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The Divina Pastora’s two centuries of existence has given rise to legends on the origin of the image – that it was found floating on a river, or discovered under a tree.

The fact is the image did not have a supernatural but rather historical origin.

Near the end of the 1700s in Gapan, there lived a woman named Doña Juana Valmonte, one of the eight children of Don Bartolome dela Cruz Valmonte, said to be Gapan’s first gobernadorcillo in 1747, and Doña Eulalia Fernandez -- the couple from whom all the Valmontes descended

 A spinster, Dona Juana was a woman who could be considered much ahead of the ladies of her era. She lived in the family farm, serving as its overseer, in Barrio Callos, named after a tree species that abounds in the place that, at that time, was a part of Gapan but is now within the jurisdiction of the adjacent town of Peñaranda.  Described as a stocky woman, she was said to possess such physical prowess that she could wrestle cattle to the ground when it was time to brand them.

One night, Doña Juana had a strange dream about the Virgin Mary wanting to be fetched from Spain. That left her so perplexed that the following morning, she went to the poblacion, to the family’s riverside home, popularly referred to as “bahay na sim” for being the first in the community to have iron sheet (“sim”) roofing, and told her father about the dream, asking what it could have meant.  Her father, at a loss for an answer, advised her to see the family’s friar friend in Intramuros, Manila.

As soon as she could, she took the long and perilous journey by boat, starting from the Rio de Gapan, now called the Peñaranda River, that ran at the back of the bahay na sim, until it merged with the Rio Grande de Pampanga in San Isidro and further downstream to Candaba, Pampanga and out to Manila Bay and the adjacent walled city of Intramuros.

Finding the friar friend, Doña Juana recounted to him her dream. Impressed, he told her about a Marian devotion gaining popularity in Spain – that of the Divina Pastora, started by the Capuchin friar, Fray Isidoro de Sevilla. He described what the the Divina Pastora looked like and she at once realized how relevant she was to her life in the farm. She expressed her desire to order a small image of the Divina Pastora from Spain and enshrine her as the patron saint of the family farm, interpreting that as a fulfillment of what the Virgin Mary had asked her to do in her dream -- to be fetched from Spain. The friar told her that he would help her place an order for the image, but she had to be patient as it would take some time for the statue to be made and shipped. Before leaving, she entrusted to him some money as payment for the statue.

After months of waiting, the Divina Pastora image arrived in Manila via the Acapulco galleon and Doña Juana was there to receive and see it for the first time. It was a wooden image of the Virgin Mary, much like the one described by her friar friend -- a little over a foot high, seated on a rock, dressed as a shepherdess, wearing the peculiar hat with an upturned brim, holding a shepherd's crook in her left hand and caressing with her right hand a lamb perched on her lap. She happily took the image first to the family home in Gapan and then to her farmhouse in Barrio Callos and installed it on a special place at the altar.

Occasionally, Dona Juana would take the Divina Pastora to the bahay na sim where the family would pray for abundant harvest which was always granted. In thanksgiving, the family would hold a fiesta in her honor every May 1, the end of the harvest season and the start of the Marian month. 

In time, miracles began to be attributed to the Divina Pastora.  Among these was the incident immortalized in legends -- the image would disappear from the altar, and later would be found by farm hands under a callos tree in the family farm.

News of the miracles quickly spread to other places in Gapan and neighboring towns, drawing numerous believers. From being a simple family thanksgiving affair, the May 1 fiesta evolved into a day of pilgrimage for hordes of devotees from distant places who would show up uninvited to pray before the image for intercession or thanksgiving.

The popularity of the devotion to the Divina Pastora did not escape the attention of Church authorities. It is said that once, a cura parroco borrowed the image from Doña Juana, displayed it in the church and later refused to return it. Furious, Doña Juana went to court and later won, helped by documents that proved her ownership of the image.

At some date in the 1800s now lost to history, the Parroquia de Gapan – now called the Three Kings Parish -- adopted the Divina Pastora as its second patron saint after the Three Kings, and involved itself in the staging of the fiesta. The image would be brought from the farmhouse in Barrio Callos to the bahay na sim, dressed up in richly embroidered vestments, set on a silver carroza bedecked with flowers and transferred to the church a block away for the religious rites, and afterwards returned home and taken back to Barrio Callos.

Through generations, tales of the miracles of the Divina Pastora have continued to be told and retold. Old folks still recall how a spring suddenly appeared at the side of the church sacristy, where healing water flowed.  The spring, however, dried up when enterprising residents started bottling the miraculous water and selling them to devotees.

Once, Doña Juana was said to be sick and unable to change the vestments of the image for the fiesta procession. The carroza would not budge no matter how many people pulled and pushed. Irritated, Dona Juana staggered out of bed and clambered up the carroza to dress the image, all the time chiding it, like a mother to a child, for being finicky with its clothes and inconsiderate at a time when she was sick. Afterwards, she ordered just two men to pull the carriage and it moved with hardly much effort.

There were stories of strangers from distant places showing up at the bahay na sim during the May 1 fiesta, all saying that they had been invited by a small beautiful old woman wearing a hat with upturned brim and holding a cane, who gave them specific directions to the house.

The Divina Pastora has been repeatedly credited with protecting Gapan and its residents from calamities – from floods to crop infestations and earthquakes. During World War II, Japanese warplanes were said to have dropped bombs that landed on the eastern side of the church, but none exploded. .

Upon the death of Doña Juana in the 1800s, the Divina Pastora was transferred from the farmhouse in Barrio Callos to the bahay na sim in the poblacion.  As Doña Juana died a spinster with no direct heirs, her siblings decided to consider the image a common family heirloom, appointing a family member as the caretaker.

The first of a series of caretakers was Doña Juana’s brother, Don Basilio Valmonte, said to be a former Gapan gobernadorcillo, who then passed on the role to his son, General Pantaleon Valmonte, former capital municipal or mayor and hero of the September 2,1896 “First Cry of Nueva Ecija”.  With the arrest and execution of General Pantaleon by Spaniards for complicity in the uprising, the role of caretaker was assumed by his wife, Maxima Navarro-Valmonte, who then passed it on to her only daughter, Donata Valmonte-Cala, who, in turn, passed it on to her daughter, Emma Valmonte Cala.

In the early 1950s, the Church, aware of the miracles attributed to the Divina Pastora, enthroned her as Patroness of the Diocese of San Fernando that, during that time, encompassed the provinces of Bataan, Pampanga and Nueva Ecija.

On December 19, 1963, Pope Paul VI issued a Papal Bull for the Canonical Coronation of the Divina Pastora. It was a Church
recognition of the image of the Virgin Mary under the name Divina Pastora venerated in Gapan.

The coronation rites took place on April 26, 1964, led by the first bishop of the newly created Diocese of Cabanatuan, Mariano Gaviola. For the occasion, the large church-owned replica image was used.

The original, then still privately-owned miniature image given a place of honor at the altar and also crowned. The Divina Pastora was subsequently proclaimed as Patroness of the Diocese of Cabanatuan and the province of Nueva Ecija.

On February 13, 1986, the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) declared the Three Kings Parish church as the National Shrine of La Virgen Divina Pastora.

The solemn proclamation was done on April 26, 1986 by His Eminence Ricardo Cardinal Vidal, then CBCP president. Those who laid the groundwork for this were former Cabanatuan Bishop Ciceron SM. Tumbocon, former parish priest Msgr. Felix L. Hernandez and the former Parish Pastoral Council chair, Dr. Celia P. Morales.

In time for the historic occasion, the Valmonte family, represented by the Divina Pastora’s last caretakers -- Donata Valmonte-Cala and her daughter Emma -- donated the original image to the Three Kings Parish where it is now permanently displayed at the retablo of the left side chapel of the National Shrine.

Whenever the Divina Pastora’s image is taken out for a procession, it is traditionally shown with fresh branches of callos  -- only callos and never any other tree -- behind it. It is a silent reminder of the Divina Pastora’s historical link to Doña Juana and her family’s farm in Barrio Callos two centuries ago. ###

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Produced by Ramon R. Valmonte
All rights reserved.
First published on April 4, 2004.