Voices from the Chapels
Do chapels talk to each other?
Do not take my question literally; rather, think, as we think, if there is a logic behind the establishment of small structures for worship.
As we continue our field work under the patronage of the Mother Butler’s Mission Guild, we begin to look not only at the icons inside these chapels but also the locations of these sites. What brought us to this curiosity was San Isidro Labrador.
When we began our research last year, we had this assumption about the dominant presence of San Isidro, the Farmer. The predominantly rural character of the towns and villages we were visiting encouraged us to think along this line. And yet when we scoured the areas along the Bicol River - Canaman, Magarao, Bombon, up to Calabanga, and back to San Fernando, Gainza, Minalabac - we did not see the presence of the patron saint of farmers. We noted more San Antonio, San Roque, and, most particularly, Salvacion.
During the first months of our fieldwork in 2021, we traveled to the Rinconada area, where again, San Isidro did not appear even in mountain villages. Salvacion and San Antonio de Padua were the most popular presences. It was from Buhi that we decided to travel via the mountain road that skirted the side of the lake, up to the vast cornfields that brought us to Ocampo, and to the chapels built at the base of Isarog. It was an exciting trip that enabled us to visit and document the chapels in the sitios of Goa, Tinambac, and Maguiring.
Last week, Partido was again on our map. We went the distance first to Presentacion and worked back to Lagonoy, San Jose, Tigaon, parts of Goa, and Ocampo. When we reached Pili, we took the interior streets that allowed us to pass through Minalabac, then Milaor.
By this time, we were counting the places guarded over by San Isidro. The saint known for his love of animals was winning the chapels. He was there in his most arresting iconography - the Angel with a plow ready to till the field for Isidore, the cow, and the man himself kneeling or with a sickle.
In research, patterns when they appear are most assuring. They tell the researchers the field is talking and we need to respond in terms of a reading, or an analysis. Was it the anthropologist, K. O. L. Burridge, who quoted Henry David Thoreau’s line, how it is not worthwhile to go around the world to count the cats in Zanzibar? The meaning being is that if one has journeyed so far already, it is the duty of the sojourner to go deep and know more about the place he has gone to. Applied to research, fieldwork should not remain on the level of enumeration but rather to probe more into the social realities of the subject matter.
We need to make sense of these icons and how they are and have been selected. We also have to be conscious of the locations of these chapels that provide shelters to these statues, most of which barely reach two feet in height.
One of the most obvious and also confounding concerns is how, despite the visibly agricultural state in which these icons are situated, why does San Isidro figure only in some parts of Partido? Do believers not see the power of this Spanish saint-tiller relevant to their farming communities? Why San Roque, he of the plagues and pestilence? Why San Antonio, he of miracles and closeness to the Child Jesus? Why Salvacion, she of succor to those threatened by spiritual and eternal damnation?
We looked around Tigaon, Lagonoy, and Presentacion. Labor and tenancy are difficult in these places. Hard work is seldom rewarding because of marked social inequalities. Was the promise of Isidro’s mighty bull tilling the soil for the tired bodies and souls of those who lived in the Partido de Lagonoy the reason for his power over the land?
What about those living by the Bikol river and its tributaries and those around the lake over which looms the volcano, its mouth gaping open, its geologic life caught between dormant and dead? Were they terrified of nature that only Salvacion and San Antonio could save them? Were they visited often by pestilence that San Roque, he, with the gallant looks of a gentleman, proud of his wound, was the proper warrior fighting for them their battles?
We have not reached our conclusions. These tentative generalizations are interesting thoughts for us. As we go on with our study even more are still to be clarified.
What is clear to us though is this: the icons in each of the chapel have their own respective feast days. The singularity of the date is such that similar icons need not be celebrated on the same day and month. These chapels are also not occupied by the priest, leaving the administration to the people themselves. Those living in homes next to or closest to the chapel are the de-facto keeper of keys. This arrangement implies a venue of faith that is people-ordained, people-centric, people-based. These chapels to those who offer their pains and sorrows to the icons residing in them become the people’s vessels of what they interpret to be their beliefs, their religion.