Category Archives: Camarines Sur

Peñafrancia and Camsur’s Cathedral

A visit to Naga is not complete without seeing our Lady of Peñafrancia. There’s no crowd this time of the year, if you want to see one, visit Naga on the 3rd Saturday of September—some say the people that gather for the Lady’s feast is around 5-6 million!

Now that’s a crowd.

Viva La Virgen!

The origins of the church and icon was born inside the mind of a scion of the well-to-do Covarrubias family from Cavite. The young Covarrubia, a seminarian from Manila, committed to build a church in honor of the Virgen de la Peña de Francia after being cured from an illness in Manila. Virgen de la Peña de Francia is an iconic 15th century image of our Lady in the university town of Salamanca, Spain. Covarrubia  plan was to built the chapel near the bank of Pasig river.

This is the old site where Covarrubias had his chapel built. What we see today is the church Bishop Arevalo built in 1753. The original image of  Peñafrancia and the ‘divino nostro’, an easel painting of Christ’s face has been transferred to the modern Basilica Minore.

How it ended up in Naga?

Padre Miguel Covarrubia was sent to Nueva Cáceres (now Naga) right after he was ordained. Since such assignments takes up years, this Dominican priest foresaw that he could not build the chapel in Manila, so he had it built along the Bicol river. He then commissioned an artisan to work on making a replica of the Virgen de la Peña de Francia. And the rest is history.

The image of Our Lady of Peñafrancia is unique because unlike other sculptures made of exorbitant materials it was simply modeled out of wood. The original image of  Peñafrancia and the ‘divino nostro’, an easel painting of Christ’s face has been transferred to the modern Basilica Minore in barrio Balatas.

I wonder if the Covarrubia’s still have relatives left in Cavite. I know someone with this last name but he claims that his family was originally from Zamboanga. That makes sense because Cavite and Zambaonga are linked because both are major ports during the Spanish era. Both coastal towns eventually developed their ‘chabacano’ from regular contacts the people made with Spanish tripolantes.


Viva La Virgen!

As narrated by a man I met in the Cathedral who was waiting for his daughter on his tricycle.  The procession starts in the church of Peñafrancia, carried by barefooted men to the Cathedral, it passes the major thoroughfares of the city. They call these men ‘voyadores’. These procession last anywhere between 2 to 3 hours. Then there’s the fluvial parade where he said foreigners and women are not allowed to embark on the water pagoda carrying the Peñafrancia. I asked why? Manong Ed’s response was that it’s going to be a “bad year” when that happens.

In the 80’s, believe it or not, the image of Peñafrancia was stolen. It was gone for a year before it was surrendered to a bishop. A few law enforcement died trying to retrieve it. I could not understand why someone would steal this icon (locals affectionately calls “Ina”), other than its value as antique, it’s entirely made of wood. Those crooks probably planned to sell the icon. Just imagine the celebration when the image was returned. People were out in the streets celebrating while a typhoon rages.

The Cathedral and the seminario del santísima rosario

The Cathedral with a calesa in front of its door. There was a wedding pictorial and I think I bombed some of those takes!

I was excited to see this imposing building along with its old seminary. Reputedly one of the most beautiful seminary in the region. I was relieve to see that they’ve at least retained the appearance of the seminary. The red brick structure with those perfect cloisters was so charming. It’s among the best preserved Spanish era structure I’ve seen in the province. This seminary started as ‘casa de clerigos’, literally a house for the priests. Then it became a seminary in the last 18th century, ‘seminario conciliar de nueva cáceres’. It was renamed ‘seminario del santísima rosario’ under the Vincentians. In 1964 under the local diocese decided to do away with the Spanish name and named it, ‘Seminary of the the Holy Rosary’. Some of the most active revolutionaries in the late 19th century attended this school. Which made me wonder what kind of classes they used they taught here!

The giant pillars

The time I was walking around there was this lovely carriage ornamented with flowers and ribbons that carried a bride and his groom. Now, that’s something you don’t normally see in Manila.

Now, going back to the Cathedral, in the 80’s renovation work was started to give the church a face lift. This ended in 1988 and there was a big celebration attended by the church hierarchy and local priests from around the region. Looking around I could see that the restoration had covered the original surface of the church with concrete. Then the interior was completely painted over and the designs were nice. I found nothing out of place. I believe the move was more practical and economical but I’d prefer a restoration that conserves not only the look but the original material used. The trouble with cement is that overtime it hardens and becomes less porous. Such practice has cause a lot more trouble for some of the older churches because eventually the covered portions becomes weaker from the trapped moisture. I could be wrong with my observation here, I speak from experience and not from someone that had classical training on the subject.

If there’s one thing that I appreciate with the restoration of the Cathedral was that its appearance remained as it was when the Franciscan Bishop de la Concepcion had it built in 1800’s. The Spanish-Romanesque style and its dominant presence, wide facade and towering bell towers remains a sight to behold to this day. Talk about an imposing building—this is one, I could just imagine how it dominated the skyline back in the day.

seminario del santísima rosario

These churches are great examples of architectural designs evolving with environmental dynamics. The design and construction was conceptualized with the regular typhoons that visits the province in mind. This is a fascinating aspect of Philippine churches and houses.

Filipino Architecture as Filipino

I remember an architect who works for an American contractor who wrote to me and insisted that Spanish era structures are not Philippine but ‘colonial’, or must be called as such. I then asked what’s Philippine then? To this the response was “everything that carries no influence of Spanish, like those coastal houses on stilts…” I no longer responded, we both agreed to disagree.

Escudo in Nueva Caceres Cathedral. Escudo pequeño del Rey de España con las Columnas de Hércules. Apareció durante el reinado de Felipe V y fue usado hasta 1868. Este formato de escudo fue el origen del actual.

When I was in Singapore I visited Malaysia on several occasions. And there I saw those same coastal houses on stilts. Those folks are certainly not Filipinos. If I follow that commenter’s logic then those Malaysian fishing villages are more Filipino than most of us. They had no trace of foreign influence other than their religion which encompasses everything in their lives.

This is where I feel most of these intelligent people miss the point, they see history as static when it’s not. What they  refuse to accept is that it was the reaction to the changes that’s genuinely Filipino, not the inaction.

The thing is that we’ve been taught that you become more Filipino the farther you get away from our hispano-filipino past—so everything that has some relation to it is dismissed as colonial, therefore, must be excluded. This confuses our students because they’re taught to be proud of their town’s old churches and those hispano-filipino houses but in the same breath instructed that era was nothing more than an interlude, an interruption in our  evolution as Filipinos.

May 2013


The Gabaldon of Naga City

Just like any up and coming city, Naga has been bustling with economic activity lately. Shops and restaurants are popping out from all over, malls are expanding operations and traffic, slightly increasing travel time. But unknown to many visitors is the city’s extraordinarily rich history, evidence of this are the presence of several colonial era buildings still visible along its major thoroughfares.

The Camarines Sur National High School.

One historic building that merits attention is the Camarines Sur National High School. The first secondary public school in the province. It is also one of the largest, in terms of structural dimension and student population, among the surviving “Gabaldón Schoolhouse” in the country. These early 1900’s school buildings are the lasting legacy of the Nueva Ecijañon Assemblyman, Isauro Gabaldón, who sponsored the act in 1907. The politician who sported a handlebar mustached like Plaridel, resigned from his commissioner’post in the US to challenge the renaissance man Epifanio de los Santos in the run for the representation of Nueva Ecija. He won the seat and pushed for the funding of public schools that now carries his name.

Gabaldón grew up in Spain but studied law in the UST. He was known for his staunch advocacy for complete Philippine independence during the American regime. It is interesting to note that the Gabaldón Act was the first bill to be passed by the Philippine Assembly on 1907 at the Grand Opera House in Manila.

The Gabaldón Act created close to two thousand schools in the country. Gemma Cruz-Araneta commenting on its style and purpose, “In the Gabaldón-style school, there was architectural harmony between the main building and other accessory structures. As it turned out, an elegantly-designed school instilled in both teachers and students a certain pride and an appreciation for the finer things in life.”

While the building carried the name of Assemblyman Gabaldón, it was actually an American Architect that made the key blueprints. William “Willie” Parsons, a Yale and French  École des Beaux-Arts Arts graduate from the Bureau of Public Works. He was a Daniel Burnham protégé who literally took the baton from the famed Chicagoan architect. Quoting the architecture historian, Thomas Hines, Parson “designed buildings of warmth, efficiency and engaging simplicity. Parsons’ buildings had plain, broad surfaces of solid pastel colours and were usually topped by handsome tile roof.”

Like Burnham, Parson employed key elements from the Spanish era designs, like the use of ’tisa’ for roofing (although afterwards galvanized sheet, popularly called GI sheets, was used for its cheapness). Rather than breaking away from the Philippine Spanish tradition, the two architect accomplished a “creative transition well rooted in the Spanish heritage… drawing on American public models and expressing the grand conceptions and practical spirit of the new imperial regime.” Parson’s predecessor, Daniel Burnham was equally known for his enthusiasm for the existing Spanish architecture of Manila. Christina Gotuaco of the University of Southern California notes that Burnham “was receptive to the architectural style that already existed in Manila, which was left in place by the Spanish.  He noted the beauty of the Spanish churches and municipal buildings in the city and used them as the basis for the buildings he later developed.”

A nice sign board that I thought would have been nicer if it had some historical tidbits on what’s a Gabaldon

A Tayabas provincial politician that studied in a Gabaldón schoolhouse describes it as having “huge windows… sashed and made of latticed capiz-tagkawayan. Its façade had those Romanesque Doric-like pillars seen only in pictures like the Parthenon.” Architect Augusto Villalon, a leading heritage conservation advocate, provides us with these details, “classrooms were specified to follow minimum dimensions. To provide the best possible natural ventilation, folding doors opened parallel sides of the room to the wide, covered breezeway facing the front and rear of the building  that connected the rooms to each other. The high ceilings allowed the humid tropical air to circulate within…”

The Camarines Sur National High School started operations in 1902, later it was transferred to a bigger building at Calle San Francisco then in 1915, to where it now stands. Camarines Sur National High School was used by the Japanese as garrison and was condemned in 1949 because of its decrepit condition. Restoration works has been extensive to bring it to what it is now. I was unable to verify what portions and how much of the building were ‘reconstructions’. Just like in when it started, the school still has the highest student population in the entire province.

Last year, the school received the ASEAN Eco-Friendly School Award. As of the last count, there are five more existing Gabaldón in Camarines Sur.

Is Naga City’s Name Sanskrit?

Naga is a divine serpentine prevalent in Hindu mythology. I’ve seen this even in Buddhist temples across South East Asia. If Naga is indeed a residuum of a bygone Asiatic Hindu empire, then it would be an interesting area to explore.

A parked Daet bound bus that ply the Daet-Panganiban-Naga route.

In our country alone, several towns are called Naga. I’ve been to Cebu’s Naga, a town renowned for its enormous cement plant and then there’s that one in Zamboanga Sibugay.

It is claimed that Bicol’s Naga got its name from the ‘Nara’ tree. While this could be true, I don’t think this same explanation applies to the other Nagas considering these towns are nowhere near each other.

Problem with the study of toponym in this country is that it does not exist. What we have are educators and leaders looking for ways to ‘indigenize’ everything. Toponym here is a game of speculation and invention.

In Singapore, I once attended an exhibit coupled with a series of seminars about the history of the islands street names. Free books were given along with video presentations that celebrates the history of the names of local streets and neighborhoods. Singaporeans are proud and secure, they don’t see the need to alter or invent history. We’re the complete opposite–we don;t see it like they do. Today, walk around Singapore and you’ll still see the streets named after British royalties and war heroes!

While we no longer use the word ‘Bathala’,  it is perhaps one of the most important words in the native tongue prior to the coming of the Spaniards as it refers to the creator. ‘Bathala’ is Sanskrit , loosely translated it means lord. Other words like pinag’pala’, ‘sampalataya’, ‘pagasa’ and ‘bahala’, trace its origins to the ancient Hindu language. Remarkable is how so many of these words had something to do with faith.

Clearly, Hindu beliefs has reached the islands and its inhabitants before the advent of the westerners. Whatever’s left of those traditions we learned from this Asiatic Hindu culture now lies buried somewhere in our consciousness. Even epics like ‘Lam Ang’ was inspired by Hindu literature.

In the early 1900’s, a four pound pure gold depicting a Hindu goddess was found in Agusan. Unfortunately, this Javanese inspired treasure was taken away from us. It’s now in the custody of a museum in Chicago. The same city where the largest Rizaliana collection outside our country is kept. Another important artifact, which so many nationalist historians excessively gush about, is the Laguna Copperplate Inscription. All these bears traces of influence from a Hindu empire that is believe to have reached as far as North Luzon.

How much of these ‘Hindu’ influence remained in Bicol?

I don’t know of any study made on the history of Hindus in Bicol or in any other towns that has some vestiges of Hindu culture. Perhaps such study would present to us that what we thought was ‘indigenous’ are in reality remnants of an empire that loosely controlled the islands before the Spanish came. There seems to be some waves of migration from Hindu practicing people that reached the region in the past that successfully imbibed it with their culture–was naming Naga one of their legacies?

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