OUR LADY OF POONBATO – a pilgrim center risis

A Pilgrim Center Rises
eastwind journals 184


By Bernie Lopez
Our Lady of Poonbato has its genesis in the community of semi-nomadic Aetas, living since pre-history in the rainforests of the once-angry volcano of Mt. Pinatubo in Zambales, Philippines. Today, the devotion to Ina Poonbato (Our Lady of the Stone Tree) has grown rapidly from an ancient tribal legend into a resilient national pilgrim center, adopted by both Catholics and Aglipays coexisiting in this once-sleepy village of Poonbato. Noted as a healing center, it is now slowly evolving into a global pilgrim center after Saint John Paul II blest a statue of Ina in 1985.


The Miracle of the Helicopter


When Mt. Pinatubo erupted in 1991, Sister Raquel Reodica, RVM (Religious of the Virgin Mary), a Catholic nun noted as the “cancer healer of the Lord”, visited their mission house in Poonbato, Botolan, Zambales, Philippines. As the RVM sisters were helping to rescue the Aetas, they found the five-foot statue of Ina Poonbato buried in lahar up to the shoulders (see photos). They tried to extricate it, digging around the lahar, but it would not budge.


The statue of Ina imbedded in lahar at the bank of Botolan river after the Mt. Pinatubo eruption.


Sister Raquel asked a colonel if his helicopter could possibly extricate the statue. The colonel said it was impossible for the helicopter to lift a heavy cement statue. Sister Raquel insisted, “Just try, colonel. Nothing to lose.” Finally, he gave in, instructing the pilot to abandon the job if it was too heavy. The helicopter extricated the image with ease. The colonel ran up excitedly to Sr. Raquel, “Sister, it’s a miracle. The pilot says the helicopter weighing scale recorded ‘zero weight’.”


The Mustard Seed


“The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches.” Matthew 13:31.


Like the parable of the mustard seed, symbolic of God’s kingdom, growing into a giant tree (Matthew 13:31), the devotion to Ina Poonbato had humble ethnic beginnings back in the late 17th century, but slowly grew into a national pilgrim center. Sisters Babie Hilario and Joyce Fablos at the Catholic shrine report that in the past few years, pilgrims have soared, coming from as far as Bataan, Ilocos, Metro-Manila, Bulacan, San Pedro in Laguna, Dasmarinas in Cavite, San Isidro in Laguna. Sister Babie estimates that in last feast day on January 23-24, 2016, about 12,000 to 14,000 pilgrims converged in Poonbato, based on an overflowing attendance in 14 masses in a single day.


Last March 4, the Mayor of Gumaca in Quezon led dozens of pilgrims to Poonbato. He vowed that, if his son would pass the board exam, he would return as a pilgrim in gratitude. On March 11, he indeed came back. His son passed the board. He brought many replicas of Ina (mother) to Gumaca, spreading the good news to the town. There are many reports from both Catholics and Aglipays of prayers granted – the sick being healed, the childless having children.

Evening procession at Botolan, Holy Week 2016.


The mustard seed promises to go global. Many Filipino devotees in the US and EU have replicas of Ina. There are devotees today in Filipino communities in the US and EU, having replicas of Ina. Perhaps it is because, back in October 1985, Pope John Paul II blest an image brought to the Vatican by the late Rosellyn Magsaysay, wife of Zambales ex-Gov. Jun Magsaysay. Rosellyn was Ina’s instrument in spreading the devotion towards a Global Marian Pilgrim Center by promoting the devotion to Filipino communities in her many trips to the US and EU.

Saint John Paul II blesses the statue of Ina brought to the Vatican by Roselynn Magsaysay in 1985.
Oral History
Franklin Narciso, an Aglipay, is a reported direct descendant of the Aeta chieftain Apang (Chieftain) Djadig, who ‘discovered’ the image of Ina back in the 17 century. This is precious oral history of the birth of Ina. Except for small details, Sisters Babie and Flor confirm the story. Franklin is the caretaker of the Aglipay church as of this writing. A small group of local families manage the Aglipay church.
Franklin relates that there was a drought then, and Djadig, a noted hunter, went out to hunt to feed his hungry family. Finding no prey, he rested and slept under a tree with huge rocks (hence Poonbato, meaning ‘tree stone’). He was awakened by the voice of a lady who said, “Do not to be afraid. Go to the side of a mountain. If you catch a deer, come back to me.” (According to a Catholic document, the lady simply said, “Take me home with you.”)
Franklin Narciso, surviving kin of Apang Djadig who discovered the statue of Our Lady in the 17th century, is the source of oral history of Ina.
Ina Poonbato has an extensive wardrobe. Her dress is changed weekly.


Djadig obeyed. When he came back to the tree, there was an elegant wooden statue of the lady, which he brought home, forgetting about the deer in his excitement. His wife was angry because he failed to bring home food. She threw the statue into a fire, and the house was burnt to the ground, but the statue was not damaged. Instantly, the wife had a lingering skin disease, and when she caressed the image of Ina, she was healed. Apang Djadig built a grotto for Ina and announced to his tribe that she had healing powers. True enough, many were healed. They held an annual feast for Ina, their healer.


When the Spanish Augustinian Recoletos arrived in 1736, they took the statue and named it Nuestra Senora de la Paz y Buenviaje, (Our Lady of Peace and Good Voyage). The Aetas killed the priests and retrieved the statue. The Recoletos made a replica of cement, reportedly the one Sr. Raquel retrieved from the lahar, and which reportedly stands today in a grotto behind the Catholic church (see photo). Then the story gets blurred how the devotion proliferated through the centuries.
The original statue as it stands today at the Poonbato Catholic Church, rescued from lahar by Sr. Raquel Reodica, RVM.


Interestingly, at the onset, there was no competition between Aglipays and Catholics. They shared the same church and took turns in their rituals. The Catholics later built its own present-day shrine. Today, pilgrims visit both Aglipay and Catholic churches, symbol of Marian ecumenism. Today, Ina is the mother of Aglipays and Catholics, of Aetas and non-Aetas.


The devotion to Ina now revolves around a pilgrim center that promises to be global, reaching out to Filipino communities in the US and EU. Like Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico, Our Lady of Peace and Good Voyage is of ethnic origin. eastwindreplyctr@gmail.com



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