By Dr. Luciano P.R. Santiago
The Church of San Antonio de Padua of Pila, Laguna
was the first church to be dedicated to St. Anthony of Padua in the Philippines (1578) and most probably, in Asia as well. The parish of Pila became the first Antonine parish
in the country when it was established in 1581, the 350th anniversary of the glorious death of the saint. The town itself was officially called “San Antonio de Padua de Pila,” or simply, “San Antonio de Pila.” The parish seal depicts the saint holding a lily, the symbol of purity, in his right hand and carrying the Child Jesus on his left arm. Known as “the miracle worker” even during his lifetime, St. Anthony is the most venerated Franciscan saint next to the founder of the order himself, St. Francis of Assisi. Thus, the choice of St. Anthony as the patron saint of Pila reflected the pivotal role given by the Franciscans to the parish and town.
Even before the coming of the Spaniards, Pila was already noted for its spiritual ambience. The center of the town was known as Pagalangan, which means “The Place of Reverence.” The original site of the town, Pinagbayanan was hallowed by the venerable graves of the dead laid out with exquisite Chinese porcelain and local jars of handsome design as pabáon
(provisions) for the afterlife. St. Anthony (1195-1231) lived in Europe during the Golden Age of Pila at Pinagbayanan when, as indicated by archeological studies, it was one of the most important centers of trade, as well as of religion and culture during the early part of the second millenium. Little did the “saint of lost causes and finder of lost things” know that Padua would form a spiritual link with Pila at the other side of the globe via Spain and Mexico more than three centuries later.
The Order of St. Francis (OSF), also known as the Order of Friars Minor (OFM), arrived in Manila in 1577. Next to the Augustinians, they were the second religious order to reach the Philippines. Being a mendicant order, they were the only religious congregation which renounced ownership of haciendas. At once, they built their main church in honor of Our Lady of the Angels in the walled city. The cult of St. Anthony of Padua was introduced in this church, which became popular as the Tuesday Devotion in Old Manila. A statue of the saint was erected in front of the church in the 19th century.
To the southern region, the congregation lost no time in sending the intrepid pair, Fray Juán Portocarrero de Plasencia and Fray Diego de Oropesa de San José who soon earned the title “The Apostles of Laguna and Tayabas.” Moved by the faith of the Pileños, Oropesa decided to establish among them his “principal residence” also dedicated to St. Anthony while Plasencia chose Lumbang as his home base in honor of St. Sebastian. From these two missionary centers, they radiated out to evangelize the other towns of Laguna and Tayabas (now Quezón).
From a reducción
- where the new converts were gathered for instruction in the Faith - Pila was elevated to a parish on the feast of its titular, St. Anthony of Padua on June 13, 1581. Oropesa became its first pastor (1581-83). Next to Pila, the second Antonine parish to be organized by the Franciscans was that of Masbate (c1583), followed by Iriga, now a city in Camarines Sur (1683) and Siruma, also in Camarines Sur (1687).
Impressed by the nobility of the townspeople, the conquistadors conferred on the town the special title, “La Noble Villa de Pila
.” It took eighteen years to build the first stone church from 1599 to 1617. The sacred edifice was described as “the most beautiful church in the province of Laguna” by the Alcalde Mayor (Governor) Don José Peláez, father of Padre Pedro Pablo Peláez, the leader of the secularization movement in the 19th century.
From the beginning to the present, the cult of St. Anthony has flourished in Pila in an unbroken chain of promise (pangako) and practice of the faithful. It consists of the Tuesday Devotion and an association which has become part of the worldwide Pious Union of St. Anthony. The parish also became famous for its mellifluous choirs and elegant processions in homage to the saint from the 17th to the 19th centuries. To signify their gratitude for the favors and miracles granted to them, the devotees wear a simple dark brown dress with white cincture during mass. Healed of serious illnesses, small boys are also dressed in the holy habit. An annual novena for his intercession is held prior to his feast day, June 13, which is celebrated as the town fiesta and highlighted with a grand procession. Groups of Pileños in other towns or cities who could not come home for the
occasion also pray the novena together wherever they are.
In the noble villa, the Franciscans established the second printing press in the Philippines in 1611. The first Tagalog dictionary was printed here in 1613 by Tomás Pinpín and Domingo Loag. The local pastor Fray Pedro de San Buenaventura compiled the dictionary to facilitate the evangelization of the Tagalog region. In 1618, the Franciscan infirmary was transferred from Lumbang to Pila where the sick and retired missionaries were taken care of and breathed their last, comforted by the spirit of St. Anthony. Manila Archbishop Fernando Montero de Espinosa, newly arrived from Madrid, also died here in 1644 on his way to take possession of his see. After 55 years in Pila, the infirmary moved to Sta. Cruz, Laguna in 1673.
The oldest surviving church bell of Pila was cast on the centenary of the parish in 1681 with the Franciscan emblem and the inscription “San Antonio de Pila.” The faithful hid it from the rampaging British invaders in 1762 by submerging it in Laguna de Bay facing the church. It is now the third oldest church bell in the Philippines. With the erection of a new stone belfry in 1890, the parish recast another undated old bell in honor of St. Anthony in 1893. It is the only church tower in the Philippines which bears two bells inscribed with St. Anthony’s name.
(The second oldest church bell dedicated to the saint pertains to Paeté dated 1847, followed by Sta. María, Bulacán, 1877 and then Majayjay, 1929.)
Because of several social crises in the 18th century, San Roque was invoked as the second patron saint of Pila. Due to persistent severe flooding in Pagalangan in the late 18th century, the town center was transferred to its present site in Sta. Clara, which was the hacienda of the three Brothers Rivera, Don Felizardo, Don Miguel and Don Rafael. Part of the estate is the adjacent Barangay San Antonio, among others. Marred by controversy, the relocation took almost two decades to complete under the leadership of Don Felizardo de Rivera y Evangelista (1755-1810), the eldest of the brothers, who also drew up the grid plans for the new site. Thus, he is considered the founder of Nueva Pila. He pledged the spiritual and material support of the Riveras to the church of St. Anthony in perpetuum
up to the last of their line. Stone by stone, the old church in Pagalangan was the last edifice to be transplanted to Sta. Clara under the inspiration of St. Anthony. For the main duration of the move, the townspeople were exempted from payment of tributes, forced labor and personal services.
For almost a quarter of a century, from 1812 to 1835, Filipino secular priests served for the first time as the acting pastors of Pila due to a shortage of Franciscan priests. They put the finishing touches to the stone church of Nueva Pila. The pastor who served the parish for the longest time during the Spanish era was Fray Benito del Quintanar, OFM (1839-52). He supervised the construction of the present convent for nine years until it was completed in 1849. In behalf of the Pileños, he had the following prayer-poem in Latin inscribed in a rectangular stone tablet over the main gate of the convent: “Fave, Protege, Custod., / Bened. Que S.e Antoni: / Domui Istam Novam /Quam Tibi Dedicavi.”
(“St. Anthony, look with favor on, protect, guard and bless this new house which is dedicated to you.”) The saint has answered
Pila’s fervent prayer. The stone church and convent have survived to the present.
Fray Benito also started the Archicofradía del Nuestro Señor Padre San Francisco
which was next in rank to the Venerable Orden Tercera
(VOT) of the Franciscan Order. The archconfraternity was empowered to affiliate lay groups of the same character from the other parishes. The religious festival of Flores de Mayo, for which Pila is now well known, was introduced in 1888 and brought to the fore the deep Marian devotion in the parish.
The placid life of the town and parish was rent asunder from 1896, when the Revolution against Spain broke out, until 1902 when the American colonizers, took over and reorganized the municipal government. Before this, the American soldiers had occupied the belfry and convent for more than a year destroying and looting the furniture and other properties of the church.
Since the beginning of the 20th century, Filipino pastors have been serving the faithful of Pila. The parish was transferred from the Archdiocese of Manila to the Diocese of Lipá when the latter was erected in 1910 and finally, to the newly established Diocese of San Pablo in 1966. The first Pileño nun, Sor Consuelo, OSB (the former Miss Milagros Relova y Rivera) professed her vows as a Benedictine nun in 1932. The first Pileño priest, Fr. Félix Codera was ordained in 1938. Although he was born in Marinduque, His Eminence, Ricardo Cardinal Vidal, Archbishop of Cebu, hails from Pila. They are all ardent devotees of St. Anthony.
During World War II, Pila became the center of guerilla activities in Laguna and Fr. Codera, together with Frs. Atienza and Báez, volunteered as chaplains of the underground. Ironically, there was a rice boom in the town during the war and thus, it became the rice granary of Laguna which the faithful unselfishly shared with those in want from the surrounding towns and as far as Manila and its suburbs. Naturally, this abundance at a time of war was attributed by the Pileños to St. Anthony, “the miracle worker.” As expected, Pila was the first town in the province to be liberated by the guerillas in January 1945 sparing it from any major destruction.
Pope Pius XII declared St. Anthony a Doctor of the Universal Church with the title Doctor Evangelicus
on January 16, 1946. The following year, a group of grateful parishioners founded a college in his honor, St. Anthony Academy, now the Liceo de Pila.
With the destruction of the Franciscan church in Intramuros at the close of the Second World War, the site of the cult of St. Anthony was moved in 1947 to the Venerable Orden Tercera
(VOT) Friary in Sampaloc,Manila, which is now the Shrine of the saint in the archdiocese. (The monumental statue of St. Anthony in Intramuros was, however, transferred to the grounds of the Sanctuario de San Antonio in Forbes Park in Makati. The Sampaloc friary had been dedicated together with the adjacent Church of Our Lady of Loreto in 1616, thirty five years after the inauguration of the parish of San Antonio de Padua de Pila.) The Manila shrine has submitted a petition to the Catholic Bishops’ Conference to declare it the National Shrine of St. Anthony of Padua.
For the Jubilee Year 2000, the historic Church of San Antonio de Padua of Pila was selected as a Pilgrim Church of the Diocese of San Pablo. The parish is the center of the Vicariate of San Antonio de Padua which includes the parishes of the Immaculate Conception (Sta. Cruz), St. Joseph (Linga, Pila) and The Risen Lord (Victoria).
Revolving around the Church of St. Anthony of Padua, the town center of Pila, comprising 35 old houses and buildings, was proclaimed a National Historical Landmark by the National Historical Institute on May 17, 2000.
The church was elevated as the Diocesan Shrine of St. Anthony of Padua and solemnly inaugurated by the Most Reverend Francisco San Diego, DD, Bishop of San Pablo in the presence of His Eminence Ricardo Cardinal Vidal on July 9, 2002.
As Bayang Pinagpala
(Blessed Town), Pileños ascribe their unique blessings through the centuries to the intercession of their triumvirate of patron saints, San Antonio de Padua, San Roque and the Virgen de las Flores.