Did you know that when the first Redemptorist missionaries came to Baclaran, Philippines in 1929, they never planned to build a big shrine for Our Mother of Perpetual Help. Little did they imagine that someday, Baclaran would turn into the biggest pilgrim shrine in the world dedicated to Our Mother of Perpetual Help.
If the Redemptorists did not plan it, who planned it? To answer this question, let us take a trip down memory lane.
The first Redemptorist missionaries who came to the Philippines in 1906 began their mission in Opon, near Cebu. From there, they gave missions to several provinces in the Visayas.
From the Visayas, the Redemptorist advanced to Luzon to expand their missionary work. The Manila Archdiocese entrusted to the Redemptorist the care of the parish of Malate in 1913. The Redemptorist was reluctant all along to live in Malate as they were keener on giving missions to the barrios of the Southern and Northern Luzon region. Fr. Michael Bailey summarized the sentiments of the early Redemptorist about Malate as “good as a parish apostolate but as a mission to Filipinos it was in many ways as ill-fated as its origins were compromising.” Filipino Sociologist Manuel Victor Sapitula explains that the reticence of the pioneer Redemptorists regarding Malate was because they deemed it “too urban.” Instead of an urban parish, the majority of the pioneer missionaries preferred a mission base far removed from the exigencies of urban life.
To cut the story short, not long after settling in Malate, the Redemptorists negotiated with the Archdiocese for a transfer. The Archbishop offered them a piece of land in the then rural village of Baclaran. The land was a donation by a devotee of our Blessed Virgin Mary. In Baclaran, the Redemptorist have finally found an ideal location for a mission station, one that they have been longing for, ever since they sat foot in Luzon. The Redemptorist immediately began the process of transfer from Malate to Baclaran in 1929.
In 1929, Baclaran was an unknown small rural fishing village of Manila, Perhaps during that time, people would have asked: Is there something good that can come out of Baclaran? Ironically, Baclaran as a suburb outside of the city center, poor and rural are the reasons why the Redemptorists settled there.
The Redemptorist built a small convent and church in the middle of grassland. The grassland was near the seacoast where the fisher folks used to anchor their small fishing boats. Before World War II, the waters of Manila Bay used to come up to the refectory of the monastery especially on high tide. After the war, the water used to lap the shore along Roxas Boulevard. Now the sea is about two kilometers from the front of the Church.
From the very beginning, the early Redemptorists conceived of Baclaran as a mission station where they can hold missions to distant barrios. The Redemptorists settled at Baclaran primarily to give mission. There was never a plan to make Baclaran a parish. The small wooden chapel will only cater to the local community around the convent. This chapel fits the ideal preconception of a rural mission church that the pioneer Redemptorists favored. Built with wooden frames and rather small, the shrine and monastery suited the predominantly fishing village landscape that Baclaran exemplified.
The entry in the Chronicles of the Baclaran Community, dated March 21, 1932—the day Fr. Denis Grogan, the man who built Baclaran Monastery and Church left the Philippines—encapsulated the missionary intent of the Redemptorist when they settled in Baclaran:
“The Redemptorists now had a Monastery where they could live as religious and get on with their main work of learning Tagalog to give Missions to the Filipino People wherever they were needed.”
A further expression of this missionary aspiration is Grogan’s dedication of the shrine and its attached convent to St. Thérèse of Lisieux, patron saint of mission. This is etched in the foundation stone of the Monastery, which was blessed and laid on Sept 13, 1931:
At the request of Most Rev. Fr. General Murray and with the approval of His Grace, the Monastery and Church are to be dedicated to St Teresa of the Child Jesus, the patroness of the missions. The secondary Patrons shall be the Sacred Heart of Jesus, the Blessed Virgin Mary under the title of Mother of Perpetual Succor, St Joseph, St. Alphonsus, St. Clement and St. Gerard.
After settling down in Baclaran, the Redemptorists did what they knew best—doing missions! We read in the Chronicles of the Baclaran Community that they were working regularly in Bulacan, Nueva Ecija, Zambales, Pampanga and occasionally in Ilocos, Baguio, and Palawan, as well as in Manila and Rizal.
Deeply occupied by missionary work, the early Redemptorists never thought of transforming the small wooden chapel into the big shrine that it is now. At the very beginning, however, there were already writings on the wall that will foreshadow the transformation of this small wooden church into the biggest shrine in the world dedicated to Our Mother of Perpetual Help.
First of this writings on the wall is the intention of the donor. The donor, a certain pious woman named Anastacia donated the land with the intention that it give honor to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Fr. Sam Boland narrates,
The land was a pious foundation, as the Archbishop of Manila had described it, and quite an interesting one. It had been the property of a good widow whom Father Gallagher, the source of our information, remembers as Anastacia. In her will, she bequeathed the land to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Her relations after her death referred the matter to the Holy See for an interpretation; and the decision was that it was to be regarded as a bequest to the Church to be used for religious purposes. Now at last after the elusive talk of the past few years about Baclaran, “the place of the fishtraps,” Anastacia’s gift to the Blessed Virgin, was entrusted to the Australian Redemptorists.
The second writing on the wall is the providential story of how the altar came to be dedicated to Our Mother of Perpetual Help. At the beginning of their ministry in Baclaran, the Redemptorist asked for donations from the people in building and adorning the small wooden chapel. The Ynchausti family came, along with friends and benefactors, with the intention of donating a beautiful high altar to the congregation. They had one condition, however, that the icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help ought to occupy the high altar. This would conflict with the intention of the pioneer Redemptorists to have the chapel in honor of St. Thérèse. Who would get the high altar— St. Thérèse or Our Mother of Perpetual Help? Fr. Grogan unfolds to us this drama on an entry dated Feb 1, 1932 in the Chronicles:
“I am preparing the House and Church for the arrival of the Fathers and Brothers from Australia. The new high altar given by Sra. De Ynchausti arrived. It was designed and made by Mr. Maximo Vicente under the guidance of the donor. It became the high altar very providentially. Sta. Teresita being the Patroness should naturally have been there and for the first Mass celebrated in the church she was actually installed but when the donor offered her altar, she expressed the wish that it should be the high altar. I proposed her wish to Father Provincial (Byrne) with a good recommendation and he decided it should be so. The delay in communicating brought us near to the Opening Day and hearing nothing from Australia we gave orders that the plans should be changed and the altar made smaller to suit the aisle, but at that very moment, while the designer was in the house, the mail arrived from Australia and all was changed. Our Lady of Perpetual Succor (Help) was given the High Altar and Sta. Teresita on her right side, with St. Gerard on the left.”
Later on, the Redemptorists transferred St. Thérèse’s statue to the grounds in front of the convent. As time will tell, this became a more fitting place for St. Thérèse’s statue as the people were able to touch her. This also serves as a reminder that the saint once had a brief reign in the shrine, before it was dedicated to the Blessed Virgin. Filipino historian Trazer Dale Mansueto notes that Ynchausti’s choice of Our Mother of Perpetual Help underscores the growing devotion to the Marian title in the Philippines at the time prior to the explosion of the novena. This further shows that some awareness about Our Mother of Perpetual Help has already reached Baclaran even before the Redemptorist arrived there.
It took sixteen years before anyone in the Redemptorist community thought of having a Novena to Our Mother of Perpetual Help in Baclaran. For sixteen years the Redemptorist were busy giving missions from all over the Southern Tagalog and Central Luzon areas. Although in most of these missions, they were introducing the icon and propagating the devotion to Our Mother of Perpetual Help, no one thought, however, of introducing the novena at the small chapel of Baclaran.
When the Redemptorist finally did start the novena after hearing of it’s warm acceptance in Ilo-ilo, Lipa and Cebu, all were taken by surprise by the rapid increase of the crowd flocking to the small wooden chapel for the novena. During the first novena, there were only 70 people present. The following week the number doubled. Before the year ended, the Redemptorists added more novena sessions since the original chapel was good for only 300 people.
Then, it dawned upon the Redemptorists that this chapel is not just meant to be a mission station. This chapel is meant for something extraordinary which the past writings on the wall have foreshadowed. Something special is about to transform this place because of Mary of Baclaran, Our Mother of Perpetual Help. The small wooden chapel would have to give way to a larger church.
By the end of 1949, there were eight crowded sessions of the novena, and many others were following it from the parking area. By this time, the crowd was estimated between 50,000 and 70,000 people.
The rest is history!
But where did the crowd who attended the novena came from? Why did the attendance to the novena multiplied so fast?
The Filipino people fell in love with Our Mother of Perpetual Help or shall we say Our Mother of Perpetual Help fell in love with the Filipino people even before the explosion of the novena in 1948. As the late Fr. John Maguire said,
[O]ne reason for the rapid spread of the Perpetual Novena, after it began in Baclaran in 1948, was the already existing love of the people for the Mother of Perpetual Help, whom they had come to know and love from the Redemptorist Missions.
It was the love story between the Filipino people and Our Mother of Perpetual Help that catapulted the explosion of the novena to cosmic proportions. It was the love story between the Filipino people and Our Mother of Perpetual Help who planned the biggest shrine of the world dedicated to Our Mother of Perpetual Help.
The Redemptorists helped facilitate this love story to blossom in Baclaran. The Redemptorist missions in the barrios deep into the country introducing Our Mother of Perpetual Help helped prepare the way for the coming of the novena. The Redemptorists were the stewards entrusted with the care of the shrine that is a testament to the love story between the Filipino people and Our Mother of Perpetual Help.
(This article is an excerpt from the book Mary of Baclaran: Our Mother of Perpetual Help and Mission Today by Joey Echano, soon to be published)