Sto. Niño meets oil depot
- Mel Elona () - February 5, 2012 - 12:00am

MANILA, Philippines - Pandacan to the mind of many is just a quaint little district by the Pasig River where travelers take short cuts to get to Santa Ana or Makati or which they sometimes try to avoid for fear of getting trapped in a tangle of heavy trucks and tankers coming in and out of the town’s most prominent address – the oil depot.

But on its 300th year this year, the district of Pandacan hopes to break out of the stereotype – or notoriety – and assert its role in the country’s cultural, social and economic development. The endeavor has turned out to be both religious and secular, even if the celebration of the town’s founding has always centered for centuries on its patron, the Santo Niño or the Holy Child Jesus. But what Pandacan is actually celebrating is its 300th year of ecclesiastical history – specifically its transformation from being a visita of Our Lady of Loreto Parish in Sampaloc to being a separate parish administered by the Franciscans. Long before the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors in the 16th century, Pandacan had already been existing as part of the Malay kingdom of Namayan, which then covered Santa Ana, Mandaluyong, Paco and Pasig. Its name is thought to have been derived from pandan reeds which grew abundantly on the banks of the Pasig River until progress – and urban blight – overran what would have been the most tangible proof of the old town’s etymological roots.

It was also among the pandan reeds where the wooden image of the Holy Child – now venerated in the church built in its honor – was said to have been found by children in the early 1700s. The image was brought to the Loreto Church, which then had ecclesiastical jurisdiction over Pandacan. Parish priest Fr. Lazaro Abaco, in his book “The Child of the Pandan Reeds,” said the image kept returning mysteriously to the wallow where it was found, prompting the Franciscan administrators of Pandacan to build a small chapel on the spot.

Concerned citizens are pushing for the transfer of the oil depot and the conversion of its site into a commercial center or a housing project.

The construction of a stone church dedicated to the Child Jesus began in 1731 and was completed in 1760. Almost 100 years later in 1852, an earthquake destroyed the original church and convent. It was rebuilt in 1854 but was again damaged in an earthquake in 1880. An organization of Pandacan theater artists helped raise funds for the rebuilding of the church and convent in 1896.

Two churches

A few blocks from the Santo Niño church is a smaller church administered by the Iglesia Filipina Independiente (IFI) or the Aglipayan Church whose parishioners believe theirs is the true miraculous image of the Holy Child. According to Fr. Abaco, Loreto Parish priest Rev. Msgr. Ceferino Sanchez had explained that the ivory image enshrined in the IFI church came from the Loreto Parish in Sampaloc and was moved to the main altar of the Sto. Niño church after 1712 when the latter became an independent parish also under the Franciscans. In 1902, or two years after the end of Spanish colonial rule, the IFI took over the Santo Niño church until 1906 when it was ordered by the US Supreme Court to return the property to the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Manila.

A devout IFI follower was said to have clandestinely spirited out the ivory image in her care and installed it in the new IFI church on Central Street. The Reverend Gregorio Aglipay himself had celebrated Mass at the Santo Niño church after the Philippines’ emancipation from Spain.

“The future is unclear on how the two images can once more reunite, much like the way long-separated siblings are united after times of conflict. But at least for now, we have hopefully shed light on the mystery behind the two Santo Niños of Pandacan,” Fr. Abaco said.

Cherina Ducusin, one of the lead organizers of the tercentennial celebrations, said there have been initiatives to strengthen the communion between the two churches.

The Iglesia Filipina Independiente houses the other – and some call the original – miraculous image of the Holy Child Jesus.

In the early 1970s, the old church – with its elegant altar, wooden pulpit, and thick walls – was sadly demolished and in its place was built a bigger but less charming edifice. It would stand undisturbed for more than three decades until Fr. Abaco initiated a redesigning of the church and convent, including setting up a baroque-style retablo.

The adjacent convent, a large portion of which was used only as a storage area for decades, underwent restoration under Fr. Abaco’s direction and converted into a mini museum. The opening of the Museo de Pandacan was one of the highlights of the celebration of the town’s 300th year as a Christian community.


One may now have to close his eyes if he wants to take a peek into Pandacan’s old charm. It’s quite hard to imagine that a bustling town of close to 80,000 souls had once been an island getaway, where artists had celebrated life and searched for their muses, and where freedom fighters had sought refuge.

Historians said Pandacan had once been known as the “Little Venice” of the Philippines because of its numerous canals, clear waterways, and rivulets. The Ilog Beata, which snakes around the old town, and empties into the Pasig River, had been an inspiration to artists including Tagalog poet Francisco Baltazar, creator of the “Florante at Laura.”

“Both local and foreign visitors found pleasure in Pandacan’s Venice-like environs. The parish convent became host to visitors, particularly high dignitaries of the Spanish government who came for conventions and for leisurely rest,” Fr. Abaco relates in his book.

National hero Dr. Jose Rizal himself, in his “Noli Me Tangere,” made numerous references to Pandacan and its environs, including the old nunnery on Beata Street where the inconsolable Maria Clara made her religious vow and met her lonely death.

The Romualdez mansion, which dates back to the American colonial era, is one of the most visible landmarks in the town center.

Fr. Jacinto Zamora, one of the three priests of Gomburza fame, was born and raised in Pandacan. The spot where his house once stood on Teodora San Luis Street is now a plaza and is a stone’s throw away from the home of Rizal’s musician friend, Ladislao Bonus, the “Father of the Filipino Opera.” Bonus was the musical arranger of Rizal’s poems Recuerdos a la Patria and Awit ni Maria Clara.

In the neighborhood also stands the old mansion of the Romualdez clan which has undergone refurbishing for the tercentennial celebration.

“The late Hispanic and early American periods gave Pandacan such renown that served as precious memories of bygone days. Such memories could never be effaced by the passage of time, as these endured as priceless legacies of mankind.” But effaced they were as the rush to modernization took its toll on Pandacan’s charm. For instance, residents have to endure the daily procession of heavy trucks coming in and out of the depot, which has been Pandacan’s most prominent landmark since the US colonial period.

In the widening of Jesus Street – Pandacan’s busiest road – the old chapel housing the original Sto. Niño image had to be torn down. The Ilog Beata, meanwhile, is now a river of waste and effluence and its old charm may be forever lost.

But just like its bigger and perhaps more high-profile neighbors, Pandacan is straining to keep up with modernization and preserve its distinct character. The tercentennial celebration may not just be a nostalgia trip but a clarion call for action, after all.

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