THE image of Our Lady of Peñafrancia is a copy of the original image enshrined in Salamanca, Spain. Made of hard wood by a local artisan in Naga, the Bicol image is presently housed at the Peñafrancia Basilica.
Pope Pius XI granted the image a Canonical coronation on September 20, 1924 via his Apostolic delegate, Monsignor Guillermo Piani. On December 3, 2015, a mosaic image of the Virgin Mary under this title was officially enshrined at the Vatican Gardens for the 14th slot at the pontifical mandate of Pope Francis. The ceremony was attended by then President of the Philippines, Benigno “Noynoy’ Aquino III who unveiled the image with honors.
In Salamanca, Spain
On September 4, 1401, in the city of Paris, capital of France, a child was born to pious and religious parents, Rolan and Barbara. He was christened Simon. The family was quite well off, and their property was more than sufficient to maintain a family of four. Early in his youth, however, Simon despised wealth although his parents could well afford his wishes. When his parents and his only sister died, Simon inherited all their property. To avoid trouble, which he thought might ensue from his possession of such wealth, he sold his patrimony and donated the proceeds to the Church, the poor and the destitute, as well as to charitable institutions. He then applied for a position as a chamber boy in the convent of a Franciscan church in Paris.
Simon would frequently visit the church and spend hours in prayer before the altar of the Virgin Mary. Many times, in his deep meditation, he would ask the Holy Virgin to inspire him in what he might do to please her. Once, while he was absorbed in spiritual contemplation of the beauty of the Holy Mother, he lost consciousness. His prayer was answered for he heard a clear voice that tried to rouse him from slumber: “Simon, wake up; be on the watch…. From now on your name will be Simon Vela. Go to Peña de Francia west of this country, and there you will find the shrine of the Blessed Virgin Mary”.
For five years Simon Vela traveled far and wide among caves, hills and mountains, in search of Peña de Francia, but he could not find the place. He wanted to give up the search, and was in fact already on his way back to Paris, when one night he heard the same voice once more saying: “Simon, do not give up the search; do not give up what you have begun. Persevere and your labors will be recompensed.” This suddenly buoyed up his spirits and so he resumed his search the next day.
Simon went to the Church of Santiago de Galicia. And while he was passing the market place of Salamanca, he saw two men quarreling. One was seriously wounded and fell at Simon’s side. The offender was caught by the crowd who milled around them and he brazenly remarked: “Had I killed my enemy, I would have escaped to Peña de Francia where no one, not even the king, could find me.” Simon was overjoyed when he heard this for now he knew that such a place did actually exist.
Several hours afterwards he resumed his way to the church of San Martin. On his way he met a man selling charcoal. Simon asked the man where he came from, and the man said he came from a place called Peña de Francia. This was the second time that Simon heard the name of the place mentioned. He then begged the man to guide him to the place called Peña de Francia but for some reason the latter refused to do so.
Simon traced the road through which he thought the man has passed. He then reached a villa called San Martin de Castañar on May 14, 1434. He went to church and after the mass, he asked a man to kindly indicate where Peña de Francia was. The man took Simon Vela to a place some distance from the church and pointed to him a hill in the far distance saying that the hill was the Peña de Francia he was looking for. Simon was very grateful and thanked God for having found the man who showed him the place of his dream.
Simon then set out for the place indicated and, after a long weary journey, came to a steep rocky hill. By this time, his supply of provisions had been depleted and he was beginning to feel the pangs of hunger. The climb over the hill had considerably weakened him, but he was not disheartened because he knew deep within him that God had not forsaken him to a fruitless and useless search. And indeed how right he was for on the road otherwise abandoned he found a packet containing a loaf of bread and piece of meat. This relieved him so much until night overtook him and he sought shelter in a cave. Inside he prayed for guidance and soon he was lost in deep slumber.
Early in the morning of the next day, Simon began the search for the shrine in every cave where he had slept the night before. He felt distressed and discouraged for his seemed as distant as it was when he started. He knelt and prayed for strength and courage.Soon, he heard the same voice he had previously heard resounding clearly through the cave: “Simon, be awake: do not sleep.” Simon continued the search with more zeal in the morning of the next day. At a distance on a rocky hill, he saw a glaring and dazzling light filling the place with its brilliance. Trembling with joy, he approached it and there he found the Virgin Mary with the Child Jesus in her arms sittings on a golden throne. He Knelt before her and prayed with all the fervor of his soul. The ecstatic Simon said, “Oh, Lady, the dream of my soul, the inspiration of men and women! My labors are now ended. Many years have I traveled far and wide to seek you and to drink in the beauty of your eyes! Do not forsake me: be my protection.”
In sympathy for Simon, the Lady answered: “Simon, rejoice! Your constancy will be rewarded. Your dream will be realized. Your labors are now ended. Take heed and keep in your heart what I wish you to do. Dig in this spot and take what you can see and place it on the summit of this rocky hill. Build on this hill a beautiful dwelling. You are to begin it and others will come to finish it. This must come to pass as it has been the wish of my child.” Then the Lady suddenly disappeared and Simon was left standing alone and rooted in the spot with wonder and awe.
On the morning of May, 1434, on the spot where the apparition of the Holy Virgin disappeared, Simon began the work of digging and excavating. He, however, heard the same voice again saying: “Simon, do not attempt to undertake that big task alone. Undertake it in the presence and with the help of two, three, or more persons.” Evidently this was to avert any doubt or suspicion from people as to a veracity of the miracle and the credibility of Simon. So Simon went to San Martin del Castañar, a nearby town from the spot, and asked five men to help him. They were Anton Fernandez, Pascual Perez, Benito Sanchez, Juan Hernandez and Antonio Sanchez, the parish scribe of the place.
These men thought that they were digging for hidden treasure but they were informed that they were going to dig for objects worth far more than any worldly goods their hearts could cherish. They dug unceasingly, clearly following directions from divine inspiration. Finally, on May 19, 1434, after removing a huge stone, they found embedded among the rocks, the most coveted image of the Holy Virgin with the Child in her arms.
In Naga City
According to locals in what is now Naga City, a Spanish colonial official from Peña de Francia, Spain (a native of San Martín de Castañar) settled with his family in Cavite in 1712. One day, Miguel Robles de Covarrubias, a son of the official and a seminarian studying at the Universidad de Santo Tomás in Manila, fell seriously ill. He and his family prayed to Our Lady of Peñafrancia, whose picture Miguel clutched to his breast as he hoped for recovery. Miguel vowed that if cured, he would out of gratitude construct a chapel on the banks of the Pasig River in Manila.
Miguel was miraculously cured, and ordained a priest not in Manila but in Ciudad de Nueva Cáceres (now Naga City) by Bishop Andrés González. To fulfill his vow, Miguel (who was the first diocesan priest ordained in Naga), did two things. First, he mobilized natives along the slopes of Mount Isarog to build a chapel from the local nipa and bamboo, at a site by the banks of the Bikol River and not the Pasig as he earlier desired. Second, he ordered a local artisan to carve an image patterned after the picture of Our Lady of Peñafrancia that he always carried with him.
Stories of miracles surrounding the image began circulating immediately, beginning with the account of a resurrected dog. The animal was killed for its blood, which was to be used in painting the newly carved image of Our Lady, and the carcass was dumped into the Bikol river. The dog suddenly came back to life and began swimming; hundreds allegedly witnessed the event. News of many other miracles spread quickly, as did public devotion to the image. A letter sent by Miguel to the Dominicans in Salamanca, Spain in 1712 reported numerous miracles through the intercession of Our Lady. The number of devotees eventually increased beyond the Diocese of Nueva Cáceres, which comprised the Bicolandia and Marinduque, and in modern times the devotion has reached other parts of the world along with the Filipino diaspora.
The image is known to devotees by the title Ina, a local term for “Mother”.