We know them now as chapels. In our cities, they are tucked in between homes or at dead-end streets. They come alive when used for wakes in barangays, or when Maytime comes and the Flores de Mayo (a feast that is presently interchangeable with Santacruzan) is observed.
Generations though have always known and have thus called these chapels as either visita or ermita. The labels or concepts are carryover from the Spanish occupation when during the spread of the Catholic faith, the main church was situated in the center of the town and the priests there conducted visits to the outlying villages. The act of visiting transformed these far locations to visitas. To, more or less, establish their presence in these places, the Catholic authorities ordered constructions of small chapels, which with the act of visiting, were conflated into that single term, visita.
Distinctly, these chapels were dubbed ermita or hermitage, a reference to its then remote or secluded site, in reference to the centrally located pueblo or parroquia.
These chapels apparently were important already even then. In some accounts, for example, it has been written how church authorities would demand that the process for elevating the place from a visita, with its own ermita, should attain first the status of a pueblo civil, before it became a parroquia.
It is propitious then that a research, with an endowment from the Mother Butlers’ Guild Mission (MBGB), has allowed us to visit these ermitas. With Ms. Nely Diaz, a Nagueña as its National President and Mrs. Josefina Guazon as Naga Cathedral Chapter President, the MGBG fund has allowed Kristian Sendon Cordero and me to initiate a systematic study of these humble venues of faith.
What functions do chapels serve at present? In the main town of Buhi, for example, where the church is accessible practically to all, except those who live beyond the lake, the ermita is a center of worship for the people. More appropriately, these quasi-churches decenter faith and bring a religion closer to homes. There is a palpable sense of intimacy between a chapel and two homes that flank it. It becomes wondrously and with such customariness a church for the people.
No more is the feeling of awe that automatically, and instinctively nurtured by hundreds of years of evangelization, one has for the church. Rud0lf Otto’s “mysterium tremendum et fascinans – the fearful and fascinating mystery – is reserved for the Church. A differing openness devoid of terror and puzzlement marks the chapel.
No wonder that the chapel has many uses. It is the original multipurpose hall of a village. Meetings of religions associations are held there as well as gatherings put up by the barangay. Representatives of the central government – of a city or town – would seek permission to use the place for information dissemination. Neutral despite the religious character and a refuge, the chapel encourages orderly and peaceful gatherings.
Who shouts invectives while San Roque is there behind you displaying his sacred wound, an iconography of affliction and healing? Who dares curse in front of San Vicente Ferrer with his benign wings ready to fly him away from disbelievers?
This brings us to the other focus of our study: the Patron Saints enshrined in their respective ermitas.
At first, we wanted simply to document the iconographies of these saints. This means noting how they are presented across villages, towns and settings. We aim to note on how the religious imaginary persists and sustains itself through centuries. Is there a San Vicente de Ferrer without wings? Is San Isidro always accompanied by a cow? What distinguishes San Pablo from San Pedro? Are Marian manifestations prevalent in the region?
With due respect to the sacral, we are even venturing into popularity of Patron Saints. Who is the most favored, and, it follows, the most popular? Like all good researches, the difficult probing question, why, cannot be avoided.
As of this writing, we still have to visit more sites. What is becoming doubly interesting though in this research is how we are seeing a pattern in the location of the chapels and the designation of patron saints in them.
In Camaligan, the Evangelistas are found in chapels that were built on one street. When you see the chapel of San Marcos, the next chapel going west to the river enshrines another of the four Evangelists, San Mateo, and so on.
In Bell, Magarao, we came upon four woman praying loudly the Rosary to our Lady of the Porteria. We dared not disturb them. It was when one of them looked to our direction that Kristian made a sign that we were there to take photographs. The nod was enough for him to walk up slowly the altar and document the San Pedro and San Pablo.
In other chapels, we noticed how the main statue of the Patron Saint would be accompanied by a smaller icon of the same saint: the main San Antonio de Padua would have a miniature version below him; a San Roque would have a smaller representation beside him. It is as if the people through their chapel are narrating something and, by emphasis and clarity, repeating their stories.
These ermitas relate narratives about how people view religion from below. When there is a preponderance of San Roque, it is because in the past, people looked to this saint of epidemics and diseases to save them. Even as they did this, their Patron Saint (wh0 was not San Roque) remained stable and strong in the middle, the seat of attention, only implicitly humbled by the Crucifix looming above them all.