On Holy Week — a pilgrimage to Paete

FROM A DISTANCE - Carmen N. Pedrosa (The Philippine Star) - March 31, 2013 - 12:00am

For this year’s Holy Week I was in Paete, a small town nestled between mountain and sea in the province of Laguna. This is where my roots lie. Both my mother and father came from this town, much acclaimed for its wood-carving tradition that has lasted for centuries. Indeed its very name comes from paet the chisel used for wood-carving.

As a child this was my “abroad”. I went there to cross the river that separates the town balancing on a 2-pole bamboo bridge. In Paete, Holy Week despite its rituals of death, sorrow and resurrection, is fiesta and reunion. My recollection of the town of my childhood was to simply enjoy summer days — riding through lilies at the junction of the bay and the brook that flows into town, wake up to the sound of melodic church bells and drink sweet mountain water the townsfolk described as agua bendita (holy water). Then I did not ask or care what the town and its rituals were about.

To me it was a respite from the tedium of life in the city. Then by some fiat, I stopped going to Paete. It was too small-townish and did not my father and mother leave this stifling place to seek a better life in the city? That kept me away too for many years, through marriage, career and children.

But recently, I was coaxed by friends to return. One reason was to help unravel what went wrong with the historic murals of San Cristobal in the Paete Church, probably the biggest church murals in the country. It reaches from floor to ceiling and are immediately visible on the left as one enters the church.

And there were still others, who although not from Paete loved the town and wanted to preserve its artistic and historical uniqueness — former Commissioner of Customs Alberto Lina whom I met in the PAL inaugural flight to Toronto. He immediately put me in touch with Paete Mayor Cadayona. On the day of my visit relatives and friends led by Administrator Ronald Cosico laid a feast of the best in Paete food. To my cousins Sonia Adea and Lucy Adea, thank you. Let us all work together to see our dreams for this lovely little town come true.

*      *      *

It was through Bett Esposo Ramirez that I learned of the damaged Paete San Cristobal mural.

“We are currently working on the final stages of our Paete coffee table book, The Carving Life of Paete.” Work on the Paete book started in 2011 with co-author Prof. Brenda Fajardo, wrote Bett. It will be published by the University of Asia and the Pacific.

“We have hundreds of photographs of the church taken from 2011 but I thought I’d take some more. After taking some shots of the architecture, I recently went inside to shoot the interior. Everything looked the same inside the church, except for one thing that stirred my emotions.

“I saw the wooden San Cristobal mural on the floor, leaning on the other San Cristobal mural, which is painted on concrete wall. The wooden mural was partially wrapped with white cloth tied around the painting with wire. The painting was heavily damaged and the cloth covering could not hide the dilapidated layers of wood and chipped off paint that obviously burst from heavy blows of hammering. It has been leaning on the wall for many months now and certainly, its diagonal position will further damage the painting. 

“It is surrounded with screen frame to protect it from the churchgoers. Through the many holes in the damaged mural, I saw 2x2 wood mounted behind it, put there to hold together the dismembered parts of the 1850 mural. The mural painting is attributed to the local artist Josef Luciano Dans, who also did the other murals inside the church.

“It was the worst damaged painting I have seen! As a student of sculpture in Russia in the early 1990s, I had seen hundreds of churches in different parts of the former Soviet Union. I had seen paintings and murals, much older than the San Cristobal mural, also in wood, but have never seen one in such dismal and pathetic state.

“The paintings in Russia had many years of exposure to candle light all year round, winter, spring, summer and autumn but the religious images stood intact, well-preserved and revered by the churchgoers.

“What has happened to the San Cristobal mural? It was not in that damaged state during Holy week of 2012. Shouldn’t national treasures like this be touched only under supervision by the authorities of the State and the Church?

“Some Paeteños and my hosts, Drs. Nilo and Mac Valdecantos, narrated what had happened and advised me to go to more people to get information. I called the attention of Paeteños Carmen Pedrosa, Imelda Cajipe Endaya and Paete’s ‘adopted’ daughter, Brenda Fajardo and showed them the photos. They shared my pain and dismay, and I guess, even more painful on their part because they have known Paete longer and deeper than I have.”

Bett hopes that the cultural and historical experts, the National Historical Commission, the National Commission for Culture and the Arts, aside from the Laguna provincial Heritage preservation and cultural affairs offices come together to protect and save our national treasure, San Cristobal mural.

*      *      *

That was how I made the pilgrimage to my roots. I talked to Nilo Valdecantos and Joven Cajipe, still unaware of what the fuss was about. Initially I thought there were two murals of San Cristobal, one of them fake — with the Filipino San Cristobal superimposed on the Spanish. No, they said, there were always two San Cristobals in the Church, one of a Spaniard in wood and another of a Filipino in concrete. According to the stories, the Spanish one was painted when the friars thought there should be a more European looking San Cristobal. 

The Spanish San Cristobal has begun to disintegrate and needs to be restored.

To me it isn’t just about a damaged painting but the story of what Filipinos made of Spain’s Catholicism in the little town. The Indio San Cristobal has remained intact but the Spanish San Cristobal by a series of unfortunate decisions has been damaged, some say, beyond repair. We hope it will be restored. That will depend on the Spanish government if it wants to preserve the historical reason for two San Cristobals in the Catholic Church of Paete.

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