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May, the Marian month, starts in Nueva Ecija with
Gapan City's grand fiesta for the Divina Pastora --
the patron saint of the province and the Diocese of Cabanatuan City.
The local Catholic Church and the city government join hands
to mark the event upon which depends Gapan's claim to fame as
"The Pilgrimage City." 

In the early afternoon of April 30, the bisperas or eve of the fiesta,
people begin to congregate at the Gapan City plaza to witness 
the start of the traditional parade.

City Mayor Ernesto Natividad (second from left)
and other local officials oversee the affair.

Before the parade, marching bands perform by turn 
in front of City Hall for an appreciative audience.

By mid-afternoon, Gapanenses line the city streets 
eagerly awaiting the parade or paseo, as it is locally called.

A fan vendor makes a killing as sweaty
onlookers seek relief from the afternoon heat.

To first-time observers, the paseo is a parade like no other. 
It's a parade of thousands of ordinary people,
devotees of the Divina Pastora, around the poblacion's main streets.

Many participants, with children in tow, 
are pilgrims from other places.

The children take the long, hot walk clinging to their parents...

...or perched on grannies' shoulders or carried in fathers' arms.

Even little babies are made to participate in the paseo
in gratitude for being cured from some sickness which their parents
attribute to the intercession of the Divina Pastora.

A group of old ladies garbed in ternos reenact what they have 
done for years, maybe even from childhood. In fulfillment of 
a vow to the Divina Pastora for favors granted, they dance their way 
through the paseo, unmindful of the amused smiles and 
occasional jeers from young onlookers who do not understand
that the dance is being performed not for them, but for the Virgin Mary.

Other participants who'd rather not walk, ride instead --
on bikes, like members of the city's cycling club...

...or astride carabaos, like some farmers...

... or in a trailer pulled by a handtractor...

... or on a horse-drawn cart...

... or in the family tricycle...

... or even on a delivery truck, like members of the city's
senior citizen organization.

Giving bursts of color and music to the paseo are the many marching bands...


...and floats bearing some of the city's fair maidens...


The centuries-old Gapan church, now known as
the National Shrine of the Divina Pastora 
is the center of religious activities on fiesta day.

At the nearby parish center is an exhibition of nearly
50 Marian images lent for the event by their owners.

The images, some of them priceless antiques,
range from life-sized ones to miniatures, and portray the
various manifestations and attributes of the Virgin Mary.

The busiest part of the church is the side chapel at the left side...

... where the original Divina Pastora image is enshrined
at the center niche, behind protective glass.

The antique wooden image of the patron saint,
barely a foot high, was donated to the parish by the original owners,
the Valmonte family, in the 1980s. The Valmontes started the 
Divina Pastora fiesta purely as a family affair during the Spanish regime
in thanksgiving for good harvest.

Pilgrims queue to go up the steps to the
Divina Pastora' display case...

... to implore favors from, or give thanks to, Her...

...and touch the glass door of the case with their hands
or wipe it with their handkerchiefs which they then rub
onto ailing parts of their bodies hoping for a miraculous cure,
if not protection from sickness.

Outside, hundreds of votive candles are lit for 
various personal intentions.

Even vendors outside the church grounds
make good money selling candles shaped into human forms
that are burned with regular candles, supposedly for healing.

All roads leading to the church have been transformed into
a huge flea market where one can buy practically anything at
bargain prices, depending on one's haggling skills, of course. 
From kitchenware to farm implements; from native foodstuff 
to electronic gadgets.

A trip to the Gapan fiesta is never complete without bringing home 
something bought from the crowded street market...

... puto seco, for instance, made in Pampanga but a symbol of
a Gapan pilgrimage just the same. 

... or papier mache toy horses from Laguna -- called takas -- 
that you probably played with when you were a child.

At night, glitzy entertainment fare unfolds at the city plaza...

...highlighted by a fireworks display that brightens up the night sky.
Another memorable Divina Pastora fiesta in Gapan City! ###

Digital photos and text by Ramon R. Valmonte
May 2002