Brief History Of Our Mother Of Perpetual Help in Baclaran
A Place of Grace. A Church of Hope.
The Redemptorists brought the picture of the Mother of Perpetual Help to the Philippines in 1906. Forty years later, the Redemptorists introduced the Perpetual Novena to the nation. The honor of conducting the first Perpetual Novena in the Philippines goes, not to Baclaran, but to the Iloilo community, in May, 1946 in the Redemptorist Church of St. Clement.
That same year, the Redemptorist Rector of Lipa City in Batangas happened to be visiting Iloilo. He was present at the Novena devotion and determined to introduce it in Lipa. There it was started the following year. When the Rector of Lipa, Fr. Gerard O’Donnell, became Rector of Baclaran, his first thought was of the Novena which he began at 6.00 pm on June 23, 1948.
Fr. Leo English conducted the first Novena in Baclaran. There were only 70 people present. The capacity of the church at that time was only 300. Within the next year, a second session had to be provided, and some extensions were made to the small wooden church. Before the end of 1949, there were eight crowded sessions of the Novena. The Wednesday of each week became a day of prayer to the Virgin of Perpetual Help throughout the entire nation.
The increasing attendance of the devotees forced the Redemptorists to consider a more spacious church. Fr. Lewis O’Leary, Superior at the time, assumed management of the massive construction. The bulk of the money that financed the building came from the small offerings of ordinary people. An appeal made from the pulpit was for ten centavos per person per week. This is why it took six years to complete the construction of the church. When the money ran out, the construction was suspended; when more money came in, the work began again. The old church continued in use as the new rose over it; the Novena continued as usual.
The foundation stone had been laid by Cardinal Gilroy of Sydney on January 11, 1953. On January 1958, the Philippine hierarchy officially declared the Baclaran Church to be the National Shrine of the Mother of Perpetual Help. And on December 1st, 1958, the completed church was solemnly consecrated by Archbishop Santos of Manila, assisted by Bishops Antiporda and Shanahan.
The official opening ceremony was held on December 5, 1958. Archbishop Santos celebrated the Mass, assisted by Cardinal Agagianian and several other bishops. Since the day when the Shrine was opened, it has never been closed, day or night.
The Church’s architecture is described as Modern Romanesque. Cesar Concio, its architect, and Jesse Bontoc, his associate, had planned a higher church with a bell tower. But because of its proximity to the airport, civil aeronautic regulations prevented them from carrying out their plan in full.
The church has a seating capacity of 2000 persons, with another 9000 standing. On each Wednesday, seven sessions of the Novena with benediction along with three novena Masses and two sung Masses are held. About 120,000 devotees visit Baclaran each Wednesday to pray the Novena. Far larger crowds attend on the first Wednesday of the month. Devotees arrive from 4.00 am and are still entering the church past midnight.
Confessions are heard daily in the Shrine at almost every hour of the day. On Wednesdays, the Confessional boxes are occupied all day long. The celebration of the sacrament of reconciliation makes the Shrine an important centre of spiritual renewal.
Every week, hundreds of Petition and Thanksgiving letters are received at the Shrine. Many are from foreign lands wherever Filipinos happen to be. The more significant Thanksgiving letters are kept on file.
The Feast day of the Mother of Perpetual Help is celebrated on June 27. A Novena of nine consecutive days precedes the annual celebration of the feast.
"A Place Where Accepted Values Are Overturned"
When we gather in the Shrine of Our Mother in Baclaran, we gather in a privileged place at a privileged moment. We gather at an evidently holy place.
Why are we here? Why should over one million people from every walk of life from all over the Philippines, gather here yearly, together with the thousands of other pilgrims from all over the world, so different and yet so similar to ourselves, who come to this shrine?
What is it about this Shrine that makes it so attractive to people? How can it bring so many together? How can it impress so many: strong believers, the just plain curious, and even perhaps the cynical; how can it gather the sick and the healthy, the important and those without any pretence of importance? Yet coming here to Baclaran, all go away with a unique experience.
Why should each year thousands of young men and women come to Baclaran using their holidays to serve as volunteers in the Shrine, when they could just as well go to the fashionable malls and resorts just a few kilometres from here? What is it that is so special about Baclaran?
It is something that is hard to explain. People often ask – did a miracle take place here? Did the Blessed Mother appear to children as she did in Fatima and in Lourdes? The fact that Mary should have appeared in Lourdes to a poor, barely literate girl is in itself something remarkable. The fact that that encounter should result in something which has had an impact for generations, something that has affected the lives of so many and has brought healing and serenity to the gravely sick and the most distressed is something which begs an explanation.
Without such spectacular events, Baclaran must appear as an ordinary place.
And yet - over the past 50 years, millions of people have made their way to this once ordinary place to be blessed with extraordinary favours.
There is no other explanation for the drawing power of Baclaran than that it is a chosen place to pray, and sit… and pray. Unlike the other great Marian Shrines around the world, like Fatima and Guadalupe, and other shrines which take their origin from an apparition of the Virgin, Baclaran has only itself to thank for its special, even unique place, amongst famous Marian Shrines.
Experts in the field of religious sociology, of cultural anthropology, in popular religiosity, have tried to hit upon a definitive answer to the question, but an answer continues to elude them.
But it does not seemingly elude the millions who come here year after year, some from the very day the shrine was just a tiny chapel on the shores of Manila Bay in 1948, first until the present.
Lourdes is one of the most visited Shrines in the world, of any faith. Yet the first reaction to Bernadette was of opposition and hostility. Lourdes has flourished over decades in the face of a culture of various generations of hostility and miscomprehension.
Baclaran, like Lourdes before it has always posed a problem for non-believers. The apparitions at Lourdes occurred at a high point in a culture of rationalism, where everything had to have its rational explanation or else it was unreal or unauthentic. Over the years, Lourdes has quietly flourished in the face of other hostile cultures, whether of atheistic Marxism or agnostic materialism. Lourdes still retains its unique character and appeal. Even Baclaran has been able to withstand or resist the inroads made by secularism upon the devotions of the people.
Baclaran’s novena began here in the Philippines shortly after the war. The war in Europe had a destructive force on the cultures and traditions of peoples. And yet it seems that devotion to Mary has been able to withstand the attempts of secularism to displace it.
When we look closely, we can see that Baclaran is a place where accepted values are overturned. Baclaran is a place where sickness is looked on with respect. The sick and the handicapped are treated in Baclaran as its most treasured pilgrims.
Thousands approach the Virgin on their knees to intercede for a parent or child distressed by the inroads of cancer. As time goes on and no remission appears, the person who prays discovers that contrary to losing his faith, it becomes stronger even yet. The miracle is there, not in the cure of the sufferer, but in the life and faith of the petitioner.
No one in Baclaran is judged on outward appearances. A holy shrine welcomes humble sinners. In a world full of self confidence, those who are troubled, who are anxious, are accepted and recognised really as pilgrims; all of us on the same path towards an acceptance of that "joyful hope" to which we are all called.
Baclaran is a shrine of Mary, but Mary is the first to point our hearts and minds towards her son Jesus. Mary in her short conversations with Bernadette indicates to us the path towards her son: the path of repentance and penance, the path of prayer and of the Eucharist.
In the early days of the Novena, there was quite considerable comment among clergy and even the hierarchy that the Wednesday devotion was guilty of drawing the people away from their obligations to Sunday Mass. Fortunately we have discovered that far from drawing the people away, it has only led to a deeper and stronger faith.
Baclaran is a place of prayer. Come here to the Shrine at any time of day or night and alongside the large pilgrimages, you will find in quiet corners anonymous pilgrims deep in prayer. Since it’s opening in 1954, the Shrine has never been closed. Who knows how many persons, young and old, have silently come to this sanctuary to place themselves in prayer before Jesus, a prayer of humility admitting one's weakness or sinfulness, a prayer of petition seeking something important for one’s own life or for the lives of those dear to us; a prayer to be cured, healed and made fully oneself, a rare moment of genuine prayer of worship and adoration, a recognition of the lordship and transcendence of God.
Baclaran rejects dominant cultures and turns them head over heels. It is not the strength of our own forces which triumphs here, but the power of God. Prayer is a unique way of refunding a balance in our values in today's world. In a world dominated by market values, by power, and by personal attainment, prayer means placing oneself humbly in the presence of a reality that is greater than ourselves and recognising that our lives are in the hand of someone greater than us; that someone cares for us and supports us.
Prayer is that moment in which we rediscover that the values of life are not the obvious ones of the media or society, but in knowing that there is something more vital and deeper in life. Prayer is not pious conformity, but real revolution in the face of the accepted wisdom that on our own we can do everything. The young person who learns to pray becomes independent of the pressures of our culture. The sick person who learns to pray becomes one who rediscovers meaning in his or her life and finds that there is a hope that goes beyond outward physical condition.
Prayer is a witness to the total otherness of God. Prayer is the moment in which our faith is expressed in its deepest and most concrete form.
I pay a visit to the Shrine late at night or just before dawn. My eyes focus upon some solitary soul praying with utter intensity to the Virgin before him. I imagine that as a loving Mother who is always ready to give help, Mary steps lightly from her place about the altar. Holding him in her arms as once she once held her Son Jesus, she prays with him to relieve his burden.
To have the Mother to himself for a few moments… or minutes, until the crisis has passed, is that not reason enough for paying a visit to the Virgin of Baclaran?