The Parish of Virgen de la Regla

The patroness of the city of Lapu-lapu is the Nuestra Senora Virgen de la Regla. How much do you know about the little brown lady?

I can still distinctly remember that in my childhood my whole family would visit Lapu-lapu City (a.k.a. Opon) once every November to kiss the Virgen de la Regla. Of course the best part of the yearly pilgrimage was the barge ride from the Ouano wharf in Mandaue City to the island. One thing that really struck my attention was the incalculable number of people lining up and waiting patiently for their turn to kiss and/or touch the Virgen. It was explained to me then that people did this because of their panaad (promise) to the Blessed Virgin. What was so special about her? Why do people keep on coming?

When I was assigned as assistant parish priest of Virgen de la Regla a few years ago, I made a brief research on the history of the island in general and of the Virgen de la Regla parish in particular. My desire to make this research was prompted by such questions as: how old is the Virgen de Regla church? What does Regla mean? Does it refer to a woman’s regular period? Why is the Virgen de la Regla image dark? Who was the first parish priest of Opon? My search for answers brought me to the Cebuano Studies Center in the University of San Carlos and deep into our very own parish archives. And I would like to share with you the fruits of my labor.

The Nickname of Lapu-lapu?
Let us begin with the name of the island. As a kid I used to ask older guys to explain to me the meaning of the names of places, people, or just about anything that sounds alien to me. One of those names I inquired about was “Opon”. I received varied answers and explanations. The one explanation that made a deep impression on me was that Opon is the nickname of Lapu-lapu, the local hero who killed Ferdinand Magellan in the 16th century. It made sense to my childhood mind. However, in my research I found out that this was not true. Opon is not the nickname of Lapu-lapu. As a matter of fact, Lapu-lapu has nothing to do with the original name of the island. Opon or opong was the local word for cogon grass that used to teem in the island. And that is where the island got its name – from that lowly cogon grass called opon.

Today the island is a bustling city of more than 200,000 people. Although the island was officially named the City of Lapu-lapu in 1961 through R.A. 3134, people still call it Opon up to this very day. The island today – with its international airport, its five-star hotels, its industrial parks, its two notable bridges, its world-famous beach resorts, and other business and tourist attractions – is integrally deviant from its humble past. Historians consistently describe the island of old as topographically unattractive and uninviting because of its flat landscape, its rugged coral rocks, its unproductive limestone soil, its craggy shoreline and its wide mantle of cogon grass locally known as opon. Early settlements in the island were chiefly coastal. Its coral rocks and limestone soil made it unsuitable for agriculture. It seems that next to the opon grasses, only coconut trees flourished in the island. As in today, there was no forest to speak of. But despite all these, Opon was still the seventh of the first ten parishes founded by the Augustinian friars who first arrived in the country together with Miguel Lopez de Legaspi in 1565.

From Visita to Parochia
Historical records show that the first parish to have been created by the Augustinians in mainland Cebu was the San Nicolas parish in 1584. From the early 1600’s up to the beginnings of the eighteenth century, roughly more than a hundred years, Opon was a visita of San Nicolas. As a visita, Opon was both civilly and ecclesiastically under the administration of San Nicolas. Together with Opon, the visitas of San Nicolas included Naghalin, Cotcot, Olango and Lilo-an. Opon was elevated to parish status only in the 1730â??s. It was also on that year that the church building was erected. Since cement as we use it now was not yet available at that time, big stones in square blocks from the nearby sea were used in the construction of the old Opon church. However the original Opon church was demolished and was replaced with a fairly modern concrete church in 1960 to accommodate the ever-increasing number of local churchgoers and pilgrims from different parts of the country.

The first parish priest of Opon was Fr. Francisco Avalle, an Augustinian friar from Spain. He officially began his term in 1735. A baptismal book that can still be found in the parish archives bears his signature and notes that he was the “Prior y Ministro del Convento de Nuestra Señora de Opon”. It was the Augustinian fathers who governed the parish since its founding until 1898, except for three short intervening years (from 1739 up to 1742) when the Jesuit fathers took over. From 1898 up to 1906, the parish was under the administration of a Filipino diocesan priest named Fr. Vicente Roa. In 1906 the administration was handed to the Redemptorist fathers who are credited for founding the present-day Saint Alphonsus Catholic School. The Redemptorist fathers stayed in the parish until 1929. Since 1929 up to the present, the parish has been under the administration of the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart (MSC). The first MSC who became a parish priest in Opon was Fr. Johannes Jansen, a Dutch father. The current parish priest is Fr. Rey Maldo, MSC.

Our Lady of Menstruation?
I have heard that many women pray for the intercession of the Virgen de la Regla whenever they experience irregularities in their menstrual cycle. This is because they think that the Virgen de la Regla means the “Virgin of Menstruation”, since the word “regla” in local parlance refers to a woman’s monthly period. Strictly speaking, the word “regla” does not refer to menstruation. It actually means “rule” or “discipline”, as in the Rule of the Order of St. Augustine.

The origin of the devotion to the Virgen de la Regla can be traced back to St. Augustine. It was this great saint who hand-carved the first image of the Virgen de Regla and made her the patroness of the Rule of what is the present-day Order of St. Augustine. As a founder, St. Augustine made reglas or rules for the members of his Order to follow. He dedicated these reglas or rules to the Virgin, thus making her the Virgin of the Rule of St. Augustine.

Why is the image of the Virgen de la Regla dark? Contrary to what many people presume, the image of the Virgin is dark not simply because its original statue is made of wood but because its devotion developed in Africa. St. Augustine, who died in the year 430, was from Hippo in north Africa. Since the setting was Africa, the original image was probably made by St. Augustine to harmonize with the color of the people who would be its first devotees. Since most Africans were dark-skinned, a dark-skinned patroness would give them a sense of familiarity and closeness. It is because of its dusky color that both in Africa and in Spain the Virgen de la Regla is also known as La Virgen Morena (The Brown Virgin).

The first image of Virgen de la Regla brought to Opon was a painting. It was brought by Fr. Francisco Avalle when he was installed as its first parish priest in 1735. The painting was originally from the Monastery of Nuestra Señora de la Regla in Chipiona, Andalucia, Spain, where Fr. Avalle lived and received religious education for ten years. In Opon, he made use of the painting to introduce to the islanders the devotion to the Virgen de la Regla. This lovely painting of the Virgin, which was retouched in 1873, has survived the passage of time and is currently displayed for veneration at the hagkanan, a special room set apart for the Virgin at the back of the Opon church, above the sacristy. The traditional statue that is encased in glass and can be viewed by the faithful inside the hagkanan is the first copy of that lovely painting. The finely-chiseled statue was carved sometime in 1735 as ordered by Cruz Lauron, a prominent native of the island. He had the statue carved to thank the Virgin for curing him from a terminal affliction. If my calculation is correct, both the painting and the statue of the Virgin we see in the hagkanan are at least 264 years old.

In 1954, the patroness of Opon was put in the limelight. The year was declared as a Marian Year and the Shrine of the Virgen de la Regla was designated as the Official Pilgrimage Place for the Archdiocese of Cebu. On that year, the church of Opon became the single most visited place in the whole of Visayas. According to statistics, at least 200,000 pilgrims flocked to Opon to pay homage to the Virgin. The Archdiocese of Cebu held the first Archdiocesan Marian Congress on that same year. At the conclusion of the congress, on November 27,1954, the Virgen de la Regla was canonically crowned by the late Julio Cardinal Rosales in the presence of an estimated 300,000 people at the Capitol Site. The crowns for the Virgin and for the child Jesus used in the canonical coronation were earlier blessed by His Holiness Pope Pius XII in Rome.

Today the Virgen de la Regla stands as a symbol and pride of the island. Opon is synonymous with Virgen de la Regla. Everyday hundreds of pilgrims from different parts of the country come to Opon to offer candles, flowers, letters and even their precious jewelry to thank the Virgin for favors received. Some come to kiss or simply touch the Virgin and pray for her intercession. There are also those donate clothes for the Virgin. The reservation for the clothes already goes beyond the year 2,000. The Saturday morning votive mass offered in her honor is always well-attended rain or shine. The multitude of people who attend the celebration of the Virgin’s fiesta, which happens every 21st of November, is a revelation of the number of her devotees. Well, the devotees are countless. Why is the Virgin so dear to many? Because to many of her devotees she is their unfailing mother and their hope.

Our Inahan, Our Hope
The Virgen de la Regla has touched many people’s lives. I have read and heard numerous personal testimonies from the faithful describing how the Virgen de la Regla made a difference in their lives. Aside from those who pray in front of her image in the hagkanan, many send her letters of petition and thanksgiving. Some of these letters are kept in the parish archives. They write: “unta tangtangan nimo ang akong amahan sa iyang balatian”, “please help me with my financial difficulty”, “salamat nga imong gidungog ang akong mga pag-ampo kanimo”, “you know what I long for and I am sure you will help me.” The letters all speak of their unwavering trust in the Virgen de la Regla. There is this certainty that the Virgin will never ever fail them.

I am convinced that this certainty that the Virgen de la Regla will never forsake those who ask for her intercession springs from the devotee’s personal image of the Virgin. She is invariably seen as atong Inahan (our Mother) who is always compassionate and ever ready to help anyone in his/her need. This certainty of response from a compassionate Inahan is empowering to those who pray to her, especially to those are burdened with emotional problems and those suffering from physical afflictions. Many swear that when they pray to the Virgin she seems to be so close, so concerned, so personal. And this is very empowering indeed. This makes the faithful feel that s/he is never alone, that somebody understands him/her, that there is an Inahan who really cares for him/her.

I am led to believe that the Virgen de la Regla, our Inahan and the Inahan of Jesus, symbolizes God’s intimate presence in our lives. That through her we experience God’s closeness in our personal life. And this experience of closeness is what, I believe, makes the Virgen de la Regla so popular and the reason why people keep on coming. The Virgen de la Regla is the mother of the spiritual family to which we all belong. And this should make us reflect that we are a blessed people. For while she is with us there is always hope.