By DANIELLE TAYABAS     2/13/2024

The Philippines has a  rich Catholic heritage and a variety of endearing devotions to the Blessed Mother. One of them is Our Lady of Peñafrancia.

The history of Our Lady of Peñafrancia begins in France.

In 1384, Simon Vela was born into a wealthy family in Paris. He relinquished his riches to the Church and to the service of the poor, choosing a life of prayer to God. One day, while in contemplative prayer, he was awakened to a voice that told him to travel to Pena de Francia (Rock of France) and there he would find an image of the Virgin Mary.

After searching for five years, on May 19, 1434, in the Pena de Francia mountains in Salamanca, Spain, Simon and his four friends came upon an illuminating light. He saw an apparition of Our Lady holding the Infant Jesus. She told him to dig up the earth. Upon removing a huge rock, he uncovered an image of the Blessed Mother holding the Child Jesus. Simon and his companions immediately experienced miraculous physical healings.

Devotion to Our Lady rapidly spread.

In 1712, Miguel Robles de Covarrubias, the son of a Spanish government official in the Philippines, touched an image of Our Lady of Peñafrancia against the painful parts of his body which were healed. He later became a priest in Naga City and had a shrine built in her honor.

The Feast of Our Lady of Peñafrancia is celebrated on the third Saturday of September. Millions of pilgrims travel to her shrine in Naga City in the Bicol region for a weeklong celebration, novena prayers and for the Translacion and Fluvial processions.

Fonz Fontanares, a parishioner of Christ Cathedral, has been on numerous pilgrimages there. While smiling, he recalled friends inviting him to join their trip, which was a 12-hour drive from his residence in Manila.

“The farther the pilgrimage, the more graces,” he said. “I was challenged, and why shouldn’t I be? It is a journey of life because it’s not easy.”

As he reminisced, he shared, “I went for a personal petition, for spiritual growth and conversion of my friends’ hearts. That they would come closer to the Lord through Our Blessed Mother and hopefully they would be able to see their vocation. That was the bottom-line goal.”

He added: “We would do this every year for our personal conversion and for the ultimate one of ‘how do I serve God more seriously through one’s vocation?’”

Fontanares recounted a story of a friend of his who he watched grow closer to God.

“During the pilgrimage he didn’t seem serious, Fontanares said of his friend. “But after the fun, I realized months later that he was really serious…a fervent Catholic and he had a specific path to a vocation.”

Fonatanares said his friend was called to Apostolic Celibacy.

“You only realize what a true blessing it is when it’s outside your comfort zone,” he said. “If there’s someone who knows second to Jesus what suffering is, it’s Our Blessed Mother. We identify the cross, the pain of suffering to Our Lady because she lived it!”

Fontanares believes that the Filipino people are very motherly.

“We turn to Our Mother,” he added. “The more sacrifice one puts in then, the more merits and grace one receives.”

Having migrated in 2016 to Southern California, Fontanares is now on a mission of promoting Our Lady of Good Harvest, the pilgrim image for Filipino migrants, a title given by Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP).

With gratitude he said, “Our Lady will always be in my heart.”

Viva la Virgen!
Viva Nuestra de Senora de Peñafrancia!