The Shrine that Prays with the People

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“Mary was the temple of God,
not the God of the temple;
hence only he who was at work in the temple
is to be adored.”
St. Ambrose[1]

The present Shrine is the third Church that was built in the original land donated to the Redemptorists in 1932.

The first church was a small wooden chapel built in 1932. When the first Redemptorists settled at Baclaran, their main intention for the Baclaran land is to be a mission station for the Tagalog mission. Thus, the plan to build a big shrine for Our Mother of Perpetual Help never crossed their minds.

The second church was built in 1949, a year after the explosion of the novena when the shrine could no longer accommodate the crowds that had increasingly attended the Novenas. Devotion came first before any structures and building. Redemptorists did not have the mentality: “If you build, they will come!”

Just a few months after the second church was built, however, it became obvious that the second church could not still accommodate the growing number of devotees. Thus, beginning in 1950, Redemptorist began the preparations and planning for a third church. Actual construction began in 1953 and finished in 1958. The second Church remained inside while the present shrine was being built and was only removed when the present Church was completed.

Although there were admittedly some prominent donors, Fr. Lew O’leary, Rector of the shrine at that time, stressed that about 75% of the cost of the construction came from small donors. This was done either through weekly collections or through the loose change dropped into the miniature models of the proposed shrine strategically placed near the cashier in the shops and stores of Manila, The caption said: “Ten Cents to Help Build a Shrine.”

This is a big reason why it took six years to build the shrine. Most of the money that came from small donations often ran out requiring construction to stop. Truly it is a church by the people, built mainly not by big and rich benefactors, but by the ordinary people. No wonder they continue to identify so strongly with it.[2]

The architecture of the shrine is modern Romanesque. The architect of Baclaran shrine was the well-known architect, Cesar Concio, Sr. (father-in-law of Charo Santos, Filipino actress and producer), who is credited with a light design for a big space and good natural acoustics. Hechanova describes Concio’s design as “both simple and solemn, large yet intimately prayerful in atmosphere, a ‘populist’ church in the best sense of the word.”[3]

The shrine, finished in 1958, stands at 17.2 m (56.5 ft.) high on the nave and 12.5 m (41 ft.) high on the main aisle. The edifice has a length of 106.7 m (350 ft.), width of 36 m (118 ft.) and a total floor area of 5,069 m2 (54,564 ft2).

Redemptorists ensured that the design and construction of the present shrine would contribute and give justice to the wonderful devotion and the amazing grace that God has wrought in Baclaran through Our Mother of Perpetual Help. The design of the shrine needs to fit with the spirituality of the icon and the devotion. The aesthetic of the shrine was to provide an ambience of prayer and contemplation. The design ought to be a shrine which prays with the people. This is expressed by Natasha Buxton in a thanksgiving letter to Our Mother of Perpetual Help in January 10, 2015,

I finally got the chance to visit Mama Mary in Baclaran, and I knelt down in front of her asking for a miracle. I felt so at peace in her church, I couldn’t help but get all emotional. I left the church feeling content, and decided to leave my trust with her.

Let us examine how the various architectural parts of the shrine enhance and uplift devotees’ prayer and devotion.

The Icon

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The main object of veneration in the shrine is the icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help. The original icon enshrined above the main altar came from Germany. Redemptorists brought it to Ireland then to Australia and finally the Philippines in 1906. It bears the Papal arms in the back panelling.

There is no access to reach the icon at the top of the retable. So people touch the tabernacle instead. Indeed, devotees believe that once they touch the tabernacle, they already have touched the icon. In hindsight this is exactly what Our Mother of Perpetual Help wish for every devotee. Mary wishes that all devotees become closer and follow her son.

Sanctuary

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The area where the center of activity in the shrine takes place is the sanctuary. It is elevated and separated from the nave through a communion rail. The sanctuary is elevated so that the congregation can easily see the different parts of the liturgy that are celebrated efficaciously from the sanctuary.

Altar

The most important and dignified element at the sanctuary is the altar, the place where the Eucharistic sacrifice is offered. The High Altar was brought from Italy. It is an elevated big marble free standing altar which enable the priest to walk around the altar to incense it. The altar reminds the devotees that the Eucharist is still the central sacrament and celebration of the shrine.

Just like Mary Our Mother of Perpetual Help who expressed her fiat: “Let it be done according to your Word,” the shrine has always emphasized that true devotion is lived and practiced according to the Word of God. In the same spirit, the novena is at the service of the Eucharist.

Baldachin

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The baldachin is the beautiful canopy of four columns that sits over the altar. It also provides a beautiful covering for the icon. Its columns and capitals are made of giallo oro and Bottecino marbles. The gracefully curving altar rails under the baldachin are made of white Carrara marble.

Retable

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The retable (in Spanish, retablo) is the large altarpiece behind the altar. It is a beautiful symmetrical work of art. It incorporates the tabernacle and serves as a backdrop for the icon. The retable contains beautiful bronze sculptures of eight pairs of wheat stalks intertwining with each other. Their point of intersection is the tabernacle and the crucifix. Four doves representing the Holy Spirit surround the crucifix.  A bronze sculpture of vine and fruit grapes floats above it. The wheat and grapes symbolize the bread, and wine of the Eucharist. The wheat and the grapes are also emblematic of abundance of God’s grace.

Ian Lang, commented on the retable in June 9, 2017,

This was my first visit on this church and I really had a great and solemn experience. I will never forget the retablo of our great Ina ng Laging Saklolo against its magnificent ceiling architecture. Thanks to those who contributed in beautifying the sanctuary of pilgrims.[4]

Tabernacle

1stWed2011121The very center of the retable is the tabernacle. The tabernacle is made of wood designed as a box-like vessel for the exclusive reservation of the consecrated Eucharist. It is positioned at the center of retable in such a way that people could touch both the front and back of the tabernacle. Every Wednesday after all the liturgical services in the evening, people form a line to touch the tabernacle while silently praying their faces are looking upwards towards Our Mother of Perpetual Help in the icon above and beyond their reach.

Pulpit

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The pulpit at the left side of the sanctuary is a raised platform from which the liturgical readings are read and where preachers preach their homilies. There is a short stairs leading to it. The stairs and pulpit is crafted in wood as a beautiful work of art. The pulpit serves as the altar of the Word. It is located closer to the main congregation in the nave, to ensure the preacher can be seen and heard by all the congregation.

Fr. Maguire describes how the pulpit was built:

The pulpit was built by a Redemptorist Brother—Bro. Leo. It was designed by the architect of the church but was not built for many years after the Church was constructed. It was a complicated design and so difficult to build that a number of carpenters surrendered and admitted that they could not follow the plan. Bro. Leo brought an old carpenter from Lipa called Alf who had worked with him for many years in the Lipa Monastery and together they built the pulpit. Bro. Leo was a carpenter before becoming a Redemptorist. Alf never had a chance to receive formal education but had natural skills not taught in schools.[5]

Nave

The main body and the biggest part of the shrine is the nave. The nave extends from the main door to the place where the choir is. It is the place for the devotees and lay faithful. This is where they stand, sit, gather, pray and participate in the sacred celebrations. Nave comes from the Latin word navis, signifying a ship, the same word from which we derived the words “navy” and “naval.” The ship was the favorite symbol of the Church in primitive times. From the nave, the faithful are able to see the Priest, the Deacon, and the readers and with the aid of a good sound system, hear them without difficulty.

Pews

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The most common element of the nave are the pews and their kneelers. The pews are arranged in a unidirectional manner—one behind the next, facing the sanctuary of the church. There are 108 pews in the shrine which can seat 15 to 20 adults comfort­ably. This gives an actual seating capacity of 2000. More people, however are standing inside and outside the shrine during masses and novena, estimated at more or less 8000 people.

Confessional

Another important element in the nave is the confessional. It is crafted in such a way that it fits in with the architecture of the shrine as well as being an obvious sign of the Sacrament of Reconciliation. There are four confessionals placed at the sides of the shrine. In 2016, a separate reconciliation room was constructed near the candle chapel. This is a special reconciliation room where those going to confession can either choose between face to face confession or confession through a latticed opening for the penitents to speak through and a step on which they could kneel.

Choir

The choir is the place set aside for those members of the congregation who are specially trained to lead the sung portion of the liturgy. The choir is located at the right side of the sanctuary closer to the nave. The shrine has a rear gallery or “choir loft” but was never actually used since it is too far from the assembly and the presider. The choir is not visible to the rest of the congregation since the choir is primarily perceived audibly— we hear them not see them. They are present at Holy Mass as worshippers, not as performers.

Ceiling

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The ceiling of the shrine is designed primarily for acoustic and aesthetic purposes. But the design of the ceiling also tells of another important symbol. The design is patterned on two hands joined together as in the posture of prayer. This evokes the spiritual ambiance that the shrine prays with the people. As the thousands of devotees prays the novena, the shrine also prays with them just as Mary Our Mother of Perpetual Help in the icon prays with them.

Narthex

The narthex is the part of the shrine consisting of the entrance or lobby area, located at the west end of the nave, opposite the church’s main altar. The narthex is where the priest, the lectors, ushers, altar boys and girls, lay communion ministers and mother butler guilds assemble before the beginning of the liturgy. It is also the place where the priest wear the liturgical vestments for the liturgy. It is also the place where the priest and lay ministers greet the people as they enter and exit the shrine.

Rose Window

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At the entrance of the shrine above the main door, devotees are greeted by a beautiful Rose Window. It is a large circular window above the central entrance to the church. The segments of stained glass that radiate out from its center are likened to the unfolding petals of a full-blown rose. Rose Windows in shrines are dedicated to Mary as the Mother of Jesus. At the center of the Rose Window is a star which recalls Mary as Star of the Sea, our guide in the midst of darkness.

Front Porch or Patio

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The front porch of the shrine is a natural place for people to gather after or before the mass. It is popular place for devotees where they can sit, talk, and relax. It is also used as a meeting place by the devotees. Sometimes the patio becomes the venue for outdoor special events like concerts, plays, programs and other cultural celebrations.

Color of the Shrine

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Yellow cream is the overriding color of the shrine which comes close to the golden background of the Icon. Gold in the icon evokes the life of joy and peace in eternity with God which we are all destined to be at the end of time.

Candle Chapel

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The shrine has a separate chapel for lighting candles.  It is the second most popular place next to the shrine where people light candles and pray silently and solemnly. Many stay still lengthily transfixed at the candles praying for God’s light and trying to contemplate their lives in God’s light when they have come out of the darkness of their lives.

Jan Castillo commenting on the Facebook page of the shrine December 3, 2015, said, “An awesome place to pray, relax and chill. Must visit!!! Bring the whole family.”[6] Alvin Guerrero also commenting on the Facebook page of the shrine in August 12, 2016 said, “Quiet and really clean, you can pray solemnly.”[7] Jomar Gabayeron also commented, “A very solemn and sacred church. Has a big space in my heart, plays a big role in my life.” Joe Conda, commenting in May 1, 2017, said: “For me Baclaran church is one of my favourite place to go … in this place I can release all my worries in life, I can talk to God and give thanks for all the blessings that he gave me every day.” Pat Elvas, commented on July 30, 2015, “A great haven for peace, reflection and time for God, Jesus and His Mother. Our Mother of Perpetual Help, will always be a mother to us.”

Bell Tower

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The original plan of the present shrine included a bell tower. This was cancelled, however, due to the church’s proximity to the airport. After 60 years, this plan was realized. In 2015, a Carillon belfry was built near the Western entrance of the Shrine on Roxas Blvd. On September 8 of the same year, Archbishop of Manila Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle blessed the newly-built belfry. There are 24 bells in this tower, all imported from Austria. There are also four mosaic panels of Our Lady of Perpetual Help on each side of the belfry. The carillon bells are automatically programmed to ring 15 minutes before every Mass or Novena service. It also hosts the Sinirangan coffee shop at its base.

Wall Art at the Shrine’s Park

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At the back of the candle chapel there is a large mosaic celebrating the 150th jubilee of the icon. It portrays the journey of the icon from Crete to Baclaran interspersed with scenes of devotees at the shrine and in the mission in the barrios.

At the south wall of the shrine’s compound is a mural of mixed art—mosaic, sculpture, paintings, depicting the history of the Filipino people interspersed with motifs and themes from Laudato Si, Pope Francis’ encyclical on the care for creation. The wall art is suitably augmented by a beautiful landscape of flowers and greens. It is one of the largest mosaic mural of all churches in the Philippines with a height of eight feet and a length of seven hundred feet.  The whole project began in mid-2015 and finished in 2017. The wall art was blessed in December 2017.

There are plans to build a mural on the north wall of the shrine’s compound in the future. The mural will also be a mixed art of mosaic, sculpture, painting depicting the different parts of the icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help intersperse with the life of Mary in the Bible.

These wall art and landscape provide an added space for devotees to relax, pray and contemplate on the icon. Carmelotez, commenting on the park outside of the shrine on May 22, 2017:  “It’s really nice to stay for relaxing… Its ambiance relieves my weariness, for me this is the best place to relax.”[8]

Truly the shrine’s architecture and ambiance inside and outside enhances the encounter between the devotees and God and Our Mother of Perpetual Help. Indeed, the shrine serves as an icon herself, a window to the eternal and the sacred.

Joey Echano

(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)


[1] St. Ambrose, De Spiritu Sancto III, 11:80.

[2] Hechanova, Baclaran Story

[3] Luis Hechanova, Baclaran Story

[4] https://www.facebook.com/pg/omphbaclaran/reviews/

[5] John Maguire, To Give Missions Wherever They are Needed.

[6] https://www.facebook.com/omphbaclaran/inbox/?selected_item_id=646908125511183

[7] https://www.facebook.com/omphbaclaran/inbox/?selected_item_id=646908125511183

[8] https://www.facebook.com/omphbaclaran/inbox/?selected_item_id=646908125511183

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