Where are the bones of Bishop Barlin?
By Fr. Francis A. Tordilla
It could have been a timely and momentous celebration had the Philippine Church been successful in bringing home the mortal remains of the First Filipino Bishop from Rome, Italy. For now, this has to wait.
Jorge Imperial Barlin (April 23, 1850 - September 4, 1909) was named the bishop of the Diocese of Caceres in Naga on December 14, 1905. Barlin was named bishop back when there was a serious doubt whether the Filipino native clergy was ready to administer higher ecclesiastical offices. His election dismantled this myth and heralded the era of Filipino bishops.
He studied at the University of Santo Tomas. He worked as the secretary to Bishop Francisco Gainza, O.P. He was a member of the Dominican Confraternity. During his Ad Limina visit in Rome, on September 4, 1909, he fell ill and died at the convent of the Dominicans at Via Condotti in Rome where he stayed for several months.
Priests from Bp. Jorge Barlin’s lineage offer flowers on the occasion of his 171st birthday anniversary. Fr. Balbino Gumabao (right) and Fr. Mariano Martirez (left) participate in the wreath laying on April 23, 2021 at Baao, Camarines Sur. Bishop Barlin is the First Filipino Bishop and the 28th Bishop of Nueva Caceres, +Most Rev. Jorge Imperial Barlin, DD. He was born in Baao, Ambos Camarines on 23 April 1850. (/MB Photo by Fr. Louie Occiano)
According to the Acts of the Province of the Holy Rosary, Bishop Barlin was interred at a cemetery at the outskirts of the City of Rome called Campo Verano in the tomb of the Dominican Friars. “Sepultus est in coemeterio ad Agrum Veranum, in sacello sepulcreti ubi frates ordinis nostri requiescunt” (ACP Rosario 1910, p. 112).
After he died there was no record of any attempt to bring his mortal remains back to the country except eighty one years after his untimely death. In 1990, commissioned by the Archdiocese of Manila, a team led by Dr. Luciano Santiago, a scholar of the Toyota Foundation, together with Fr. Mario Gaite of Baao, Rev. Delfin Felipe of Pontificio Colegio Filippino and Mr. Benedict Ballesteros of Sorsogon. The plan was to install commemorative plaques at the place of his death and burial. All efforts to bring the bishop’s remains back home were all a failure since they discovered that they were mixed up in a common grave.
Two years ago, the Archbishop of Caceres, Most Rev. Rolando Tria Tirona, OCD, sent a request to the Order of Preachers if it’s possible to make another diligent search for the bones of the bishop to as to bring them back home in time for the 500th year anniversary celebration of the Christianization of the Philippines. It happened that the newly elected Master of the Order is a Bikolano, Fr. Gerard Francisco Timoner, III, O.P. Immediately Fr. Timoner asked Fray Miguel Àngel del Rio, OP, the Vicar of the Master, to look for the remains of the good Bikolano bishop. The result was heartbreaking. After a diligent search in the different archives of the Order as well as those of the City of Rome, and after obtaining the permission to open the two crypts on September 2019, they could not locate where the bones of Bishop Barlin were.
Based on the report made by Fr. Del Rio: “no. 1 crypt was empty, finding only some tags. Another one with the label n.11 contained 3 boxes which corresponded with the tomb marker of n. 12.” Furthermore, based on the records of the Dominicans, several times the tomb of the Order was subjected to several renovation and transfer of remains. It is highly probable that on July 1925, the remains of Bishop Barlin were transferred elsewhere. The Vicar for the Master concluded with two theories as to where the bones of Bishop Barlin ended:
1. When the remains were lifted in 1925, there was a pilgrimage during that time in Rome on which Mons. Santiago Sancho, then Bishop of Tuguegarao participated. He was the former secretary of Bishop Barlin. There could be a connection between the act of exhuming the remains and the pilgrimage but to this date, no record is found.
2. What is highly probable is that for the lack of space, there was a need to redo the whole place as well as transfer some remains. They could have been transferred somewhere else within the cemetery. The name tags could also have been lost or defaced due to humidity.
Fr. Timoner remains positive that the bones could be identified one day. For now, “we cannot say (the bones of) Bp. Barlin is not there just as we cannot say he is there for sure.”