Once dubbed as the Queen City of the South, Iloilo City boasts of its magnificent and historic churches. The one in the district of Jaro remains the center of Marian devotion in the island of Panay. Commonly known as the Jaro cathedral, the National Shrine of Nuestra Señora de la Candelaria (Our Lady of the Candles) is flocked by pilgrims on the second day of February, the feast of Our Lady of the Candles.
Atop the puerta mayor supported by a portico, a balcony which has a concrete baldachin at the center with a twin staircase is apparent from afar. A long line of churchgoers from all walks of life can be seen in the cathedral’s plaza eager to climb the stairs towards the platform. At the end of the queue, people stop on their tracks to pray fervently in front of the baldachin where one can fully gaze the miraculous stone image of the Virgin Mary.
The provenance of the image of Nuestra Señora de la Candelaria is shrouded in legend. According to oral history, the image, which was only a foot tall, was found by a fisherman lying on a riverbank centuries ago. He tried in vain to move the image with his companions but it didn’t budge. When one of the folks suggested to transfer it to Jaro, it surprisingly detached from resistance and they were able to maneuver it smoothly.
Jareños believe that the stone image has been growing through the years. From being just a foot tall, the image is now seven feet in height. Many prayers and intentions have been granted by Jaro’s patroness that in 1981 it was Pope John Paul II who personally crowned the image. The late pontiff also declared it as the Patroness of Western Visayas in recognition of the motherly love that the Virgin Mary bestowed upon her children.
Intercessions granted and the perdon
My first visit in Iloilo and the National Shrine of Nuestra Señora de la Candelaria was in July of 2015 after a short vacation in Bacolod. On February 2, 2016, I came back as a promise to thank the Virgin Mary and the Holy Child for the miracles and answered prayers that they had granted me and my family from the time of my first visit.
A week after my mother’s birthday in August of 2015, she was diagnosed with severe pneumonia and she painfully struggled in the hospital for two weeks. My mother kept on telling me that it may be her last, but I told her that God will forbid it. I asked for intercession and pleaded Our Lady of the Candles for my mother’s healing, which she granted. This is just one of my many testimonies of Our Lady’s powerful intercession.
My friend and I arrived in Iloilo in the evening of February 1. We promised Our Lady to buy perdon candles, join the procession and attend the pontifical mass the following day. At about two in the afternoon of February 2, we joined throngs of people in walking towards the cathedral as the main road was blocked off in preparation for the procession. We went immediately to the pilgrim center to buy perdon candles and an image of Nuestra Señora de la Candelaria.
In Spanish, perdon means forgiveness, but in Jaro it is a long candle which is only blessed after the 7:00 am mass in the cathedral. The perdon candles are said to be powerful in times of calamities and great danger. Devotees also light these candles if they have special intentions or when there is a dying person in the family. In Catholic tradition, these candles are the only ones that can withstand the three days of darkness during the Day of Judgment.
We also purchased a small replica of Our Lady of the Candles as a souvenir of our trip in the national shrine. It was fortunate that when we started selecting items Msgr. Alejandro Esperancilla (or Msgr. Andy) suddenly went out and he was able to bless our images and candles.
I’ve never attended any procession outside Luzon, so the one we attended in honor of Nuestra Señora de la Candelaria was quite an experience. It rained heavily before the procession, but according to the locals it’s typical to rain during the fiesta. If I were to describe the procession of Our Lady, it was ostentatious, mystifying and very solemn. Aside from being well-organized, it was bedazzling in shades of pastels and spring.
The procession starts at the cathedral’s plaza and it winds through a rectangular route. In de tallado style, the festajada image of Our Lady of the Candles rides a spectacular pre-war chariot designed silver carroza, which according to Msgr. Andy, was commissioned from the talleres of the late Maximo Vicente in Manila.
During the procession, Our Lady was accompanied by her entourage. Neatly dressed and properly queued students from Catholic schools, sacristans and seminarians walked silently while praying the rosary. Painstakingly spectacular were the beautiful lasses called sagalas clothed in colorful ternos who held the A-V-E-M-A-R-I-A insignia, sun, moon and stars, and the litany that signify the Virgin Mary.
The entourage was also joined by two tableau: the Holy Family and the Betrothal of the Virgin Mary to St. Joseph. Each of these tableau had corresponding groups of young boys and girls who held estandartes that depicted scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary. From a layman’s perspective, the word “grand” is an understatement to describe the entourage and entire proceedings.
On the one hand, devotees of the Virgin Mary like us walked with the image of Our Lady of the Candles. The procession ended in the cathedral’s plaza where a serenata in Hiligaynon and the singing of the Salve Regina were conducted. It was a touching moment as the festejada image, the original and the one in the altar looked face to face. While the Salve was being sung, one could truly feel the presence, the warmth and love of the Virgin Mary to her children.
Unlike other parishes and shrines, the fiesta high mass in Jaro cathedral is celebrated after the solemn procession. This particular pontifical mass was extraordinary on my part as it was thoroughly conducted in Hiligaynon. Although I cannot fully understand what the good bishop was saying, I could decipher some phrases as my yaya and our previous housekeepers exposed me to the language. What truly marked the occasion was the marvelous choir of young boys who had angelic voices reminiscent of the Vienna Boys’ Choir and the Tiples de Sto. Domingo.
Two days after the feast, my friend and I headed back to the church before we leave for Manila. I went to the baldachin and fervently prayed. As I looked up to the dearest Virgin of Jaro, tears flowed down my cheeks in gratitude for all the blessings and miracles she granted me and my family. I shall visit her again next year.