Fluvial procession rises from humble roots

By 
  • October 3, 2008
{mosimage}TORONTO - Filipino-Canadian Rafael Nebres remembers when the late-September procession on Lake Ontario in honour of Our Lady of Penafrancia started as a small prayer group gathering in his home 36 years ago.

This year on Sept. 20, six yachts, one carrying a statue of Our Lady of Penafrancia, the patron saint of the Bicol region where Nebres is originally from, sailed on Lake Ontario from Bluffers Park in Scarborough.
The Filipino celebration, also known as a fiesta, is one of the biggest and most popular in the country and is celebrated every third Saturday of September by six provinces in the Philippines’ Bicol region. The event in the Philippines lasts for nine days and includes a daily novena, Mass and culminates in a procession on the Bicol River where more than a million people from all over the country usually participate.

In Toronto, the Bicol Association of Canada hosted a nine-day novena, ending with a rosary and fluvial procession, Mass and a mini-fiesta at Bluffers Park. About 25 people participated in the procession, while more than 220 attended the late morning Mass at the park. Close to 300 people participated in the evening Mass at Our Lady of Assumption Church, site of the Filipino mission in the archdiocese of Toronto.

Nebras, 65, president of the Bicol Association of Canada, said celebrating the feast in Canada seeks to unite about 5,000 Bicolanos in Toronto.

Isa Tugadi, 66, a small business owner, said although she isn’t from Bicol, she was celebrating with the group for the second year because she has a strong devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Even if they don’t come from the same region, they’re united by the same faith, she said.

Nolie Aquino, 40, said he remembers the huge crowds that the annual fiesta attracts.

The Toronto devotion, originally started by Nebres and his family, began as a small prayer gathering of about 20 to 30 people at individual homes. Now, the house-to-house gathering continues where the statue of Our Lady of Penafrancia rotates between houses. The Mass in honour of Our Lady of Penafrancia is the highlight of the feast.

It is believed that this devotion began in 1434 after the discovery of an icon of Mary with the child Jesus in her arms by French hermit Simon Vella.

In Spanish, Penafrancia means “rocky hill of France,” where the icon was first thought to have been discovered. But the image was found in a cave on a rocky mountain along the French Way, near the village of San Martin de Castanar in Spain.

In the Philippines, devotion to Our Lady of Penafrancia began in the 17th century when the Cobarrubias family moved from Spain to Cavite, Philippines. A member of the family, Miguel, prayed to Our Lady of Penafrancia and was healed of frequent illnesses. He vowed to build a chapel in her honour and after being ordained a priest, he helped bring about the construction of the chapel near the Bicol River in Naga. Miracles soon followed and devotion to Our Lady of Penafrancia spread throughout the Philippines.

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