Religious Reflection from Jagna Town

By Joe Espiritu
Bohol Sunday Post

On a ledge overlooking the Jagna Bay, far from the bustle of everyday life is found the Shrine of the Birhen sa Barangay and a retreat house. In the altar beside the Cross is the icon of Our Lady. The faces of the Virgin and her Son in her arms are not distinctly Caucasian or even Semitic. This is the only representation of the Virgin among her pictures, which could pass as Filipino, a Filipino mestiza. This could be the effect of her Filipino attire of baro, saya, tapis and head covering.  The background conveys the color of evening skies over Tubod Mar.

 The Birhen sa Barangay did not just happen by chance to come to Jagna. She came from the Sta Barbara Sanitarium of Iloilo via Silay City of Negros Occidental. Antonio C. Gaston, Mayor of Silay City had organized in 1949 the Barangay Sang Birhen Association, a movement patterned after the lines of the Cursillo. Under his influence the Barangay Sang Birhen movement spread to the neighboring towns and cities of the province.

 Gaston conceived the idea of an icon of the Virgin Mary to be a patroness of the Barangay Sang Birhen movement and Our Lady is to be decked in a Filipina costume so the Philippine masses could identify with her. In 1954, he broached the idea to Msgr. Manuel Yap. Bishop of Bacolod Bishop Yap agreed but he set a standard based on ecclesiastical rules in religious paintings.

 In the cathedral of Jaro, Iloilo, one day Rev. Fr. Pixner a Milhill priest of the Sta Barbara Leprosarium told Gaston of a painting made by a patient. The painter, Crisogono A Domingo had executed a painting without hearing about the concept of the painting from Gaston or the standards set down by Msgr Yap. Domingo was a painter with no formal training.

 His painting was done on a lawanit wallboard. However, when photographs of his painting were shown to Msgr Yap, the bishop wholeheartedly approved of what he saw.  In May 1, 1955 the Most Reverend Members of the Episcopal Commission on Catholic action conferred a Certificate of Mandate to the Barangay Sang Birhen Movement. In October 16, 1955, the image was given a canonical blessing and erection in the diocese by the bishop and was called the Birhen sa Barangay.

 To propagate the Barangay Sang Birhen movement, Antonio Gaston took the image on a tour. The icon made its way through the provinces of Negros Occidental, Oriental and Cebu amid enthusiastic receptions. For years, the Virgen sa Barangay had been carried all over the major towns of Central Visayas, until it reached Bohol. On December 1977, the image landed in Tagbilaran City.

 Esteban Bernido, governor of Bohol at that time, was casting around for a place Jagna, which is to be made a tourist attraction. His attention was directed to the Ilihan Hill. Having seen the image of the Virgen, he was impressed by the similarity of the landscape in the image and of the Jagna bay. A shrine to the Virgin was erected in December 30, 1997. The laying of the cornerstone was attended by no less than Antonio Gaston and other Barangay Sang Birhen dignitaries.

 While the icon was making the rounds in the towns of Bohol several Sa Maria chapters and religious groups wanted to have a replica of the image. Photographs of the Domingo painting was sent to Rosalio A. Ortiz of Jagna. Ortiz is a graduate of the College of Fines Arts, University of Sto Tomas. Paintings based on photographs did not do the icon justice. When the icon was installed in Ilihan for a while Ortiz faithfully copied the painting down to the Domingo signature. As an artist, Ortiz must have imposed his imprimatur thus producing a distinctly similar yet subtly different result. The copy caught the attention of Sister Helen Fernandez. The original and the copy were brought by Sister Fernandez to Gaston in Silay City.

 Antonio Gaston was impressed by the Ortiz replica. The original was kept in Silay City while the copy was installed in the Ilihan shrine. The National Commission of the Barangay Sang Birhen movement appointed Rosalio Ortiz as official artist of the icon. All replicas are to be painted by him The Council further set standards on the sizes, which are to be installed in the Chapels and those to be placed in Churches.

 Religious philosophers say that God sends His servants to all peoples of the world but the people receive them according to their cultures and traditions. The Virgin Mary indeed occupies an esteemed position in the House of Islam It is not surprising to find Virgin Mary and Jesus in Islam as Christianity and Islam are daughters of Judaism.

 However, to find a   version of Virgin Mary in the Orient is remarkable. Kwan Yin, the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy is likened by the Chinese .to Mary. Through great love and sacrifice Kwan Yin earned the right to enter Nirvana after death. She was standing before the gates of Paradise when she heard cries of anguish from the earth below. Turning back, she renounced her reward of eternal bliss that she may bring relief rather than enjoy the ecstasies but found immortality in the hearts of the suffering.