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The devotion to the Divina Pastora, a Marian image so familiar in Spain and Latin-American countries, is unique to one place in the Philippines -- Gapan City in Nueva Ecija province.
A legend that has been passed from generation to generation of Gapanenses says that the image of the Divina Pastora was found by farmers under a callos tree in a village called Callos in nearby Peñaranda town which, in those days, was part of Gapan.
The fact is, the origin of the Divina Pastora is not as mysterious as portrayed by legend.
The Divina Pastora's story began sometime in the 18th century when the spinster Juana dela Cruz Valmontedreamed about the Virgin Mary which left her greatly perplexed. The following day, she told her father about it and he advised her to go to Intramuros in Manila to see a friar-friend -- an Augustinian, it can be surmised, as the Gapan parish then was administered by the Augustinian Order -- and seek his help in deciphering her dream. She did as she was told and took the long and perilous river boat trip to Manila. When she finally met the friar and recounted to him her dream, he was moved by her display of great faith. To reward her, the friar presented her with a wooden image of the Virgin Mary, barely a foot high, dressed as a shepherdess with the peculiar hat with upturned brim on her head and a shepherd's crooked staff in her left hand, seated on a rock, and caressing with her right hand a lamb perched on her lap. The name of the image, the friar told Juana, was "La Divina Pastora."
Juana returned to Gapan with the Divina Pastora, to the family home -- traditionally referred to by old-time residents as "bahay na sim" for a reason that has been lost in time -- that used to stand beside the river, along what is now Valmonte Street near the Gapan Church. She installed the image in a place of honor at the family altar.
The family would pray to the Divina Pastora for abundant harvest, and she would grant it. 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, other miracles began to be attributed to the Divina Pastora. Among these was the incident immortalized in the legend: the image would disappear from the family altar, and later would be found by farmers under a callos tree on a farmland owned by the Valmontes in Barrrio Callos. News of her 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 became a day of pilgrimage for hordes of devotees from distant places who would show up uninvited at the Valmonte house to pray for intercession before her image. So popular had the devotion to the Divina Pastora become that the Church eventually got involved in the staging of the fiesta, no doubt influenced by the fact that the image had Augustinian origins and the church was being run by Augustinian friars, and because several generations of caretakers of the image wielded political clout, the last of them being General Pantaleon Valmonte, a hero of the Nueva Ecija uprising against Spain during the 1896 Philippine Revolution. The fiesta, though taken over by the Church, continued to have as its centerpiece the Divina Pastora image of the Valmontes. The image would be taken from the family altar, dressed up in richly embroidered vestments, set on a silver carroza bedecked with flowers, and transferred to the church for religious rites. Through the years, the May 1 fiesta has evolved into what is now the biggest religious festival in Nueva Ecija and Central Luzon, earning for Gapan the name "Pilgrimage City."
The Vatican, during the reign of Pope Paul VI, recognized the Divina Pastora of Gapan as worthy of devotion and approved the Canonical Coronation of her image which took place on April 26, 1964.
The coronation rites were officiated by Bishop Mariano Gaviola. For the ceremony, a big church-owned replica of the Divina Pastora took the center stage. The small original image owned by the Valmonte family was given a place of honor and also crowned. Subsequently, the Divina Pastora was proclaimed patron saint of the Diocese of Cabanatuan and the province of Nuva Ecija.
On April 26, 1986, the century-old church of the Three Kings Parish was declared as the National Shrine of the Divina Pastora by the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines in rites officiated by His Eminence Ricardo Cardinal Vidal.
For that significant occasion, Donata Valmonte-Cala, who inherited the position of Divina Pastora caretaker from her father, General Pantaleon Valmonte, and her daughter Emma who was set to become the next caretaker, were convinced to donate the original image to the Gapan church.
The Divina Pastora is now permanently enshrined at the
left altar of the church.
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First published on April 4, 2004.