Whats on Manila Features Relic of the True Cross
What’s On & Expat – Philippines
July 15 – 21, 2007 ISSUE
By KATRINA CABANOS
Long before the Americans of the Commonwealth period dubbed Baguio as the Summer Capital of the Philippines, the Spaniards of old discovered and fell in love with the serene beauty of Tarlac’s vast plains and its hidden valleys. The place remains a seat of the most prevalent Spanish influence: Catholicism. Tarlac is fervently Catholic, its old churches unforgotten, and new ones sprouting every so often. Now, Tarlac City, the midpoint between Baguio and Manila, is a bustling metropolis dotted with famous coffee shops and restaurants. Tarlac is not merely a pit stop for weary travelers on their way to the more popular tourist destinations further up north. The province is steeped with a rich history and new attractions for the mind, body and soul. Early this year, the Department of Tourism named the quiet baranggay of Lubigan as the most revered pilgrimage site in the country. It’s high time to rediscover Tarlac’s charms not through the eyes of an inquisitive tourist, but that of a pilgrim.
The story begins when Father Archie Cortez, prior of the monastic community Servants of the Risen Christ, attended the World Youth Day in Cologne, Germany. There he met Monsignor Volker Bauer, rector of a diocese in Essen, the sanctuary.of the relic of the True Cross. With Europe becoming increasingly secularized, we find Catholic churches being converted to museums and restaurants. So was the case in Essen, Germany. Monsignor Bauer was looking for a community to take-over the guardianship of the relic and he chose the Servants of the Risen Christ because of their devotion to the Holy Cross. In record time, Monasterio de Tarlac was erected, the new home of the relic. The Essen relic is one of the many relics of the True Cross, now scattered mostly in Europe. It is the only one of its kind to be found in Asia
The Pilgrim’s Progress
A group of faithfuls headed by Ding Mercado and Chili Pefianco of Asiantraveller organized a pilgrimage to Tarlac’s churches with the Monasterio de Tarlac as its focal point. I was privileged enough to join them for my first ever pilgrimage, and believe it or not, my first trip to Tarlac that was not just a stop-over.
The day started at Mt. Carmel Shrine Parish Church in New Manila. We were a cozy group of 20 eager pilgrims; among us was Fr. Arnie Boehme, the parish priest of Mount Carmel. It was exactly 7:20 am when we departed and after a quiet 3-hour drive, we reached our first stop: the Coconut Grill in Capas, Tarlac for a sumptuous Filipino breakfast buffet. Sated and excited to recommence our pilgrimage, we headed to San Sebastian Cathedral in Tarlac City for a quick prayer, and to pick up our official tour guide, Fr. Alex Bautista.
Fr. Bautista, a professor of Liturgical Art in the University of Santo Tomas, designed the interiors of most of the churches we were set to visit. His firsthand knowledge of these churches, expertise in religious iconography and interesting anecdotes kept the pilgrims enthralled throughout our journey.
Ave Crux, Spes Unica
A sudden turn on the road took us from the sprawling fields of rice, to a lush, mountainous valley that marks the boundary of Tarlac and Zambales. These very hills shielded this area of Tarlac and kept it mostly unscathed during the 1991 volcanic eruption of Mt. Pinatubo in Zambales.
A smooth and winding road up a mountain led to Tarlac Ecotourism Park, a project of the provincial government. The hilltop sanctuary that is Monasterio de Tarlac lies within the park, in a gorgeous plot of land donated by the local government. The imposing facade of the main chapel stood gleaming at the center of the compound, surrounded by a sprawling piazza. The chapel proper can seat approximately 50 people. It is heavily embellished with baroque style trimmings, giving the small structure a grand feel.
Viewing decks designed like medieval castles were built on the slope, and near it were large, first-rate restrooms to accommodate the onslaught of tourists and devotees expected during peak seasons. A well-manicured garden strewn with white, life-like statues also encircle the compound. The most majestic of them all is a 30-foot statue of the Risen Christ reminiscent of Brazil’s Christ the Redeemer stands at the edge of a hill, arms outstretched.
We celebrated the Eucharist in the chapel with Fr. Arnie Boehme of Mount Carmel shrine and Fr. Alex Bautista as co-celebrant. Afterward, we queued up to have a moment alone in the altar for a silent prayer and to touch the ark that houses the relic. The ark is only opened during the feast of the Triumph of the Holy Cross which is on September 14. Above the altar where the relic lays are the words “Ave Crux, Spes Unica,” or hail the Holy Cross, our only hope.
At around 2 pm we drove back to Tarlac City for lunch at Nay’s Restaurant. This quaint house turned restaurant serves delicious Filipino dishes and the homey, old-world interior was the break for our morning excursion. But there was more to come. The next stop was the Expiatory Chapel dedicated to Our Lady of Buknol-Buknol (knots) in Gerona. The chapel is fairly new and was built in response to the political unrest the country was facing early in the decade. The artworks that adorned the chapel are replicas of famous religious paintings.
The church dedicated to Saint Isidor in Pura was next. St. Isidor is the patron saint of farmers, an apt devotion for the town. The structure itself is large, however the renovations of the interior, saved for the altar which was completed with the help of Fr. Bautista, are still ongoing.
Next on our itinerary was the Shrine of Our Lady of Peace in La Paz. The statue of the Sacred Heart of Mary that rests in the altar is said to be miraculous. The parish priest of the shrine was kind enough to bless the pilgrims with a short prayer and with an anointing with oil before we continued on.
Last on our list was the Church of the Immaculate Conception. It had a magnificent altar of gold trimmings and meticulously hand painted walls. An ornate dome above the altar topped off the majestic design.
A bit tired but still in high-spirits, we shared light snacks on board the coaster that will take us back home to Manila. The experience is not solely for the faithful. Those who find their spirituality to be waning may just find their much-needed burst of faith in these sanctuaries. As for those who raise a skeptical brow on mysticism, the beauty of the place, with its charming churches and exquisite religious art, still makes it worth the visit.
How To Get There and Other Helpful Hints
The Monasterio de Tarlac is located in the Tarlac Ecotourism Park, Lubigan, San Jose. From Manila, take the North Luzon Expressway to Tarlac City. In the barangay of San Sebastian, turn left to the town of Camiling. A 30-minute drive will lead to the barangay of Lubigan. The roads leading to the monastery are well-developed, a development project care of generous patrons and devotees of the Holy Cross in cooperation with the local government.
The sanctuary of the relic of the true Holy Cross is only open to the public on weekends. Weekday visitors will only be entertained if part of the pilgrimage arranged by this group. Pilgrimages will resume after the rainy season. Contact Ding Mercado (0917-7908138 ) and Chili Pefianco (0920-9187358 )for more details.
While in Tarlac, don’t forget to sample the local delicacies, like tapang-kalabaw (soy-marinated carabao meat), pastillas, torones de casuy and buro. The native handicrafts are also a worthwhile find. Ceramic wares and sculptures made of volcanic ash showcase the locals’ ingenuity and artistic flair.
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