New findings on the first Mass in Filipinas

For many years, including the time when Filipinas was still under Mother Spain, Filipinos have been taught that the first Mass in our country happened in Limasaua, Leyte (now Limasawa, Southern Leyte). As a backgrounder: Portuguese explorer Fernando de Magallanes (popularly known by his Anglicized name Ferdinand Magellan) ordered a Mass to be celebrated on the small island of Limasawa on 31 March 1521. It was officiated by Fr. Pedro de Valderrama, OSA, the only priest of the Magallanes expedition. This event marked the birth of Christianity in Filipinas.

However, just a few years ago, a group of people started to contest this widely accepted historical record, saying that the first Mass really occurred in Butúan, Agusan (del Norte).

Vicente Calibo de Jesús, a media and communications practitioner, is one of the most vocal proponents of the cause to recognize Butúan as the site of our country’s first Mass. He has launched numerous petitions online to have his claim recognized. On his Facebook account, he has cited documents and even geomorphological arguments to back up his claim. Sometime during the last decade, when the country’s foremost historian Ambeth Ocampo was still in charge over the National Historical Commission of the Philippines (then known as the National Historical Institute), a committee headed by economist and historian Benito Legarda, Jr. was organized to re-examine the matter. However, in one public forum, Calibo de Jesús failed to attend.

“Since Mr. De Jesús refused to participate in the forum, why does he now contest the outcome?” Ocampo said.

After much deliberation, the NHCP/NHI then issued a resolution on 15 June 2009 affirming that the first Mass was indeed celebrated in Limasawa, Southern Leyte on 31 March 1521.

Ocampo retired from public service two years later but continued publishing history books and articles as well as giving popular lectures. The local Catholic Church quietly accepted the findings. Calibo de Jesús, on the other hand, continued his online attacks. But the controversy was almost forgotten.

Fast forward to last week, on the 5th of August. Jun P. Alvizo, a proponent of the Filipinas Quincentenario project, posted on his Facebook account digitized photos (see below) that were taken from the pages of the Anales Eclesiásticos de Philipinas1574-1602, asserting that Calibo de Jesús could be right after all.

Butúan’s assertion as the true site of the first Mass in the Philippines is not a fabricated claim or one without a substantive evidence. The truth on this episode, of the first circumnavigation of the world, has long been muddled by many historians when Limasawa in Leyte was proclaimed as the real site of the first Mass in our islands that was officiated by Father Pedro de Valderrama on 31 March 1521 (an Easter Sunday). Adding dubiety, the many investigations on this matter, conducted by panels constituted by the National HIstorical Commission of the Philippines (NHCP), resolved in favor of Limasawa, obliterating the very truth where the first Mass in the Philippines was really celebrated.

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According to Alviza, these documents were obtained by the Filipinas Quincentenario from the Archives of the Archdiocese of Manila, and that even the late Jaime Cardinal Sin was knowledgeable about them.

Aside from these new findings, there were, in fact, old books dating back to the Spanish times that either questioned or contradicted the already accepted location of the first Mass in Filipinas. These are the “Episodios Históricos de Filipinas” by Felipe María de Govantes (Manila: Imprenta de Valdezco, 1881, pp. 21-22) and the “Boletín de la Real Sociedad Geográfica” (Madrid: Real Sociedad Geográfica, 1897, vol. 39, pp. 135-136) to name a few. There was even one book, the “Historia de Mindanao y Joló” (Madrid: Viuda de M. Minuesa de los Ríos, 1897, pp. 661), in which the author, Francisco Combés, specifically mentioned that it was precisely in Butúan and in no other place where the first Mass in Filipinas was celebrated.

Allí fué precisamente, y no en otro punto, donde se celebró la primera misa, dicha en tierra, del Archipiélago Filipino.

It is unclear, though, as to how Combés et al. were cognizant of the exact site since all their books were published three centuries after the event. However, there could be one clincher: Antonio Pigafetta himself, the lone Italian chronicler of the Magallanes expedition who was also witness to the first Mass. In his account of the expedition titled “Relazione del primo viaggio intorno al mondo” (Report on the First Voyage Around the World) published in 1536, Pigafetta actually mentioned Butúan four times. The account of the Mass is found in chapter two of his book.

Be that as it may, with the discovery of these old church records, could those “iconoclasts” have finally won their fight for historical accuracy, that the first Mass was indeed held at Butúan and not Limasawa? Or will this prompt the NHCP to organize another investigation?

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