Before leaving for Benin to attend a conference on migration and development, I was invited to Cotabato City by Manong Joel Rodriguez of Oxfam-GB to share our experience in governance for sustainable development. It was almost a no go because my departure day clashed with a national conference organized by Social Watch Philippines where I was one of the paper presenters; that an exiting typhoon tied down the traffic as I was trying to catch my flight; and an old man accidentally picked my camera bag as it went through the x-ray machine and I became the missing passenger repeatedly announced by loudspeakers as I desperately search for it among the hundreds of passengers queuing at the check-in counters.
It was my first trip to Cotabato City and my most recent to Mindanao after a long absence and I intend to make the most of it. Manong Joel graciously agreed to my arrangements: an early morning guided visit to the city’s Tamontaka church and driving me later to Kabacan in nearby North Cotabato for a bus ride to Cagayan de Oro where I will take the plane out to Manila. My Visita Iglesia will finally meet Jasaan’s church which has been declared as a national heritage.
I was billeted at the Estosan Garden Hotel where I sensed that it won’t be a hassle-free shooting day as uniformed men with high powered firearms milled at the lobby and I read through the security briefing handed to me by Oxfam-GB. The hotel gates (yes, gates not doors) were padlocked by 6 pm. I had beer and a huge crab for dinner and killed time staring on another world outside the hotel restaurant’s glass panes wishing that I should be shooting the Muslim woman across the street as she closed down her store, or talking a long walk to the city center for a session of street nighttime photography.
Despite the beer, I had a listless night. Sleep caught up while I watched Nicholas Cage and John Travolta change faces on HBO. Then I dreamed of a haunting singing voice gliding through the stillness of a sleeping world, caressing wilting flowers back into life, and blessing the land long burdened by wars and conflict. It was a moment of complete serenity and as I tried to be kept engulfed in its folds, the TV screen flashed from the guns of two double crossing drug dealers and I realized that it was not a dream. The Imam was calling the Muslim faithful to early morning prayers. I went out and sat on a sofa at the lobby. The beautiful hotel receptionist peered at me with half-opened eyes and went back to sleep. I savored every syllables of the haunting sing-song call and fell into a peaceful sleep. The next thing I know was my assigned guide waking me up for the early morning foray to the Tamontaka church.
The Jesuits --- probably Fr. Juan Bautista Vidal, Fr. Jose Ignacio Guerrico, Bro. Venancio Belzunce, Bro. Ignacio Zumeta --- established the Tamontaka Mission in 1861. The first church was built along the banks of the Tamontaka River in 1872. It was relocated to its present site in 1879 where it was administered by the Jesuits until 1899 then by the Oblates of the Mary Immaculate in 1939. The church was destroyed during an earthquake in 1976, reconstructed in 1978, razed by fire in 1994 and completely rebuilt in the same year. I was 17 years late.
I have more of the same on Day 2 but on my last day, I would not be denied my walking and shooting day. I went out as soon as the hotel gates opened and walked to the nearby ARMM regional center, passed the olive-uniformed guards breakfasting on instant noodles and a group of trisikad drivers ogling a shiny hand gun from one of their own. “Can I take pictures?” I asked a reedy toothless middle-aged man with a huge automatic rifle posted at the capitol building entrance. He nodded his permission and I shoot away as if there is no tomorrow. Two hours later, I was on my way for a 2-hour ride with my 15-kilogram backpack to Kabacan where I took a Rural Transit bus to Cagayan de Oro City. It was a non-stop drive for almost an eternity across a stretch of desolate loneliness and poverty called Carmen. The bus finally made its first stop in Damulog, Bukidnon. That’s when I decided to drop by Malaybalay.
Malaybalay is almost like the early morning call to prayers in Cotabato City. I walked around, enjoying my freedom that was briefly denied by the locked-up Estosan Garden Hotel. I found the cathedral, took my photos, and walked to the magnificent capitol grounds where I snacked on durian and marang sold by a group of shy but friendly vendors. The Augustinian Recollects undertook the evangelization of what is now Malaybalay in the middle of the 19th century. A chapel was reported to have been built in Sumilao in the 1870s by Fr. Mateo Bernad before the Jesuits took over. The Diocese of Malaybalay was established as a territorial prelature in 1969 and elevated as a diocese in 1982 with the contemporary Cathedral of San Isidro Labrador as its seat.
It was 5 pm when I rode one of those cute tuktuk-like tricycles to the bus station for the short trip to Cagayan de Oro. I checked in at Hotel Ramon as recommended by Dondon of our Camiguin Branch office, went out after a quick shower, and stumbled on the city’s Friday night café and market. It was tuna kinilaw, lechon and beer this time. Early the next morning, I asked the hotel reception for directions to the town of Jasaan.
My encounter with the Jasaan church is almost dramatic. I was dropped off along a highway tucked between the sea and a hill after a 30-minute bus ride. I walked towards the hill through well-planned blocks and early morning rituals of a friendly neighborhood. The church suddenly hit me like a shinkansen. It was open and empty. I took my camera and shoot like a maniac. I explored every nook and cranny, climbed the creaky stairs to the twin belfries, and searched for the details I read in Regalado Trota Jose’s “Simbahan”. I went to the stunningly preserved convent where 2 altar boys offered me breakfast and the caretaker allowed me to shoot the antique church jewels on display. Jasaan’s first church was built on top of a hill in a place called Cotta. The Jesuits probably relocated it to its present site and built the Church of the Immaculate Conception --- said to be a replication of their majestic San Ignacio Church in Intramuros, Manila --- late into the 19th century. The church’s facade was replaced during a renovation work but most of its original parts remained intact, including the convento that now also serves as a museum of parochial relics. It was declared as a pilgrimage church in 1998.
Back in Cagayan de Oro, my final visita iglesia was the city’s majestic cathedral. The Augustinian Recollects first evangelized in what is now Cagayan de Oro City in 1622. The establishment of the first settlement is attributed to Fr. Agustin de San Pedro in 1626. Cagayan de Misamis became the capital town of Segundo Distrito de Misamis in 1872. It became a city in 1950 when its name was changed into Cagayan de Oro and its San Agustin Cathedral was rebuilt.
On the plane back to Manila, I rummaged my 1994-era backpack for my well-thumbed Philippine travel guide. I looked for a dot called Jimenez on the shoulder of the Zamboanga Peninsula. There is an airport in nearby Dipolog. And it’s the other half of Mindanao’s two national heritage churches. I will be back with my backpack…