Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Zamboanga's Ardent Devotion to the Lady of Fort Pilar

Zamboanga City - Each October for the past 300 years or so, residents of Zamboanga and neighboring towns flock to the shrine of Nuestra Senora la Virgen del Pilar to pay their homage to the patron saint of the city.

Her image, a garishly painted bas relief of a woman with a child in her arms high up on the parapet of Fort Pilar, is the object of the biggest pilgrimage in Mindanao each October 12.

The fort and the shrine are central to the creation of Zamboanga.  According to historian Noelle Rodriguez, the establishment of a Spanish fort caused various people to come together: Spanish soldiers, their troops from the Visayas and Pampanga, the indigenous tribes called Lutaos and Subanons who settled near the fort for protection from the annual slave-rading, and the runaway slaves from Sulu who took refuge in the city.

These people, having no common language, created their own incorporating elements from the Spanish and from their own native tongues. This is now known as Chavacano.

A Fort to Protect the People

Zamboanga peninsula in predominantly Muslim Mindanao was part of the Southeast Asia slave trade route. Powerful Muslim clans used slavery to produce more food and maintain their power.

A circa 1776 line drawing of a village along the Caldera Bay. Image is taken from the book World Between Worlds: Cradle of an Emerging Civilization.

Fort Pilar was the Spanish government’s solution to the constant slave raiding on the coastal towns of Visayas and Luzon.

Lithograph of a view of Zamboanga anchorage in 1876. The square structure on the right is the fort. Each corner is named after the King of Spain and his three sons.
The image above is called Mapa de Filipinas del Jesuita P. Murillo Velarde. 1974. On the right is the fort and in the middle is walled city.
It was built, abandoned, and rebuilt several times, first in 1597 using only wood. The present fort, made of stone this time, was built in 1635. Over a thousand workers were imported from the Visayas and construction of the fortress was supervised by a Jesuit priest, Fr. Melchor de Vera.

It was on the third and last occupation of the fort by the Spaniards that they renamed it Real Fuerza de Nuestra Senora del Pilar de Zaragoza, following a royal decree that ordered all of Spain as well as all its overseas possessions to have her as patron saint. The Spaniards, seeking her protection, placed her image over the entrance on the easter wall.

The Shrine to Nuestra La Virgen del Pilar

It was only in the 1980s that the fort was renovated. Note that there was no alter or other structure yet now present and the ground was not yet concreted. 

No one knows exactly at what point the fort became a shrine venerated by Catholics and Non-Catholics alike but up to the present, many residents still firmly believe the Virgin has miraculous powers and is actively protecting Zamboanga from any harm.

Then, as now, the shrine is a pilgrimage site. Behind the fort is a mangrove forest and the sea. Now, a state college blocks the view to the water.

The most enduring legends have to do with the Nuestra Senora saving Zamboanga from catastrophes, such as the eartquake and tsunami of 1897, and then again in 1976.

Tales are told of how some people saw an image of the Nuestra Senora floating over the raging waves of the Basilan Strait, hands in front of her, as if commanding the rushing water to halt.

To this day, Catholic churches in Zamboanga, Basilan, and Sulu offer a prayer of thanksgiving for sparing the people during these natural disasters.

An interview with a devotee and shrine helper on why many revere the Lady of Fort Pilar. (Interview is in Chavacano).

The Shrine in modern times

Over the years, the shrine has changed its appearance. But the major renovation took place only in the 1980s. That undertaking was met with mixed feelings by the public. When a major storm hit the city  October the year of renovation, people went around saying the Nuestra Senora was unhappy with her makeover.

Children kneeling in front of the illustrated altar.

The shrine, carved into the wall of a fortress, is a contradictory symbol in itself. a fortress brings to ind wars, invasions and violence. The devotees believe it was the power of La Nuestra Senora which brought about the change of how people perceived the fort, from one that represented violence, to one that stood for peace.

Going to the shrine has become a ritual. Watch this video to see how people show their devotion to La Nuestra Senora La Virgen del Pilar.

  The Fort Pilar and Shrine is in Zamboanga City on the island of Mindanao in the Philippines.

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