On June 15, 1991, Mount Pinatubo, a volcano located where the provinces of Zambales, Tarlac and Pampanga converge, erupted and wreaked havoc in the surrounding areas. The ash fall itself was felt across farther regions, even here in Manila which is at least 148 km away. I remember when day seemed to have turned into night (it was the ash and smoke hovering in the atmosphere), and everything around appeared as if blanketed by snow (again, it was all ash). What proved more disastrous for the three aforementioned provinces was the arrival of Typhoon Yunya. The structures there were no match for the lethal combination of ash and rain, akin to a giant cement mixer pouring its contents into the towns and fields surrounding.
While all of the churches we visited lived to tell their Pinatubo story, 2 in particular amazed me both by the devastation caused by the calamity as well as the resilience of the people in rebuilding their lives and their church.
The Shrine of Our Lady of Lourdes in Cabetican is a small, white structure that looked newer than the rest of the churches we’ve seen on the trip. That’s because it is new, the original church was buried in lahar in 1991. It was much smaller than all the others, but no less beautiful. Behind the main altar, encased in a huge rock is the famed miraculous image of Our Lady of Lourdes of Cabetican. True to Pampangueno hospitality, the Parish Priest, Fr. Ronnie Cao, came out to share just a few of the stories of healing that have been attributed to the said image of our Lady. After that, he blessed each of us with holy oil, as we made our way to say our prayers to our Lady from behind the rock structure.
On my way back to our bus, a friend asked me if I had been to “the wall.” Thinking there was some mystical writing or image on the vast concrete beside the church, I said, “No, is there something on it?” Always one for dramatics, she mysteriously said, “No, not on the wall, beneath it.”
The wall, I found out, was the roof of the former church that had been buried in lahar. After excavating as much as they could, people can now go down a few steps to see the remains of the church. Though they’ve built a new structure for the parishioners, Fr. Ronnie tells us that they still hold mass in the old church once a year, during the parish fiesta. This way, they remember what they’ve been through, as it reminds them to be grateful for what they have.
Our final stop for the afternoon was another church made famous post-Pinatubo: San Guillermo Church. Now dubbed as the sunken church, with half of its 12-m height buried in lahar, what used to be one of its second floor windows now serves as the church’s main entrance. There really isn’t much I could say about the experience. For this, I’d have to let the pictures do the talking.
In the excavation, they were also able to recover a lot of the antique images and paintings the church had accumulated over the years. They now put these on display in the adjacent parochial school building which is now a museum.
Seeing the damage caused by Pinatubo makes me marvel even more at the resilient spirit of Pampanga’s faithful. By picking themselves up and rebuilding their lives (and their church), they prove that their faith is stronger than catastrophic lahar flow, and bigger than any active volcano.