Marian images passed by. The images momentarily stopped by groups of dancers for the Sambali Festival, depicting the Christianization of the native Sambali people in dance dramas. At the church, the images were installed in front of the altar, near the original image of Our Lady of Piat, mounted on a small replica of a ship garlanded with flowers.
I went up to Our Lady, touched the hems of her scintillating blue gown and prayed for love, offering my heart like a sickened child. Before the homecoming mass began, we left for Tuguegarao to catch a flight back to Manila. As we sped along the highway, the radio played Madonna’s iconic song “Like a Virgin,” a puzzling thing, so apt yet so inappropriate. It was also about love anyway, and we sang along: “I made it through the wilderness/Somehow I made it through/Didn't know how lost I was/Until I found you....”