Speak of Cebu and images of the Sto. Niño , the province’s patron, come to mind. And so does the valiant Lapu-Lapu, sweet mangoes, the famous lechon, guitars and beaches. But it is more than that. Cebu is a special and beautiful place. It is also my home.
The line of people snaked just behind the smaller entrance of the Basilica Minore del Sto. Niño, to the narrow corridors within the Augustinian monastery complex, a counterpart of the famous San Agustin in Intramuros. It continues just before reaching the sacristy and into an even smaller passageway at the back of the chapel where the famous icon of the Sto. Niño de Cebu is enshrined.
The devotees silently and patiently await their turn to touch on the glass partition, wiping their handkerchief or kissing the rectangular block directly infront of them. At the same time, they are mumbling prayers and supplications with eyes closed in thanksgiving or for various favors.
Cebu is the center of the Sto. Niño de Cebu devotion in the Philippines. In 1521, Ferdinand Magellan arrived in the country, brought the image and gave it as a gift to then named Queen Juana, the wife of Rajah Humabon who were newly baptized into the Catholic faith. 44 years after the death of the circumnavigator, Miguel Lopez de Legazpi returned to the Philippines. During a skirmish in a village that they burned down, they found this same image in one of the still standing huts. It was given to the Augustinians for safekeeping.
The minor basilica (proclaimed as such in 1965) of the Sto. Niño de Cebu is the sanctuary of the image under the Augustinians. The first church was started in 1566 made from wood and nipa but got burned. Two structures were built later but it was only in 1735 that the present church was started and finished four years after. The stones used were quarried in Panay and the wood from the forests of Cebu. The architecture is said to be a mixture of Muslim, Romanesque and Neoclassical styles.
The image of the child Jesus is just about 11 inches in height from feet to crown. It is garbed with a military general’s uniform with one hand holding a globe while the other is raised in blessing and holding a scepter. It is believed to be a 16th century image carved in Flanders. Devotion was officially recognized in 1578 and the feast day was proclaimed in 1641 as every 14 January. Today, it is celebrated every 3rd Sunday of January.
Devotees come in all ages, of different economic status and from different parts of the country and abroad. Families with children or baby in tow line up to kiss at the chapel. Some are bringing gifts like toys, balloons and other items as an offering. Pilgrims gather at an area where they light candles as a means of offering a prayer or supplication.
Across the country and in many Filipino communities abroad, the 3rd Sunday of January is especially marked with masses, dances and celebration. It is also the highlight of the country’s biggest street festival called the Sinulog.