The Origin of the Holy Face Devotion

The present crowd during the traslacion of the Divino Rostro.

This article is submitted to the media with the best of intentions: for the faithful to have a deeper reverence for the devotion to, and to foster religious fervor for, the Divino Rostro, especially at this time when occasions for religious worship and traditional religious practices have been constricted by the current pandemic, so that in one way or another we can also say with Fr. Pedro de la Torre: “Ves que no es mal arrimon”.

On Friday, August 28, 2020, it will be 198 years ago when the cholera epidemic was detected in the Diocese of Caceres. It was also the year when the Devotion to the Divino Rostro was born. The origin of the Devotion to the Holy Face (Spanish: Divino Rostro) in the Bikol Region is explained in the October 16, 1882 letter, hand-written in Spanish by Rev. Fr. Pedro de la Torre y del Pozo himself, the Diocesan Procurator and Vicar General of Nueva Caceres, to his cousin Juan Francisco, a resident of Osa de la Vega (Cuenca ) in Spain. This I-narrative of Fr. De la Torre has more details than that of Dr. Domingo Abella.

Here is Dr. Domingo Abella’s brief account on the origin of the devotion to the Divino Rostro, published in his book, Bikol Annals volume 1, pages 185-186:

“It was during the tenure of Bishop Casimiro Herrero, OSA (1880-1886), that the Bikol regional devotion to the Divino Rostro was born. In 1882, Manila was stricken with cholera epidemic. It had the earmarks of extending its ravages to Bikolandia. Already several cases were registered in Nueva Caceres, and this made the people apprehensive. Father Pedro de la Torre, the vicar general, who hailed from Osa de la Vega in Spain, remembered that his native town had been spared from a similar epidemic during the years 1834, 1854, and 1855 through the townfolks’ devotion to the Divino Rostro.

“Bishop Herrero readily approved his vicar’s suggestion that the holy picture which he had of his town’s venerated image be enshrined at the cathedral for the duration of the epidemic. The Bishop further ordered that the intercession of Our Lady of Peña de Francia be likewise prayed for; thus her statue was carried in procession from her chapel to the cathedral on August 26 of that year. It goes without saying that prayers before the two images were continually held by the faithful and the diocesan clergy.

“When the threat of the dread (sic) disease was finally dispelled, both images were, for the first time, carried together in procession the following September from the cathedral to the Peña Francia chapel. In thanksgiving, Father Torre’s holy picture was borne on a platform on the shoulders of priests who, speaking for the whole diocesan clergy, signed a vow to have the holy picture carried henceforth together with the statue of the Blessed Virgin of Peña de Francia on all occasions. The documents to this effect were sent as a pledge to Osa de la Vega where the original image of the Divino Rostro is venerated.”

In his letter, Rev. Fr. Pedro de la Torre gave more details than the one written by Dr. Domingo Abella on five important points: the spread of the cholera epidemic (colera morbo) in the Ciudad de Caceres; the emergence of the Cult to the Divino Rostro; the two penitential processions --- September 3 and 10 ------ bearing the painting of the Divino Rostro; the traslacion (not the fluvial procession) on September 28, 1882 of the holy images of the Divino Rostro and of the Virgen de Peña de Francia from the Cathedral to the Santuario; the Vow of the clergy to the Divino Rostro:

1. On August 28, 1882, the Ciudad de Caceres officially declared the local outbreak of cholera. On the fifth day ---- September 2 ---- after the declaration, 154 died. The bishop of the diocese at this time was Bishop Casimiro Herrero, OSA (1880-1886).

2. A devotee of the Divino Rostro, Fr. Pedro de la Torre had a painting of the Divino Rostro, artistically done by a native of Manila and remembering that the townsfolk devotion to the Divino Rostro had spared his hometown, Osa de la Vega, from such an epidemic in the years 1834, 1854 and 1855, he hoped that such a devotion would likewise spare the diocese. Some must have already read the story of the Divino Rostro and they asked him to place the painting on the bier/platform (andas) of the Virgin of Peñafrancia, which had been brought to the Cathedral on August 26. He accommodated the request, but still the number of the infected spiked. A devotee of the Divino Rostro suggested that a written vow ought be made by the priests pledging that should the number of those infected would notably diminish or should the cholera altogether disappear on the day of its festivity, on September 10, a solemn procession would be made without being tedious in bargaining its cost (sin escatimar gasto alguno).

The plan for the Ciudad de Nueva Caceres drawn sometime in 1500’s showing where the old Naga River cuts through the very commercial center of the city, as described by Fr. Francisco Mallari, S.J. in his column in Balalong. The sketch below shows the rechanneled Bikol River according to the Esquivel plan, completed in 1849, which prevented the erosion of the soil on the right side of the San Francisco Church and the flooding the commercial center of the city.

On September 3, 1882, a penitential procession was made with the images of the Divino Rostro and the Virgin of Peñafrancia at 9:00 in the evening with two priests wearing surplice (sobrepellon) and praying the Miserere, who placed the written vow of the priests on the andas of the Divino Rostro.

A day later, the number of those infected remarkably decreased (a otro dia decrecio extraordinariamente el numero de las victimas) and on day 10, a Sunday, the festivity of the Divino Rostro, a most solemn function was made.

3. On September 10, after the tercia (the Canonical hour which follows immediately the first or the hours from three o’clock in the afternoon onwards), the procession started with all priests vested in fluvial cape. At the start of the procession, Bishop Herrero vested in wide cape and Fr. De la Torre in fluvial cape “carried on our shoulders the andas (bier), taking the lead for the other priests” (cargamos en nuestros hombros delanteros de las andas)”, while crying and petitioning health for the faithful in the Diocese. “You cannot figure out what impression this sight has affected the faithful who witnessed the procession. You can already appraise what is crossing my mind” Fr. De la Torre wrote in his letter.

After the procession a sung mass was said accompanied by an orchestra. The homily was delivered by the Ecclesiastical Notary of the Diocesan Curia, in the Bikol language. The Cathedral was adorned with damask hangings, lit with more than 20 chandeliers, all the altars profusely lighted, even the balustrade (varadillas) of the presbytery was dazzling with lights. Definitively, the Cathedral became a golden ember, with the Divino Rostro standing out on its platform between garlands and glass casings. Fr. De la Torre conceded that “I was overwhelmed with joy since the Divino Rostro is being adored in this part of the world, the Oceania, perhaps with more fervor and splendor than we did in Osa de la Vega”.

With all these happenings, the priest admitted that he had to accede to the many requests for novenas, medals, even religious pictures (estampas) thus he ventured to make a novena in the Bikol language and asked a lithographer in Manila to make prints of the estampa. Even Bishop Herrero granted a 40-day indulgence for those who would pray one Our Father, the Apostles’ Creed and hear Mass celebrated at the altar of the Divino Rostro. The concession document was in a small box at the side of the altar.

4. The traslacion procession of the Divino Rostro from the Cathedral to the Santuario de Peña de Francia. The traslacion was scheduled on September 28 with much anticipation. Even in the evening before the traslacion, there was much movement of people in the neighboring towns. At 6:00 P.M. September 28, the Cathedral was bulging at its seams with pilgrims, so were the plazas and the roads.

For the traslacion a large boat (un gran buque; for Neuman and Baretti: hull or frame of a ship, excluding the spurs, sails and rigging) was fashioned skillfully provided with six unseen wheels under it (colocado muy artistcamente sobre seis ruedas que no se veian). The boat was christened “Osa de la Vega” written in bold letters on its larboard (left side) and starboard (right side). The boat-like bier was stationed at the parapet of the Cathedral. The bishop wearing a fluvial cape and miter climbed the bier, so did the priests donned in fluvial capes. The Bishop and the Vicar General sat at the stern of the boat and the other priests at the larboard and starboard. The boat- like bier was so fashioned so that it had poles (palos), riggings(jarcias), sails (velas), rudder (timon) and on whose poles fluttered an infinity of pendants/streamers (gallardetes) and camp-colors/bannerols (banderolas). The rudder was manned by a seminarian dressed like a seaman with a raincoat and an oil-cloth hood (capote y capucha de hule), sporting a beard and with artificial hair that seems to have been roasted by the tropical heat (llevando barba y cabellos postizos de un color que parecia que estaban tostados por el fuego de los tropicos).

The boat-like bier was pulled by more than 500 men all dressed as mariners coming from different towns and, not to exaggerate, their number even increased to more than 1,200. The traslacion made its way along one of the main roads (tomo rumbo por una de las calles principales), making a turn to the more populated area before its arrival at the Santuario.

As the procession started the numerous faithful, following the two holy images, burst out into cries of thunderous vivas ( prorumpieron en vivas atronadores). The “Osa de la Vega” seemed to be sailing in sea of people (navegaba sobre un mar de gente). It reached the Santuario at nightfall. Describing the multitude, Fr. De la Torre wrote: “Imagine, seeing a field sown with palay and sugarcane, with a plantation of cereals, coffee, young coconuts and imagine that all these you see from the extent of this village to as far as your sight could go, and that the Santuario was in Calvary. Well then, stretch your sight along the road, to the left, then to the right and you will see all the people, every one of them holding a lighted candle. This spectacle cannot but be the most enchanting and the most surprising of all. (Imaginate tu ver un campo sembrado de arroz y caña de azucar con plantios de arboles, de cereal, café, palmeras de coco y imaginate que todo eso lo ves desde la orilla del pueblo hasta donde alcance tu vista y que el Santuario esta en el Calvario. Pues bien, tiende la vista por el camino y por derecha e izquierda y lo veras todo lleno de gente que cada uno individuo tiene en la mano una vela encendida. No puede darse espectaculo mas magico ni mas sorpredente).

Before reaching the Santuario, an architectural structure in the form of a temple was set up like a harbour for the ship “Osa de la Vega”. There those in the bier debarked and they received and incensed the holy images amid the blare of music by a band playing the national anthem of Spain (marcha Real), stationed on a platform up the temple, while two paper balloons were released to the sky, one bearing the greeting “Viva el Santo Rostro”, the other “Viva la Virgen de Peña de Francia”, then the retinue together with the holy images entered the Santuario, where the Salve was solemnly sung and the prayers to the Divino Rostro and to the Virgin of Peña de Francia were recited.

5. The vow by the clergy of Caceres offered to the Divino Rostro stipulated that each of the members of the clergy would make a small offering (limosnita) which would be remitted to the holy image and to the funds of the Confraternity (Cofradia). The offering collection amounted to 3,420 real (one real is equal to the 16th part of an ounce of gold) which amount, Fr. De la Torre instructed, “Francisco (his cousin, staying in Osa de la Vega) to be accountable to it, to whom to turn it and to say who has to deliver to the treasurer of the Cofradia (in Cuenca, Spain). You see, it is not too bad to support a powerful person (Como ves no es mal arrimon; for Neuman and Baretti: arrimon is metaphorically used since literally it means “the support given by a wall to one who is drunk staggers”). Part of the offering was allocated for the printing of pamphlets about the story of the devotion, for mass intention for the souls in purgatory, for posthumous awards (honras funebres) for members of the Cofradia, for the poor in the diocese, each to be given 15 pesos on a case-to-case or re lationship basis (pro vata/pro nata).

The list of the priests (who signed the vow, which would be sent to Osa de la Vega, together with their offering) and the members of the Cofradia expressed their desire that anyone who would become a member, would pay a fee amounting to five or six pesos and should be considered to have satisfied his obligation for subsequent years which was 4 reals.

Fr. De la Torre said that later he would press the Board to lower the annual fee to one or two reals, to attract more members.

It should be noted in Fr. De la Torre’s first-hand account that:

1. There was no fluvial procession along the Naga River as most people would surmise. Reason: the Naga river in the year 1882 did not have a route like the one known today, since the old route of the river at that time threatened the Church of San Francisco with flood water and with the erosion of the soil at the river bank. The old route of the Naga, according to a serialized column with the title Why Dinaga Street? written by Fr. Francisco Mallari, S.J. published in Balalong, a weekly tabloid, from its December 3, 1982 issue onwards, “flowed through the present Jordana Compound (now Camarines Lumber) close to the (right side of) San Francisco Church, cutting across the Peñafrancia Street, sweeping a portion of Crown Hotel as it progressed towards Alex Theatre (now MayBank), crossing Panganiban Street, a little above the City Library (former site of the Casa Real), slicing through Ojeda Street towards the intersection of Padian (now Caceres), Dinaga and Elias Angeles Streets towards the present river bank (at the back of BPI Family Bank). This new channel for the Naga River was drawn by a certain Manuel Esquivel y Castañeda which he submitted to Nicolas Enrile and Jose Ma. Peñaranda and was approved on December 20, 1832. Immediately the excavation of the new channel for the Naga River began but encountered financial problems including the ruckus raised by affected businessmen, requiring judicial intervention. The work had to be put off. The completion of the Esquivel project was fully realized in the year 1849 after Ezquivel had obtained a favorable verdict. The earth cut from the channel was dumped on what is now barangay Dinaga, hence the name of “Dinaga” which means “earth filled”. The change in the river’s course not only protected government and church buildings from floods but also changed the city’s landscape. It is then very clear why there was no fluvial procession of the holy images on September of 1882. The procession was called traslacion from the Spanish verb “trasladar” meaning to transfer something from one place to another place”.

2. Although the Bishop and the priests wore fluvial vestments for the traslacion, this did not necessarily mean that they would be taking a boat ride during the transfer of the holy images from the Cathedral to the Santuario. Besides, the constructed buque which may be translated as the hull of the ship excluding the spurs, sails and riggings, was consistent with the detail that the buque given the name Osa de la Vega after the village of the same name in Cuenca, Spain, which had brought the devotion to the Divino Rostro by a ship (not by air or any other transportation by sea). In addition, the detail that there were six hidden wheels under the buque gave emphasis to that it was designed to travel on land not on sea.

Touching is the observation of Fr. de la Torre that the bishop himself together with the Vicar General of the diocese led the other priests in carrying the image of the Divino Rostro on their shoulders, which detail is not mentioned in the Abella narrative.

Like a story teller, Fr. De la Torre used the I-narrative if only to express his own sentiments, which has no place in Abella’s narrative as an historian.

There is no mention of a fluvial procession (sakay), which brings up the question: When did the sakay start? An article on this might open some interesting points which may have pastoral implications.

The current traslacion of the holy images from the Santuario to the Cathedral provides each image with a half-globe andas to prevent the voyadores from climbing and stripping the images of their decors and flowers. Can there be an andas for the Divino Rostro that looks like a buque?

It is notable that nowhere in the Philippines is there a parish with a devotion to the Divino Rostro. Why is there no new parish in the Archdiocese of Caceres bearing the name, or under the protection of, the Divino Rostro?