Basilica of Our Lady of Charity



Facade of Basilica of Our Lady of Charity

It all started as a dream. Some providential confluence of circumstances, determination and persistence, generosity and cooperation have combined to make the dream a reality.

The reality is a house and shrine to an ancient statue whose beginnings no living person in Agoo can recall, but whose charm and appeal beckon to countless men, women and children who offer prayers of petition or thanksgiving to her whom they all affectionately call Our Lady of Charity.

The Shrine stands glorious and majestic on the same site which provided locale for the previous St. Monica Parish Church.

The founders of the parish were Franciscan missionaries who entrusted Agoo to the patronage of their founder, St. Francis. Succeeding missionaries, however, from the year 1598 were Augustinians and they named as the town's new patron saint the mother of the great St. Augustine after whom their Order was named.

Interior of Basilica of Our Lady of Charity

Until it was demolished in 1975 to give way to the new church, the old structure underwent a series of attempts to have it renovated, enlarged and modified. Its beginnings can be gleaned from the name some local residents have given it--the tin church.

But the church building was not always where it is now. Less than a hundred meters north, along the national highway, is the base of an old belfry (now transformed into the Sto. Niño wayside shrine), a reminder that in the early part of Agoo's history, the town church would have been situated thereabouts. That church was considerably improved by Fray Saturnino Franco; its belfry a three tiered structure, was built by Fray Casimiro Melgosa and Fray Aquilino Garcia. Both the church and belfry were destroyed in the earthquake of 1892.

Obscurity surrounds the predecessor of that destroyed church. Agoo was founded in 1578 by Fray Juan Baptist Lucarelli and Fray Sebastian de Baeza. The town center following its foundation would have been somewhere in what is now Nagrugcan. One may therefore conclude that the first church building of Agoo must have been there.

First Attempt to Build a Shrine

The statue of Our Lady that Agoo venerates as Our Lady of Charity is a wooden statue. The late Maximo Vicente of Manila who had a chance to refurbish it years ago believed it to be made of a solid piece of wood. No one knows where it came from or how it came to Agoo. Town tradition has always accepted the image as veritably antique, sometimes surrounded by pious legends, always revered as the Mother of the town.

Altar of Basilica of Our Lady of Charity

It can be safely speculated that the devotion to Our Lady under the title Lady of Charity was derived from an older devotion to the same that flourished in Bantay, Ilocos Sur. The system of rotation of assignments among the early Augustinian missionaries in the Ilocos could have brought one missionary from Bantay who introduced the devotion here. (The statue of Our Lady of Charity in Bantay which dates back to the 17th century was desecrated some years ago with the theft of its previous jewel-studded ivory head. This leaves Agoo's statue as probably the oldest image of the Lady of Charity in the country.)

The devotion to Our Lady of Charity was revived when the late Bishop Victorino C. Ligot of the Diocese of San Fernando, La Union petitioned Rome for the canonical coronation of the statue, an honor that is accorded only to statues of proven historical or religious significance. The town of Agoo, under the leadership of then Congressman Jose D. Aspiras, restored the ruins of the old belfry and carved out of it s wayside Shrine to Our Lady of Charity. The canonical coronation was officiated by Archbishop Carmine Rocco, then Papal Nuncio to the Philippines, on May 1, 1971.

New fervor was stirred up by the canonical coronation and the enshrinement of the statue of Our Lady of Charity in her new sanctuary, and devotees from other towns of the Ilocos started trekking to Agoo for the Saturday Novena of Our Lady. The stage was set for Agoo to take its place among the pilgrim towns of the Virgin.

A Minor Basilica: Philippines' Third

Barely three years after its consecration, the church was granted a signal honor by the Holy Father who elevated it to the rank of a Minor Basilica. In a rescript signed for him by Cardinal Agostino Casaroli and dated July 15, 1982, Pope John Paul II gave due course to the petition of Bishop Salvador Lazo of the Diocese of San Fernando, La Union that the Shrine of Our Lady of Charity be endowed with the title of a Minor Basilica.

The elevation of the church to the rank of a basilica makes it the third among the churches in the Philippines to be granted the honor, the first being the Basilica of the Santo Niño in Cebu, and the second being the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception in Manila, also known as the Manila Cathedral. It also wrote a beautiful finish to a dream that started to grow through the years since the late Bishop Ligot, first bishop of the Diocese of San Fernando, wrote the Sacred Congregation for the Sacraments and Divine Worship in Rome to make the initial petition for the title of Basilica.

Excerpt from Shrines, Incarnating Christ Today. St. Paul Philippines, 2004. Photos from multiply.com, dotregion1.com, world.mitrasites.com.

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