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Old pics show Mayon church not buried, says historian

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DARAGA, Albay, Oct. 13, 2014—Most Filipinos had been taught it was buried in lahar following Mayon’s 1814 eruption, leaving only the belfry, but a few vintage photographs of the Cagsawa Church gives clues that may prove otherwise.

While the building is obviously in ruins now, a concerned Bicolano bent on setting historical records straight pointed out that its destruction was gradual, and not so much as caused by the volcano itself as by the people’s reluctance to save it.

Proof in pictures

“The façade and some of the walls fell on the ground over time because the area was abandoned for over 120 years. Today the walls continue to crumble gradually. Why? Because of our inaction,” Abdon M. Balde, Jr. who posted these pictures on social media site Facebook on Sunday, Oct. 11, and have since created a stir.

“There was no significant flow of lava or lahar. The church’s combustible materials were burned. The bell tower stood because it has a massive base and no combustible materials. The rubbles of the fallen façade is right there beside the bell tower. Nothing to excavate but the church floor,” explained Balde, a consultant of the Albay provincial government.

Despite strong documentary evidence, not everyone was convinced.

Jose Briones commented, “As a tourism officer and now retired, I never disputed this historical fact as it was written—that it was buried in 1814. Who is more correct, the historians of today or the historians of yesteryears? How can this historical ‘fact’ be disproven? This to me is what happened: that Cagsawa was buried in 1814. And no one can change this, not by anyone who wants to disclaim and push a controversy around it.”

Balde answered,”The first workable camera was invented in 1816. The first patented camera was by Wolcott in 1840. Eastman patented his camera in 1879—which means these photographs of the ruins were all taken after the 1814 destruction of Cagsawa.”

The Cagsawa Church near Mayon volcano shown in an old photo (Photo from Facebook account of Abdon Balde)

He stressed, “This is a picture of the church in 1928 before it was cleaned in 1936. The church was still standing. The caption says the church was buried, but the picture shows the façade still standing beside the bell tower. Also seen on the left are the façades of the Casa Real.”

He added, “These pictures will not tell lies. What better proofs do we need? The evidences are there for us to see and to measure.”

Wrong information

Others lament local tour guides, as well as the government marker displayed in the area peddle the wrong information, and school children learn this in school.

“This is what local guides in Cagsawa would tell their guests. I suggest they should be corrected at once because they’re the frontliners,” said Dayrit Jelica.

“When I was there, the tour guide said the church was buried right there. Maybe we should give them a lecture or workshop to correct the stories being spread out to the tourists,” Mylene Narciso Urriza added.

Tessa Espinas blames the error on Filipinos’ fascination with “romance”, often at the expense of historical truth.

She said, “We all want the more romantic version. There’s still much more than meets the eye, especially if we take time to remove our rose-colored glasses.”

Bernard Supetran believes linguistic blunder was more likely.

“I think whoever said that the Cagsawa Church was ‘buried’ by lava had no intention to romanticize or exaggerate the incident. Maybe, in search of a more appropriate word, ‘buried’ was used in the narration,” she said.

According to architect Reynaldo O. Nacional, because of ignorance about the value of old structures, Filipinos had already lost so much of the built heritage—churches, municipios, plazas—and they are bound to lose more if they do not rethink their development policies.

Marne Kilates shared, “In short, what happened, it seems, was that Cagsawa was never buried but simply abandoned after the devastating Mayon eruption of 1814 … That’s where the historical rectification should start or come in.” (Raymond A. Sebastián)


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