Dec. 8, the feast of the Immaculate Conception of Mary, is a special nonworking holiday nationwide by virtue of Republic Act. No. 10966. The law calls Our Lady “the principal patroness of the Philippines,” but more than that, she is the “mother” of millions of Filipinos who look to her as the fount of love and grace.
The missionary Mother Teresa once said: “If you ever feel distressed during your day, call upon Our Lady—just say this simple prayer: ‘Mary, Mother of Jesus, please be a mother to me now.’ I must admit, this prayer has never failed me.”
That prayer has never failed me, too.
I have been a Marian devotee since I was in my teens, due in large part to the influence of my Lola Pepay, who requested that I pray the rosary with her every night. Before she died from lung cancer in 1989, she gave me a precious 2-inch-tall bronze figurine of the Santo Niño and a ton of reasons why I should never stop being a devout follower of our Blessed Mother.
Decades later, I still am a proud devotee, and that’s why my husband and I took a 230-kilometer road trip to the Minor Basilica of Our Lady of the Rosary of Manaoag (or simply Our Lady of Manaoag Church) in Pangasinan last Dec. 1. We’ve visited the church many times but because it was our 10th wedding anniversary, the trip was extra special.
Unlike other pilgrims who head to their destination at the crack of dawn, we left our house in Las Piñas City for the four-hour trip to Manaoag at 12:30 p.m. This meant missing the last scheduled Mass for the day and losing the chance to touch the statue of Our Lady of Manaoag, accessible via a staircase leading to the back of the church’s high altar. A little argument occurred, but we eventually agreed that the obvious solution was to leave the house early on our next visit.
We expected traffic along the North Luzon Expressway to be bad because of the ongoing repair of the Candaba viaduct. But we had to endure the worst when we got stuck for an hour at the Bamban area of the Subic-Clark-Tarlac Expressway – the result of two separate accidents that involved five cars and a 12-wheel truck.
My husband, who never runs out of “divine intervention” stories, said with a straight face: “You know, that could’ve been us had we left the house early.”
It was past 5 p.m. when we arrived at Our Lady of Manaoag Church. Only the back gate remained open, and two security guards ushered us and a few other visitors into the premises. The vendors of candles and religious items—permanent fixtures near the gate who would aggressively confront churchgoers with their wares—were nowhere to be found.
We might have missed the last Mass of the day, but the sight of the many candles flickering in the candle gallery, highlighted by the serene aura of the church, was moving. We prayed the rosary and gave thanks to Our Lady, this time with no distractions.
I cannot forget the first time I was there because of a truly awkward incident. In the early 1990s, there was an area in the church where one could fill their container with water from a source which, my college classmate claimed, was “miraculous.”
Intrigued by her statement and pushed by the fact that I had always wanted to visit Our Lady of Manaoag Church, I finally decided to go. But I had to travel alone because my friend who was supposed to come along backed out at the last minute due to a family emergency. So I took the 3 a.m. bus to Manaoag and, upon arriving at the church, immediately looked for the queue to where I could fill my plastic jug with the “miraculous” water.
Maybe I was just so overwhelmed with excitement. I found out too late that I was in the line meant for devotees who wished to touch the statue of Our Lady, and not for those with water jugs. Anyone familiar with that area of the church knows that because only a part of the statue is exposed through a small window, one will not immediately see the statue unless it is one’s turn to touch it. A first-time visitor, like I was, will not know it, especially when one does not even bother to ask anyone else where the queue is headed.
And that was how I suddenly found myself in front of the window through which a part of the statue of Our Lady could be touched. I stood there with the water jug that I had whipped out of my backpack, and then I turned around and saw some churchgoers trying to keep from laughing. I smiled back weakly, proceeded to touch the statue of Our Lady, and prayed my embarrassment away.
It was an unforgettable experience that marked the start of my devotion to Our Lady of Manaoag.
Despite the distance, I would always grab the chance to visit Our Lady and talk to her like a daughter would. Time and again she has saved me from trials that I thought I would never surmount, and answered my prayers when I needed her help badly.
But if I were to cite my memorable visits to Our Lady of Manaoag, it will always be the times when I came, not to ask for any favor from her, but merely to say, “Thank you, Mama Mary.” Just like any loving child who is forever thankful to her mother.
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