Shrine of San Antonio de Padua

Facade of Shrine of San Antonio de Padua

Two centuries ago, deluging flood waters necessitated the transfer of the Pila town, including the San Antonio de Padua church, from Pagalangan (now Victoria, Laguna), to its present site. Again water in the form of pounding monsoon rains almost doused the spirits of the townsfolk prior to the parish church's official designation as the first diocesan shrine of San Pablo, Laguna.

Fortunately, only negligible drizzles visited the town on the appointed day last July 9, leading its residents to say that the town indeed deserves to be called blessed.

The idea of the town's blessedness, of course, has its basis in history. Pila, known as one of the most picturesque and peaceful towns in Laguna, was mostly left unscathed by wars, pestilence and disease. And the blessings, most folks would attest, are borne out of the spirituality inherent in the townspeople.

Ricardo Cardinal Vidal, Archbishop of Cebu and Pila's acknowledged son, was happy about the enshrinement and expressed his elation in a homily delivered during the Holy Mass celebrated by San Pablo bishop Francisco San Diego along with some diocesan priests. He then challenged his townsmates to see Pila not only as a national historical landmark, but as a place where the devotion to St. Antonio de Padua will continue to flourish.

Interior of Shrine of San Antonio de Padua

The honor of being the first diocesan shrine of the Portugal saint, according to Bishop San Diego, should draw not only devotees from other places but more followers from the town itself. It was through the pastoral zeal and fatherly care of Bishop San Diego that Pila was able to achieve this religious milestone following petitions from Pila's devotees.

The San Antonio de Padua church enshrinement started out as a dream of the late Monsignor Renato Cosico. Cora Relova of the Pila Historical Society Foundation, Inc., said that the devotion to St. Anthony every Tuesday was rejuvenated by Cosico five years ago. The weekly devotion included a novena while Cosico included the blessing of donated bread, the offering of flowers and the testimonial of favors granted as the donated bread was then distributed to the devotees.

The plan to make the site a diocesan shrine was only put into action last year, interestingly after the town center, including the church and old houses and buildings, was declared a national historical landmark by the National Historical Institute on May 17, 2000.

When the town center around the historic church was declared a national historical landmark, the people were really elated, and that has been compounded even more now that the church has been declared a diocesan shrine. the idea of having both a secular and a spiritual landmark in the town is starting to sink in, and what's important now is the information dissemination that would follow, said Relova. But then, something really positive again has happened to the town.

Altar of Shrine of San Antonio de Padua

Although the petition for enshrinement was religious in nature, the Pila church's stature as a relic of history may have somehow helped its cause before the diocese.

Even before the Spanish conquistadors' arrival, Pila in Pagalangan was already said to be sacred ground and a place of spirituality. The name Pagalangan of Pila's old settlement meant place to revere. Even its predecessor, Pinagbayanan, a well-known archeological site where exquisite Chinese porcelain and local jars have been excavated, has also an ancient cemetery and crematorium.

The Pila church under its titular saint became the first Antonine parish in the Philippines on June 13, 1581. This was established after the pastoral work of Franciscan friars Juan de Plasencia and Diego de San Jose Oropesa, also called Padres de Reducciones, that included most towns in Laguna and neighboring Tayabas in 1578.

The Order of St. Francis (OSF) or the Order of Friars Minor (OFM, a mendicant order), arrived in Manila in 1577 and first built their Our Lady of Angels Church in the Walled City. The Franciscans were the second religious order to reach the Philippines. The de Plasencia-de San Jose Oropesa pair succeeded the Augustinian missionaries who first took care of Pila's spiritual growth from the first capital of Laguna Bae (now Bay). This is according to The History of Pila, a paper written by doctor and town historian Luciano P.R. Santiago, MD.

Altar of Shrine of San Antonio de Padua

After Pila was elevated as a parish dedicated to San Antonio of Padua, Antonine parishes also followed in Masbate (1583), Iriga City (1683) and Siruma, Camarines Sur (1687).

Until today, according to Santiago, the cult of St. Anthony has flourished in Pila in an unbroken chain of promise and a practice of the faithful. Before it (San Antonio de Padua Church) was officially declared a shrine, it was already considered a shrine intuitively for the faithful. Its being officially declared the shrine has confirmed, crystallized and cemented their belief. The honor is actually long overdue.

The church, then still made out of bamboo in Pagalangan, became a nest for many interesting items of history.

Plasencia's work, The Customs of the Tagalogs, (1589) was borne mostly out of his observations of the town. Until now, it remains one of the acclaimed works about hos early Filipinos lived during the Spanish colonization.

Another early printed work, the first Tagalog dictionary, Vocabulario de La Lengua Tagala, was penned by Pila parish priest Pedro de San Buenaventura in 1613. Santiago said there are only four known copies of this book--one is in the Pardo de Tavera Collection in Manila, two copies are in the Franciscan Archives in Madrid, and one is in the British Museum in London, being part of the spoils of war from the short-lived British invasion.

Padre San Buenaventura's book was the product of the Franciscan's first printing press in the country that was established in Pila in 1611. The press, second in the country after the Dominicans', was run by the so-called Prince of Philippine Printers, Tomas Pinpin, and Domingo Laog.

The Pila church was also home to the third oldest bell (1681) in the Philippines. Actually Pila's second bell was said to have been cast for the centenary of the Pagalangan church.

The oldest one was cast in 1596 in Calamaniogan, Cagayan (originally in Binalatongan, Pangasinan) and the second (1642), in Longos (now Kalayaan) in Laguna. Pila's first bell, according to Santiago's account, possibly came from the Spanish king for its inaugural as a parish in 1581 when the church was under its first parish priest de Oropesa.

Although it is the third oldest bell in the country, the San Antonio de Padua church bell is the oldest insofar as being dedicated to a saint. According to Santiago, the others are in Paete (1847), Sta. Maria, Bulacan (1877) and Majayjay, Laguna (1929).

The bamboo church would then give way to one made up of sturdy stone and a convent, which took 18 years to finish from the time construction was approved by the central government in 1599. The fact that the church and convent, transferred to its present site in the 1800s, is a living witness and testament to the devotion and the care of the townsfolk who were always there to protect it as proof of their faith.

When the British occupied the Philippines for two years from 1762, Pilenos hid the 1681 bell, probably by submerging it in the Laguna Lake. The British claimed the first bell, the sacred vestments of the church and a copy of Padre San Buenaventura's book.

Pilenos became much wiser following the British experience that they hid the important church paraphernalia when the Americans turned the church and convent into their barracks. While most of the elite's stone houses were burned down, the church properties stood and witnessed the horror in April of 1899.

The Pila church was the bastion of the resident's faith; they turned to it in times of crisis. During the construction of the convent in 1846, a cholera epidemic swooped down on Pila and brought down 36 people, 15 of whom died.

Parish priest Benito del Quintanar, OFM, who served from 1839 to 1852, supplemented the prayers, penitence and processions at all times of the day with a medicine for the disease. In his paper, Santiago said the priest's concoction consisted of olive oil, manzanilla and cognac. The unusual mix worked for the sick, as 21 of them eventually survived. Following that outbreak, the convent was finally completed in 1849.

Floods due to the swelling of the nearby Laguna de Bay caused illness and terrible inconvenience to livelihood, forcing the town to move to its present site at the turn of the 18th century. Key to the transfer, which was opposed by sectors ascribing to sentimentality, were the tres hermanos Don Felizardo, Don Miguel and Don Rafael de Rivera, who then offered their hacienda at Sta. Clara as Pila's new location.

Don Felizardo himself was the chief architect of the town, drawing the plans for the present-day town, which includes the church-plaza-municipal hall complex according to the standards of the Recopilacion de las Leyes de las Indies prescribed as early as the 16th century. These plans were made during the legal battle about Pila's transfer from Pagalangan.

What's left of the old church can still be seen to this day at Victoria, Laguna. In essence, the present San Antonio de Padua Church is also the same design as that in Pagalangan as most of its stones came from the old church.

The church also survived World War II. Life went on despite the undercurrent of tension in the town as starvation was quelled by an abundance of crops, which were also shared with other depressed Laguna towns.

It didn't take long before Pila was to be liberated. In fact it was first one to be unstrapped from the Japanese occupation's hold on Laguna in 1945 by grateful guerrillas. While devastation was a usual sight in the country reeling from the war, Pila manged to keep its ancestral houses and even the church and convent had minimal damage.

Like what their ancestors did before, Pila residents credited their patron saint for the blessings during the previous war. In January 1946, Pope Pius XII declared San Antonio de Padua a Doctor of the Church, while Pila adopted the honorific title Bayang Pinagpala in 1978, a term coined by Dr. Rogelio Lota.

Somehow, it was foreseen that the church would receive the honor of being the diocesan shrine of San Pablo. Fr. Melchor Barcenas, JCL, said, The favors and miracles granted by God through San Antonio were not necessarily the main consideration in bestowing the title, but helped in the deliberations. What is more important is devotion to the saint by the people. But there are also hundreds of letters submitted to Bishop San Diego expressing the favors granted by God through St. Anthony, said Barcenas, who took over as administrator after Msgr. Cosico died of a heart ailment last June.

The letters of favors granted or miracles bestowed would range from the healing of various diseases to a simple feeling of being closer to God. San Antonio de Padua, shown by his image carrying the Child Jesus, is invoked for lost causes and lost things. Some individuals, including young boys, who recovered from diseases through his help attend the Tuesday devotion wearing a habit akin to that of the Portuguese saint as part of their panata for the favors received from God through him.

San Antonio has always been a miracle worker even in Padua. In fact, I think he is the second most important Franciscan saint next to St. Francis, said Santiago.

The church packed with people during the Holy Mass for the enshrinement gave clear proof of Pila's great devotion to San Antonio de Padua. And now, more than before, being home to a diocesan shrine involves preservation of its religious values. It is in the same manner that Pila's being a national landmark has fostered among its people a feeling of pride, and the need for the preservation of the town's rich past, that owns a direct and undeniable link to spirituality.

Excerpt from Shrines, Incarnating Christ Today. St. Paul Philippines, 2004. Photos from

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