Cagsawa Church Ruins On A Maundy Thursday

STRUGGLING between going to mass to pray for atonement for my sins and going to the beach for a breather from work, I decided on a compromise in spending my Maundy Thursday: visit the infamous ruins in Cagsawa, Daraga, Albay.

I was in Legazpi City (the Albay capital), anyway, for the Holy Week. What better spend a day of mourning than visit a (ruined) church.

Notwithstanding the tons of tons of rock and earth that now conceal most of it, Cagsawa Church is visited by hundreds, if not thousands, of pilgrims each year. They come not only from different parts of the country, but also from overseas.

These pilgrims, though, do so not to witness a miracle, nor even to necessarily pray. They come to visit Cagsawa for its belltower – all that remains and stands above ground after an incredible eruption by Mayon Volcano buried the church on July 6, 1814.

As a kid, I was told of stories about Cagsawa: that hundreds of nearby residents who sought refuge in the church during the eruption of 1814 were buried, and that the ghosts of all those dead people still haunt the place.

In hindsight, of course, I doubt the latter to be still true. Today’s Cagsawa, after all, has become such a popular haunt, not of the undead, but of hordes of living, breathing tourists. Ghosts of those churchgoers would probably have already vacated the place on account of too much noise pollution.

This is especially true during this year’s Holy Week. I’m not sure if they had the same idea as I had. It was after lunch – the usual siesta en la provincia time – when my sisters, niece, mom and I arrived at the hollowed ground (“ground zero,” in 9/11 parlance) of Cagsawa. Unmindful of the ungodly hour were dozens of sprightly tourists lining up to have their pictures taken before the belltower.

(Watching that scene, I imagined the Cagsawa belltower coming alive like the ents or talking trees of The Lord of the Rings, or He-Man’s Grayskull, confidently looming before the tourists as any seasoned artista would to her fans. I resisted the urge to laugh out loud, lest I earn the wrath of the belltower.)

I’m not sure, too, if the local government was aware of the irony of cashing in on a local tragedy. Or if the tourists were aware that they were having their pictures taken in a graveyard of thousands. Imagine a shrine being built by the Pasig City Government on the very concrete where the Wowowee victims were trampled to their deaths and having thousands of tourists visit the shrine.

I’d like to think they are aware, thus equipping them in my mind with a healthy sense of Pinoy humor.

I find no fault at all in this. No problem in having swimming resorts, “fishing villages”, restaurants, and (m/h)otels mushroom all around the ruins, as long as they prop up the local economy.

Even better if, because of the tourism, people will begin to notice the amazing local Abaca industry that malls and globalization is slowly killing. Through the years, stores selling Abaca products located inside and outside the fenced premises of “Cagsawa ruins” have flourished. Though vendors earn very meager income in selling these products – because of the handcraftsmanship they are difficult to mass produce and therefore are more expensive to make – they at least get the attention they so awfully deserve.

Based on my interviews, most of the vendors in Cagsawa make their own products. Abaca weaving was passed on to them by their forebears. Making the products, the weavers say, has now become a labor of love, or a tradition, even as they find it difficult to live off such labor.

With the economic crunch kicking in, this season yielded even lesser profits than that of previous years, they say. Most weavers still had to work as farmers in the rice fields to earn enough for their family.

For a moment, I felt saddened by all these stories. At the same time, I was glad that the tourists, for the moment, arrived – with their smiles, their digital cameras, and their cash.

Before leaving the place, I contemplated, like any devout Catholic would, on the Maundy Thursday I spent in procession around Cagsawa. I realize then that if there was one Lenten lesson I learned in Cagsawa, it is that sacrifice begets salvation. The Abaca weavers of Cagsawa, I told myself, will soon rise up from the dead to save us all.


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