By ERIKA ANDERSON, Staff Writer | Published October 4, 2007
Weekend revelers at Lake Lanier witnessed a unique sight Saturday, Sept. 15, as a motorboat carrying a statue of Mary slowly moved by them.
As the boat made its way around the manmade lake, Father Chito Palang, parochial vicar at the Cathedral of Christ the King, and six men with him in the boat prayed the rosary. Back on the shore at River Forks Park, more than 100 people gathered for the festival of Our Lady of Peñafrancia also prayed the rosary, waiting for the boat to return.
Continuing this long-held Filipino tradition, although far from their homeland, the Filipino-American community of “Bicolanos” (members of the Bicol region of the Philippines) and friends gathered together to pay respect and celebrate in this daylong festival of religious and cultural activities. Attendees were blessed with a cool breeze and a clear blue sky punctuated by fluffy white clouds, a welcome treat after thunderstorms had threatened the area the previous night.
The congregation gathered under the shade of Georgia pine trees for a Mass celebrated by Father Palang, a Filipino priest serving in the archdiocese.
During the Mass, which was filled with music of the Bicol region and other areas of the Philippines, the ornately decorated statue of Mary rested next to the altar.
“Our Lady of Peñafrancia’s feast day is very special for you Bicols, spiritually and socially as well,” Father Palang said in his homily. “In different parts of the United States, Bicolanos are gathered together today. And their faith, hope and love will inspire those Filippinos who are not Bicolanos.”
To understand a feast day of Mary, Father Palang said, it must be related to her Son.
“Our feast day today must be seen and understood and celebrated and believed in the context of Jesus Christ—who he was, who he is and who he will be,” he said. “Every celebration when we honor the Blessed Mother, we honor her Son.”
The origin of the name Our Lady of Peñafrancia (which means, literally, rocky hill of France) started when a French friar, Simon Vela, found an icon in 1434 believed to have been buried many years earlier, in 711. The image of Mary was excavated in a cave on a rocky (peña in Spanish) mountain along the French Way near the village of San Martin de Castanar, Salamanca, Spain. Peñafrancia is a version of Peña de Francia, designating the place where the precious icon was found.
Devotion to Our Lady of Peñafrancia began in the Philippines in the 17th century when the Covarrubias family, natives of San Martin de Castanar, moved to Cavite in the Philippines. A son in the family, Miguel Robles, who was a seminarian studying in Manila, became very ill, and he prayed to Our Lady of Peñafrancia, whose picture he held to him, to spare his life, making a vow to build a chapel if his prayers were answered. He was miraculously cured and later ordained a priest in the Ciudad de Nueva Caceres (now known as Naga City). To fulfill his vow, Miguel, the first diocesan priest ordained in Naga, was instrumental in getting a chapel constructed by the bank of the Bicol River in Naga. He also commissioned an artist to carve an image patterned after the picture of Our Lady he kept with him always. Because of the miracles that occurred afterward, devotion to Our Lady of Peñafrancia spread throughout the world.
In Naga City, hundreds of thousands gather each year to celebrate Our Lady of Peñafrancia, which is highlighted by a fluvial procession. Amid shouts of “Viva la Virgen!” men take the statue of Our Lady of Peñafrancia in a long wooden boat called a “banka” and sail down the Bicol River while praying the rosary.
Here in Georgia, a small speedboat was a substitute for the traditional banka, and as the six men and Father Palang pulled away from the shore, those on land shouted the familiar cry, “Viva la Virgen!” and began to pray the rosary.
In the Philippines, where 99 percent of the country’s residents are Catholic, the Our Lady of Peñafrancia celebration is considered the biggest and most popular religious festival. The event was sponsored here by Sarong Bangui of Georgia, an affiliate of the Bicol National Association of America.
Jay Suarez, a parishioner of St. Peter Chanel Church in Roswell and the vice president of Sarong Bangui of Georgia, said that the festival brings people together.
“In the Philippines, there are 7,000 islands and 1,000 dialects (spoken), but when it comes to religious things, we all gather together as one,” he said. “It’s the only time all of these people get together.”
The festival begins with a novena, during which the statue of Our Lady of Peñafrancia is moved from home to home for nine days.
Dennis Salamat, secretary of Sarong Bangui, has been in the United States since he was 17. But he has fond memories of the celebration back home in the Philippines.
“I remember that thousands are carrying the Virgin Mary, and they walk barefoot from the cathedral for five miles,” he said. “It’s like a concert where everyone is trying to get a souvenir from (the statue), like a flower or something.”
Salamat looks forward to the festival in Georgia each year.
“It brings us together, us Bicolanos and other Filipinos, and reminds us of our tradition. It also gives us an opportunity to meet new people,” he said.
The Mass and fluvial procession was followed by a feast of Filipino food.
Merla Devera, who moved to the United States permanently in 1992, said that the Lake Lanier event gives her warm memories of her homeland.
“It’s important for us to do this so we don’t lose (the tradition) for our kids or our grandchildren,” she said. “It’s important to know where we came from.”