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Peñafrancia festivity: "Bicolanos' faithful odyssey with Mama Mary

NAGA CITY -- Viva La Virgen! Viva El Divino Rostro!

The cheers resounded from the swarm of jubilant voyadores as the images of the El Divino Rostro and Nuestra Señora de Peñafrancia were carried from the Peñafrancia shrine to their temporary home at the Metropolitan Cathedral by throngs of devotees during the Traslacion procession on Friday, Sept. 8.

Photo credits: Naga City Government FB page

Coincidence of coincidences, September 8 is also a celebration of the Nativity of Mary!

According to the Naga City Events and Public Information Office (CEPPIO) and Peñafrancia Joint Operations (JOC), nearly a million pilgrims joined this year’s largest Marian event in Asia, each one bearing his and her own intention and prayers. 

The countless favors and miracles ascribed to Nuestra Señora de Peñafrancia metamorphosed into a phenomenal event, not only for Bicolanos but also with the entire Marian community in all nooks and corners of the world.

Voyadores receive a splash of water from onlookers to ease the heat as swarm of pilgrims join the Traslacion procession (Photo credits: Naga City government FB page)
Credits: Archdiocese of Caceres

This faith, spanning centuries-old religious and cultural heritage, has served as every devotee’s refuge during the most trying times. It seamlessly aligned with this year’s theme: “Journeying with Mary in deepening our relationship with God in these challenging times.”

In his message, Archdiocese of Caceres Archbishop Most Rev. Rolando J. Tria Tirona, OCD DD stated Mary’s motherly benevolence and compassion in the lives of her devotees, especially during the COVID -19 pandemic. The unwavering faith of these devotees shielded them from the devastating effect of the virulent disease.

“We showed during the pandemic how we faced our difficult experiences, strengthened by our devotion to Ina. With her, we have striven more to deepen our faith in God since that time. With others in our community and society, we have reached out more and have looked for those who are most in need. This way, we become one with Ina in her charity,” Tirona expounded.

Tales of Ina’s intercession

People from all walks of life converge in Naga City every September to join the country’s biggest and most significant Marian celebration and pay homage to Our Lady of Peñafrancia. Each one shares a unique narrative of the marvel of Our Lady of Peñafrancia’s intercession, leaving them with an indelible encounter that has been forever etched in their hearts.

Born and raised to a poor family in Naga City, Eleanor Salvador Peña, witnessed how her family tried to make ends meet.  They held onto their faith every time they faced difficult situations.

“Mag arang lang kita ki Ina (Let us pray and ask for Ina’s intercession),” her parents would often tell them every time life got tough and challenging circumstances seemed to be testing their faith.

Fondly called “Ina” by her devotees, Nuestra Señora de Peñafrancia was seen as a beacon of hope, a torch in the darkness, and a radiant light in the tunnel of despondency by thousands of her devotees.

Eleanor, now 63 and a mother of four, recounted that her deep devotion started when she was still a kid. Their father, a “voyador,” would tag them along during Traslacion and fluvial processions.

At an early age, they witnessed how their parents would devote their time to attend novena masses. It was her mother who taught them how to recite the Novena to Ina.

As one of the ardent voyadores or male devotees entrusted to carry Ina in her ‘andas’ or carriage, he would often look for his father in the swarm of people that whirled like a wide ripple while Ina’s image was being carried to her destination.

Eleanor Salvador Peña, (2nd from left, back in pink) stated that her family is immensely grateful to God for the many answered prayers for the past 37 years of their blissful union. (Photo courtesy of Mrs. Eleanor Salvador Peña)

Eleanor believes that Inang Peñafrancia constantly reminds her of Mama Mary’s presence. When she got married on September 15, 1985, the first gift box that she and her husband opened had an image of Our Lady of Peñafrancia. Since then, Inang Peñafrancia has become their constant intercessor in the faith journey of her own family.

“We are an ordinary couple with a simple dream to raise our children with God as the center of their being.  With the intercession of Ina and God’s favors and graces, our children grew up to be God-fearing and all of them served in different parishes in our diocese,” Eleanor recalled.

She firmly believes that Ina will shield them from any harm and has fully entrusted the well-being of her family in Ina's caring guardianship.

Just like Eleanor, Rose Cruz Cayetano-Cavagnaro’s parents were fervent devotees of Inang Peñafrancia. She said that her mother would keep her in tow during her regular visits to the shrine. She personally witnessed her mother’s profound devotion as she would devoutly engage in meditation before the stations of t­he cross and pray the rosary. She can still vividly picture her mother walking on her knees while saying her prayers and kissing Ina’s “manto” or cape as a sign of respect.

“The afternoon visits to the shrine left an enduring mark in my memory. My parents, Ernesto and Eleanor sowed the seeds of devotion in me from a very young age, with daily 6 a.m. masses, Angelus, recitation of rosary and litany, in Latin, and prayers before dinnertime,” Rose said. 

Now 68 and a mother of three, Rose recalled how their faith faced challenges when the ‘weeds and thorn brushes of life’ would test their patience, resilience and determination.

“Through the Blessed Virgin Mary’s ever intercession, the challenges of raising a big family and building our family business would have been insurmountable. As a wife, mother, and co-partner in our own company, my day-to-day living depended on daily masses and Holy Communion,” Rose added.

79-year-old Ruben Dacian from Pamplona, Camarines Sur thanked Mama Mary for giving him his only child. His carefree attitude made the time fly by so fast that he wasn’t expecting that he would get married at the age of 50.

Now he has a 19-year-old daughter whose birth he attributed to his unwavering faith to Ina. 

He said having a family of his own further strengthened his faith in Inang Peñafrancia.


These intercessions and the countless miracles started when, according to tales, a dead dog thrown at the river came back to life and swam back to the river bank. 

According to stories, the dog’s blood was used by a local artisan commissioned by Miguel Robles de Covarrubias to paint Ina’s replica.

Covarrubias was a native of Spain but spent his years at the Universidad de Santo Tomas in Manila at the seminary. He was also one of the countless recipients of Ina’s miracle.

He would place the image of Inang Peñafrancia to any part of his body that was in pain and would feel ease and comfort after doing it.  

79-year old Ruben Dacian of Pamplona, Camarines Sur attributes all his blessings to his devotion to Nuestra Señora de Peñafrancia. II Photo credits: Mike Multo, Caceres Commission on Communications (CCCom)

The images of Divino Rostro and Nuestra Señora de Peñafrancia

The timeless Peñafrancia festivity’s two iconic figures belong to the El Divino Rostro and Nuestra Señora de Peñafrancia. 

The El Divino Rostro or the Divine Face of Jesus means more than the face of Jesus being carried by bare-footed voyadores ahead of Ina’s image during the Traslacion and Fluvial procession. Stories have it that way back in 1882, Naga City was plagued with a cholera epidemic.  It only subsided when the image of the Divino Rostro was placed at the altar of the Cathedral.

Nuestra Señora de Peñafrancia (Photo credits: Archdiocese of Caceres)
El Divino Rostro or the Holy Face of Jesus Photo credits: Archdiocese of Caceres

As a gesture of thanks, His holy face is paraded during the second Friday of September alongside Inang Peñafrancia. This also signals the start of a 9-day novena honoring the Divino Rosto and the commencement of the week-long celebration of the Peñafrancia festivity.

This will be followed by a fluvial procession where the two symbolic images will be carried back to their original abode at the Basilica Minore. 

Falling and rising again

The tales of miracles and testimonies alluded to “Ina” were also accompanied by sorrowful accounts.

Disasters and catastrophes were experienced by Bicolanos—which people interpreted as a result of this incident after Ina fell into the river in 1987, and lost her crown. 

Daet Caceres Bishop Rex Alarcon also narrated this story.

“On September 19, 1987, as the Virgin was being transferred to the pagoda for the fluvial procession, she fell into the river and sank. She had to be rescued underwater. This event was interpreted by some as a bad omen,” the Bishop said.

1987 was indeed an unlucky year.  Just a few days after the fluvial incident, the old Naga City supermarket was engulfed by fire on October 3, causing great damage to the stall owners and the local economy of the city as well. It was soon followed by a devastating typhoon Sisang. Packed with 220 kph strong winds, its aftermath left approximately a hundred thousand families homeless, a thousand more perished, and caused millions of damages to crops.

Ina’s 275-year-old image was also stolen on August 15, 1981 from the Peñafrancia Shrine.  The image was later discovered buried in Cebu. It was returned to Naga more than a year after antique dealer Francisco Vecin was contacted by a man selling the missing image of Nuestra Señora de Peñafrancia.

Rev. Msgr. Romulo A. Vergara, the Rector of the Penafrancia Basilica then, holds the significant relic of Marian history: the long-lost, jewel-adorned crown of the miraculous image of Ina, the Virgin of Penafrancia. This precious artifact vanished when the icon accidentally fell into the river on September 19, 1997, during a fluvial procession. (Photo credits: Bicol Mail and Ibalon)

Vecin said that he would buy the image, already anticipating that it could be the missing image of Inang Peñafrancia. He reported it to Msgr. Florencio Ylana who was then assigned to the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) office.

On Sept. 2, 1982, the image was returned to her devotees in a sealed box. Though already stripped of its silver encasing, crown, and manto, having Ina back is in itself a miracle.

Perhaps one of the most tragic stories related to the Peñafrancia festivity is the 1972 Colgante bridge collapse which killed 138 devotees.

The collapse was attributed to the old and fragile structure of the wooden bridge, which was filled with devotees and onlookers waiting for the fluvial procession. The authorities then were unable to control the crowd as they were so eager to wave their white handkerchiefs and raise their lighted candles when Ina passed their way.

Since then, though the bridge had already followed modern architectural design, the LGU and the authorities made it a policy to limit the capacity of people who should be there during the fluvial procession.

These unfortunate events do not stop pilgrims from flocking to Naga City every year. Undoubtedly, the grim stories have been overshadowed by the more spectacular tales of miracles wrought by the Bicolandia patroness. (With reports from CCCom, JNarvadez, MBermudo-PIA5/Camarines Sur)

Cover photo credits: Archdiocese of Caceres

About the Author

Ana-liza Macatangay

Regional Editor

Region 5

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