The man stands at the feet of a statue of Jesus, praying silently while weeping softly. I wonder who or what he weeps for. I wonder which of the rainbow colored candles he lit as he said a prayer. I feel guilty watching, observing this private moment, but I just can’t look away. Stealthily, I shoot a photo, trying hard not to disturb while saying my own little prayer asking forgiveness for intruding on his privacy.
The Jaro Cathedral (also known as National Shrine of Our Lady of the Candles) is located in the center of the city of Iloilo, which is located on Panay Island in the center of the Philippines. And central to the beliefs of this cathedral are the lighting of candles and the worship of Mary.
A gaggle of candle-selling women approaches as we arrive at the historic cathedral. Our guide, Roy, explains that each colored candle represents a different kind of prayer: pink for love, green for hope, orange for happiness, etc. Unsure which area of my life needs the most attention, I opt for the rainbow of colors at the bargain price of 40 pesos for 10 (less than $1 USD). Worth the investment, I figure, to have my entire life covered in a rainbow umbrella of prayer.
Just inside the cathedral entrance, candle shrines are covered in layers of candle remains and melting, dripping wax. The scent of burning candles hangs in the air.
I enter the church and lurk in a dark, quiet corner for a few moments, observing the local people and their worship rituals while trying to be invisible and not intrude on their privacy. Once the candle shrine is clear, I choose a color from my rainbow of candles and approach the shrine. Lighting my candle from the flame of others slowly burning, I try to master the art of dripping just enough hot wax on top of the dried wax layer to make my candle stick. I say a brief prayer as I light the wick of the orange one first. It sticks. As I continue lighting and praying, a few local people approach so I step aside and observe.
Then I see the man praying silently while softly weeping.
“Did he lose his job?” I wonder.
“Is his wife sick?”
“Does he have serious health issues?”
I hope the colored candle he lit and his private talk with Jesus will bless whatever is happening in his life.
Built in 1874, the Jaro Cathedral was mostly destroyed in an earthquake and restored in 1956. Its unique feature is the belfry located across a busy street from the cathedral, the site of the original cathedral building. Another unique and miraculous feature is the 400-year-old statue of Mary holding Jesus in one arm and a lit candle in her other hand.
Mary is now housed in a glass case on a balcony just above the cathedral entrance door. There are many theories, myths, and legends handed down over the years regarding the origin of the statue of Mary.
One tradition holds that a small statue of Mary, about one foot high, was found in by a fisherman on the banks of Iloilo River. Over the years she has grown in size, now standing nearly 5 feet tall. Another legend claims the statue would occasionally disappear from the church early in the morning. When this happened, it was reported that a beautiful lady with long, flowing hair was seen at the artesian well in the plaza bathing her child.
Mary’s statue was recognized and canonically crowned by Pope John Paul II during his visit to the Philippines in 1981. Iloilo devotees celebrate the statue of Mary annually on February 2nd in the Feast of Our Lady of Candles, one of the most important religious events in Iloilo.
Ironically, although Mary is worshiped and adored, the interior of Jaro Cathedral is lined with male statues.
St. Anne Parish – “The Feminist Church”
In drastic contrast to the male dominance seen inside Jaro Cathedral, St. Anne Parish located in the Molo area of Iloilo, is known as the Feminist Church. Built in Gothic style way back in 1831, this church has 16 life-sized images of female saints mounted on its pillars along the main aisle.
Molo plaza, located just across the street from St. Anne Parish, boasts a beautiful Greek-inspired pavilion decorated with six Greek Goddesses. The plaza area is a popular hangout for the locals – old people linger on benches and students gather in groups on the lawn. All were happy to pose for photos and chat a little, curious about me – one of the few tourists spotted in this historic Philippine city.
One urban legend associated with St. Anne Parish claims that if you’re searching for your soulmate, praying in this church will help in your search. (I didn’t try it so I’m unable to confirm whether this is just a myth.)
On the other hand, I can confirm that the orange candle I lit at Jaro Cathedral has truly blessed me! (Besides orange, I refuse to reveal which colored candles I lit. Some things will remain a mystery…)
For more “Things to do in Iloilo”, check out TripAdvisor. Visit the many historical churches of Iloilo – you will be blessed!
Many thanks to our sponsors: Cebu Pacific Airlines, The Philippines Tourism Promotions Board, and It’s More Fun in the Philippines for making this trip possible!