THE HISTORY OF PEÑAFRANCIA
by Rev. Dr. FLORENCIO C. YLLANA
Contrary to what its name seems to indicate and the claim of some writers, the Peñafrancia devotion is not of French origin. History tells that the primitive image of the Virgin of Peñafrancia as now venerated in Bicolandia was found on the slopes of Sierra de Francia, a mountain range situated between Spain’s two famous Provinces; Salamanca and Caceres. It is a noteworthy coincidence that while the primitive image was found near CACERES, in Spain, it’s a carbon copy has come to stay in NUEVA CACERES, in the Philippines.
While the place where the image was found is a Spanish territory, the one who found it was a French citizen. Simon Vela, the man singled out with this special favor by heaven, was the sole heir to a rich French family. With his heart burning in great anxieties to dedicate himself to the service of God, he turned his back on the turmoil of the world and entered the covenant. Simon became famous very soon among the members of his exceptional devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary. On the night he heard a voice saying “Simon, do not sleep; go to the Peña de Francia, on the part where the sun sets (a la parte del poniente) and there you will find an image of the Virgin which shall be afterwards an object of great devotion.” Simon lost no time and after putting on the clothes of a pilgrim, he began to search for the image. The words “Peña de Francia” and on the part “where the sunset” induced Simon to believe that the image was to be found on a place situated in the western part of France. So to this place he directed his steps. After 5 long and weary years of futile quest in these parts, he decided to write “Finish” to his mission and give it up. One night however, he heard again the divine voice saying: “Simon, do not stop. A great reward awaits a great sacrifice and yours will be great.” So Simon renewed again his trips. After visiting all the western part of France, torn and tired, without any success, he was again tempted to give up. But the voice was so inspiring and the message so sublime that he deemed it wise to obey rather than to ignore it. So he went on with his mission.
At that time a great number of pilgrims bound for the Tomb of Santiago de Compostela, the Patron saint of Spain, were passing the street commonly known as the “paso Frances”, (The French road). Simon who rent with them asked for Peña de Francia from whomsoever he met but nobody could give him a satisfactory answer. Having heard of the famous University of Salamanca and hoping perhaps to ask about Peña de Francia from the wise professors of that institution of learning, there he went. He reached Salamanca on a market day. Here accidentally, or rather, providentially a discussion arose between two vendors about the quality of the coal they were selling and one of them vouched that they were of good quality because they were taken from the slopes of Peña de Francia. Simon heard these last words and without uttering a word, he followed the vendor on his way home. When he reached San Martin de Castañar, a village at the foot of Peña de Francia, he immediately approached some people and fortunately, he was able to get informations about the exact place of Peña de Francia, the very place where afterwards he found the object of his pilgrimage.
Just as he began to dig in the place indicated to him in a dream he had the night before, a divine voice counseled him not to go to the mountains without companions who would serve as witnesses. The heavens, it seems, would like to remove any possibility of doubt with regards to his miracle. So Simon went down and brought with him Antonio Fernandez, Juan Pascual, Pascual Sanchez, Juan Fernandez y Benito Sanchez, the “escribano” of the place, and finally on May 19, 1534, as they removed a big stone, following a divine inspiration, they found the most coveted image of the Virgin of Peñafrancia. Right there and then all these men received special graces from the Virgin. Simon Vela’s wound in the head was instantly cured; Pascual Sanchez’ defect in the eye disappeared; Juan Fernandez got rid of his ten years old stomach trouble; Antonio Fernandez who was deaf begin to hear and finally, Benito Sanchez’ finger which was defective from birth, recovered its normal stage. The official document of these miracles and this discovery, duly signed by those present and the Notary Public of the place, is reserved in the archives of San Martin de Castañar to serve as eloquent, if mute, witness to the past, present and future generations of the veracity of this wonder.
OUR OWN PEÑAFRANCIA
Way back in the 17th century, a Spanish family from San Martin de Castañar happened to come to, and stay in, Cavite. They had a son called Miguel de Cubarrubias. From the time he began to study grammar in Sto. Tomas, until he finished Theology, Miguel was a victim of frequent illness. Fortunately for him, he possessed a picture of the B. V. of Peñafrancia, as found by Simon in Peñafrancia of San Martin de Castañar. To this he had recourse in moments of great pain, anguish and adversity. He would even place the picture of the Virgin on the part of his body that ailed him most. Thanks to this, according to him, he recovered always from his illness. Here are his own words: “So many are the miracles wrought on me by the Virgin of Peñafrancia, that I have no tongue to relate them, paper where to write them nor numbers to count them. All I could say is that I am the miracle of her miracles.” While studying in Sto.Tomas, the Bishop of Nueva Caceres, Msgr. Andres de Gonzales, of the illustrious Dominican order, called him to Nueva Caceres. Obedient to the voice of the authority, he came. During his trip, however, a storm developed, so strong and furious, that the ship found itself at the verge of sinking. Everybody thought the worse had come. Miguel then invoked the help of his Patroness, the Virgin of Peñafrancia, and thanks to his prayer and devotion, the storm subsided and everybody reached the place safe and sound. Some months after his stay in Nueva Caceres, Msgr. Gonzales, O.P. conferred upon him the sacrament of Priesthood, and persuaded to stay, he was subsequently named Parish Priest of Nueva Caceres (now Naga) and Vicar General of the whole Diocese. Sensing perhaps that with his stay here it would be hard to fulfill his promise to build a chapel for the V. of Peñafrancia near the banks of Pasig River, he had the place commuted and decided finally to build it in Nueva Caceres, thou he was still at a loss with regards to the exact place. By fluke of Divine Providence, the cimarrones came to see the Bishop one day and asked for a chapel for their spiritual needs and religious practices, in a place easily accessible to them. This solved the problem.
THE FIRST CHAPEL
Dn. Miguel began immediately the construction of the chapel of nipa and bamboo in the place indicated by the cimarrones. It must be like one of those “Ermitas” in our barrios. By then nobody must have dreamed, not even Dn. Miguel himself, that suck a chapel built for the cimarrones, would someday be the pet rendezvous of thousand and thousands of souls of the Bicol Region and other places. The present church was built more or less in the same place where the first was constructed. it is about 2 kilometers from the present Municipal Building and around a kilometer and a half from the Episcopal Palace.
THE LAST DAYS OF DN. MIGUEL
Some months after the termination of the chapel, Dn. Miguel went to Manila where he lost the sight of his left eye. He consulted the doctors of the city with no positive effect. He then promised to come back to Naga to construct a stone church and to make the devotion to the Virgin more widely known among the Bicolanos. In a sudden he recovered his lost sight; so he came back. While in Nueva Caceres (Naga) Dn. Miguel fell seriously ill again and many thought it was his end. He then promised to live permanently in the place where he constructed a stone church and after five months of stay in that place he recovered. Dn. Miguel makes mention of this and other miracles in his letters addressed to the chaplain of Peñafrancia of San Martin de Castañar, Spain, written in the years 1710, 1711 and 1717. On or about the year 1723 God called him to his eternal abode to receive the reward for his good works and for the devotion he sowed in the bicolano soil, now acknowledged as Bicolandia’s foremost. May his soul rest in peace!
THE PRESENT STONE CHURCH
No definite data is available with regards to the construction of the present church. All references however point to the belief that it was Bishop Isidro Arevalo who built around the year 1750. His coat of arms engraved in the upper part of the western side of the church, justifies this stand, accepted by Msgr. Gainza himself. The old people say that the Chinese community of the locality donated the façade. They were ardent devotees of the Virgin as proven by the fact that they were the ones shouldering the expenses of the pagoda, the nicest seen in Naga, and all their children were usually baptized in the Peñafrancia church. As a consequence, the façade was entirely of Chinese art with pots, plates, jars, and etc. engraved on it. That was the façade previous to the present.
THE PRESENT FACADE
Perhaps few Bishops among those who governed the Diocese of Nueva Caceres had more devotion in, and demonstrated more interest for the Virgin of Peñafrancia and her church, as did Msgr. Francisco Gainza, an acknowledged luminary of the Dominican order. Not only did he write the history of Peñafrancia, the first one to be ever published, and edited a novena to the Virgin, but he also tried to make the Peñafrancia church a more worthy abode of the Mother of God. He introduced changes in the church, made it around 5 meters longer on the front and finally he constructed the present imposing thou simple façade. Bicolandia will never forget him and his memory will forever be linked with history of the Peñafrancia church.
THE FIRST MIRACLE
Just after the construction of the chapel, Dn. Miguel asked a sculptor to carve a statue of the Virgin from the picture of the original from Spain, which he had with him for many years. When the statue was finished, the sculptor needed blood to color it, so a dog was sacrificed. The dead animal with its four legs tied up, was cast to the river, which is only around five meters from the place. At this instant, Dn. Miguel remarked: “The Virgin will work her first miracle in Nueva Caceres. She will bring back to life that innocent animal that gave the blood for her”. Upon hearing this, those around him laughed sarcastically, but what was their surprise when in a jiffy the dog began to swim and upon reaching the banks, ran fast to the house of the master. Some people, including some Dominican fathers who were then taking vacation with Msgr. Gonzales, O.P., then Bishop of this Diocese, bore witness to the veracity of this first miracle wrought by the Virgin of Peñafrancia in Nueva Caceres.