Despite blasts, Virgin of the Pillar devotees still come in droves

ZAMBOANGA CITY (MindaNews/13 October) –  As early as six in the morning on October 12, devotees  had started flocking to the Fort Pilar shrine in this former colonial outpost of Spain. By midday, the pilgrims had formed a hundred-meter queue leading to the altar where they would kiss the table that holds a small crucifix. High on the altar, about seven meters above the crucifix, the image of the Virgin Mary in white robe and blue veil, carrying the baby boy Jesus in her arms, seems to float above the stone fortress that the colonizers built 376 years ago.

She is called the Nuestra Señora La Virgen del Pilar (Our Lady Virgin of the Pillar), the patron saint of Zamboanga City whose feast day is celebrated every 12th of October. Many believe the image is miraculous.

Hundreds of petitions addressed to the Virgin Mother, containing the names of persons and their corresponding prayer requests, would be read by a lay church worker using a microphone. On the feast day itself, the reading of the litany of requests started at two o’clock in the afternoon and stopped a few moments before the 4:30pm mass. For each prayer request, which ranges from health recovery to finding employment, the petitioner donates P50 for the operations and maintenance of the shrine.

Myra Probadora, 47, a subdivision developer and president of a charity group called Shelter, attested: “After my graduation in college, I prayed to the Nuestra Señora del Pilar to help me pass the board examinations and this was granted.”  She, however, cautioned that the faithful should match their petitions with hard work.

At the far right side of the altar, the glow of a single candlelight reached a huge furnace that had burned daily since the start of the novena as thousands lit candles at the shrine as part of the religious ritual. The wisps of smoke from each candle curled into thick fumes that black-coated the centuries-old stone wall.

By the time that the annual fiesta procession started, the crowd at the shrine had reached about four thousand despite the rains and two bombing incidents just three days ago.

“Ay protehe canaton el La Virgen del Pilar,” (The Virgin of the Pillar will protect us.) said Catalina Lazaro, 58, when asked if she was not afraid of the bombing incidents. The woman braved the crowd and the rain despite her being asthmatic.

The City Government of Zamboanga promotes the Fort Pilar shrine as among its top tourist attractions.

“Zamboanga’s strength as a tourist destination lies in its culture and heritage,” said Ema Milabel De Sosa Richter, 54, a tour guide. She added that a visit to the shrine has always been part of the tour package since she started in the tour industry 17 years ago.

The historic Fuerte de Nuestra Señora del Pilar, more popularly known as Fort Pilar, was a military outpost built by the Spaniards in 1635 through the engineering feat of Fr. Melchor de Vera, a Spanish Jesuit. The first fort built in Mindanao, it holds memories of 300 years of colonization by Spain and now serves as a religious shrine for Roman Catholics but respected by the Muslims as well.

To make the fort more attractive, City Mayor Celso Lobregat has developed a park across it called Paseo del Mar. Before the year ends, the mayor said, “a dancing fountain shall be fully operational in the park.”

In addition, the city government built and operated the Plaza Pilar, an enclave of resto-bars, tourist shops and an open space right beside the fort where bands play during special occasions.

“No bombs can deter us from pursuing our dreams and vision for Zamboanga,” said City Tourism Director Sarita Sebastian-Hernandez.

Indeed, the bombings on October 9 failed to dampen the fiesta atmosphere of the city, the people rather nonchalant over those incidents. There were no checkpoints in the city streets, no vehicular checks, no strict body frisks in parks and police visibility was not unusual.

“The La Virgen del Pilar always protect us,” De Sosa echoed what the other pilgrims like her would have also said. (Jules L. Benitez/MindaNews)