Devoted collector helps Sto. Niño de Malitbog find its way home
CEBU CITY, Philippines — Francis Ong began his collection of Holy Images in 2017, a passion he formed with his pious upbringing in Mauban town in Quezon province.
This year, his collection of antique images of saints, the Virgin Mary, and of Santo Niño have reached 20, and they are placed reverently in altars in his home in Marikina City.
Little did he know that one of the Sto. Niños under his possession was a lost artifact of great importance to the people in Malitbog town, Southern Leyte, a parish under the Diocese of Maasin.
In the late 1980s, the Sto. Niño de Malitbog was taken to Cebu City to celebrate the Sinulog, but it was lost or stolen. It was never found since then.
The particular Sto. Niño under Ong’s possession was originally under the ownership of another collector since it was first published in the book, Santo Niño, the Holy Child Devotion of the Philippines in 2001.
Ong came into possession of the Sto. Niño after the original owner died. He considered it as one of his most prized collection because it was a “book piece” or a piece of antique featured in references and literary books.
However, the book did not link the statue to that of the lost Sto. Niño de Malitbog nor was it noticed by the Diocese of Maasin throughout the years despite the image being on the cover of the book.
How Sto. Niño de Malitbog was found
On the morning of September 18, 2020, more than 30 years after the image was lost, Ong received a link of an article by the Traditional Latin Society of Maasin stating that one of the greatest tragedy of the Diocese of Maasin was the lost Sto. Niño.
Along with the article were photos the Sto. Niño de Malitbog that greatly resembled the Sto. Niño in Ong’s home altar.
“Yung mga statues kasi nuon, unlike now na mass produced, mano-mano pagkagawa. So unique talaga yung mga imahe, generally singular at different ang artisanship ng bawat isa,” said Ong.
(The statues before, unlike today that they are mass produced, are done manually. So the images are really unique from each other, generally singulat and the artisanship of its image is different.)
He particularly noticed the cracks around the base and the distinct feature of the hands, which led him to suspect that the image might be the lost Sto. Niño.
“Of course, I had to imagine yung other parts kasi yung Sto. Niño ko medyo flaky na ang pintura sa mukha after many years at wala na ring damit. Pero if you see the distinct resemblance, maiimagine mo talaga na ito nga yung Sto. Niño ng Malitbog,” he said.
(Of course, I had to imagine the other parts because the Sto. Niño I had the paint on the face was already a bit flaky after many years and it had no more clothes. But if you see the distinct resemblance, then you can really imagine that this is the Sto. Niño de Malitbog.)
Ong immediately contacted his friend, Jayson Maceo, who was working as an apprentice to Dr. Rafael Lopez, a protege at restoring antique pieces.
Maceo was consequently creating a Sto. Niño that the Diocese of Maasin could use for the 500th anniversary of the first Mass in Limawasa next year, on March 31, 2021.
He reached out to the Diocese of Maasin who eventually confirmed that the Sto. Niño in Ong’s possession was in fact, the Sto. Niño de Malitbog.
In previous statements, Maasin Chancellor, Fr. Vincent Salang, said that they rejoiced upon the Kaplag, or the finding, of the Sto. Niño that has been lost for more than three decades.
“Isa talagang unique experience. Sino ba naman ako para gawing tulay ng Sto. Niño upang makauwi siya sa Malitbog,” said Ong.
(It is truly a unique experience. Who am I really to be made a bridge of the Sto. Niño so that he can return to Malitbog.)
Ong readily offered to return the Sto. Niño to Malitbog, and Dr. Rafael Lopez offered to restore the image as well. Still, the Diocese of Maasin requested that the restoration be minimal so that the antiquity of the 17th-century image would be preserved.
“Maliit lang na restoration, siguro sa mukha. Dadamitan natin siya, at bibigyan natin siya ng silver crown,” Ong added.
(We will only do minor restoration, perhaps the face. Then we will just put clothes on him and we will put a silver crown on his head.)
The finding of the Sto. Niño is considered by some devotees to be a form of miracle, a chance of faith, that it would resurface decades after it was lost and a few months before the 500th anniversary of the arrival of the Sto. Niño in the country.
This experience strengthened Ong’s faith to the Holy Child Jesus and reminds him of the wondrous miracles the Sto. Niño has done for the Filipinos.
“Dahil dito, I know na magiging tradisyon ko na in the future ang bisitahin talaga ang Malitbog tuwing Sinulog,” he added.
(Because of this, I know it will become my tradition in the future to really visit the [Sto. Niño de] Malitbog every Sinulog.)
This unique encounter of a devoted collector of a Holy Image that was lost from its home decades past is reminiscent of the first Kaplag on April 28, 1565, when Spanish soldier, Juan Camus, found the image of the Sto. Niño among the remains of a burned hut in Cebu.
Unlike then, when the Sto. Niño was miraculously found by a curious soldier, the Sto. Niño de Malitbog revealed himself to a devoted collector and through the help of technology, would now be able to return to Malitbog in time to celebrate His quincentennial anniversary.
As for the parishioners in Malitbog, their search for the lost Sto. Niño has finally come to an end. /dbs
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