Bells as mute witnesses to history
“Oiliness is next to ugliness” is probably the most memorable bit of advice I have received on how to look good on Zoom. Good audio, flattering light, and lip gloss are givens. I even know how to deflect distracting reflection off my eyeglasses, but forehead shine is something else. All the solutions, from talcum powder to Japanese blotting paper, mattifying moisturizer, foundation, and concealer seem complicated, and have kept me from jumping into the Zoom webinar bandwagon like everyone else.
Washing my face this morning reminded me of two things. First, priests assigned to celebrate early morning Mass for the Sisters of the Holy Face of Jesus in Quiapo referred to this apostolate in jest as “Oily Face.” Second, a 19th-century church bell in Bacoor is inscribed with the name “San Caralampio Presbitero Secular abogado contra peste” (St. Caralampio, secular priest advocate against the plague).
At first glance, I misread the saint’s name as Caralimpio (Clean face), from a catalog of church bells compiled by University of Santo Tomas Archives director Ricky Jose. He noted that the Bacoor church bell dedicated to San Caralampio also carried the name of the secular parish priest who installed it: Mariano Gomes, who, together with Jose Burgos and Jacinto Zamora, were executed in Bagumbayan in 1872 and are today remembered by their collective name “Gomburza.” Gomes is spelled with an “s” rather than a “z,” based on his last will and testament dug up from the archives by the late Dr. Luciano P.R. Santiago.
Church bells are blessed in a special way before use, anointed with chrism (holy oil used in baptism) and given a name. Incense is lighted below it to fill the cavity with sweet-smelling smoke, and the ritual ends with holy water to wash it inside out. In Spanish colonial times, bells called the faithful to church, tolled a dirge for funerals, and signaled the time for Angelus at noon and 6 p.m. The way the bell tolled warned townspeople against storms or the attack of slave raiders from Mindanao. Bells were believed to cleanse the air and repel lightning, storms, pestilence, and evil spirits. Some parishes today use loudspeakers to blare out Angelus and bell recordings that irritate rather than inspire call center agents living nearby who are trying to rest.
Ricky Jose has climbed practically all the church towers in the country to document bells dedicated to the Holy Trinity, the Holy Name or the Sacred Heart of Jesus, the Santo Cristo de Longos in Binondo, the Nuestro Padre Jesus Nazareno (Quiapo and Tuguegarao), and, last but not least, one that commemorates the Circumcision of the Lord in Quiapo. There are more bells dedicated to the Virgin than those for God or Jesus. Mary comes under different titles: Asuncion, Divina Pastora, Consolacion, Purificacion, Peregrina, Porteria, Desamparados, etc. The oldest is Santa Maria de Binalatoca in Camalaniugan, Cagayan, dated 1595.
Joseph is the most popular saint, with 40 bells all over Luzon, Visayas, and Mindanao. Joseph is venerated as the husband of the Virgin Mary, protector of the Church, Universal Patron of the Church, and advocate at the time of death. The oldest bell dedicated to San Jose is in Kawit, dated 1709; the most recent is in Candijay, Bohol, dated 1932. There are two Lorenzos: one dedicated to Lorenzo Ruiz dated 1989, another to Lawrence the Martyr in Balagtas, Bulacan (1805), who is the patron saint of lechoneros because he was roasted on a spit before being martyred. Maria Magdalena in Kawit was dedicated in 1851, and might have referenced many women of ill repute who plied their trade near the port of Cavite.
Some bells commemorate the founders of the religious orders that installed them. Of 23 bells dedicated to San Agustin, the oldest is in Makati, dated 1714; of five dedicated to Santo Domingo, the oldest is in Cagayan, dated 1694; of 11 dedicated to Francisco de Asis, the oldest is found in Cagayan, dated 1747. Since the Jesuits were expelled in the 18th century, the only San Ygnacio could either be Ignatius of Loyola or the older Ignatius of Antioch. A Jesuit bell in Barasoain, Bulacan, dated 1873, is dedicated San Francisco Xavier.
Smartphones may have replaced the church bells of yesterday, but bells remain mute witnesses to local and national history.
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