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Boljoon’s altar retablo and our enduring faith

By: Jobers R. Bersales January 27,2016 - 11:41 PM

(This article also appears in today’s issue of the 51st IEC Bulletin)

The choice of putting the magnificent main altar retablo (retable or screen) of the Parish Church of Boljoon on the cover of the 51st IEC Program Guide — a photo by Fr. Jun Rebayla of the University of San Carlos — helps frame the enduring faith of the Cebuano in the Eucharist against the backdrop of cultural heritage and history beyond the metropolitan center of Cebu.

While Cebuanos, when asked what symbols or images represent their faith in God, are wont to immediately — and rightly so — point to the Sto. Niño de Cebu as well as the Magellan’s Cross (which graces the cover of the 51st IEC Basic Text), this retablo also has its own story to tell that may well serve as an additional symbolic reference to this enduring faith.

Rendered in flamboyant Baroque at a time when the simplicity expressed in the Neo-Classical style was beginning to sweep into church art and architecture, this retablo is the crowning glory of a parish church located 101 kilometers south of the provincial capital, a massive structure of coral stone and lime mortar that had literally risen from the ashes following a very devastating attack by Moro slave raiders from Mindanao and Sulu. Boljoon was razed to the ground in 1782 while much of its townsfolk was captured and sold off to eternal slavery. Its Augustinian parish priest fortunately managed to flee to the hills with some of his parishioners, mostly women and children. The following year, undaunted by the sad reality of incessant slave raids that had decimated much of central and southern Philippines since the late 1500s, Fray Miguel Otero, OSA, began a new church building project.

By 1802, a young Spanish parish priest, 25-year-old Julian Bermejo, OSA, had arrived to take over and complete the church construction project. He would turn out to be not just Boljoon’s but the Central Philippines’ answer to these raiders who threatened the very survival of Catholicism in the archipelago.  Within the next decade, Bermejo set about constructing a line of watchtowers in southern Cebu and urged his fellow Augustinian friars and their Recollect and secular counterparts in the many islands of the Visayas (Central Philippines) to do the same, to serve as outposts to communicate and warn of the arrival of the swift boats called panco that these slave raiders rode on. This entire defense network was headquartered on a hill just to the north of the church, effectively serving as the nerve center for the defense of the Visayas and northern Mindanao at a time when the Spanish civil authorities had given up and were enjoying the comforts of faraway Manila.

This defense net expanded the number of Cebu’s missionary and diocesan parishes and towns from just over a handful beginning in the late 1500s to the early 1800s to about 30 by the 1840s. With the cross on one hand and a sword on the other, Fray Julian and many of his contemporary priests, rallied the towns to remain steadfast in their faith in God amid adversity. Gradually the towns grew, no longer afraid of the slave raiders, while coral stone churches with these tell-tale Baroque altar retables were constructed.

Alas, the inroads of modernity and the devastation wrought by World War II damaged many of these churches. And we are left with but four of these coral stone churches whose original Baroque altar retablos remind us of those tumultuous years when our faith in the Eucharist was under threat.

And of these (the others are in the churches of Argao, Dalaguete, and the Basilica del Sto. Niño), it appears most fittingly that the retablo of Boljoon is the most magnificently preserved and the largest of them all, a fitting tribute to those missionary priests who not only propagated the Faith to the people but also rose to their defense and rallied them to persevere and defeat the enemy. This message continues to reverberate as we ponder on the mystery of the Eucharist: priest and people together, united in one salvific Faith.

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TAGS: Boljoon, Cebu, IEC

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