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Sunday, October 23, 2022
We used to call them hermaphrodites
Images of the three saints above the altar of Obando Church: Our Lady of Salambáo is in the centre, flanked by St Paschal to her right and St Clare to her left.
The fertility rites were initially done in honour of the anito Diyan Masalanta, the Tagalog goddess of love, Lakapati, the Tagalog fertility deity, and Bathala, the supreme deity of the Tagalog people. The rites were performed within the vicinity of a dambana. When the Spanish arrived, they forcibly converted the natives to Roman Catholicism and changed their religious beliefs regarding the fertility rites.
The rites are observed in a triduum: 17 May for St. Paschal Baylon, 18 May for St. Clare of Assisi, and 19 May for Our Lady of Salambáo. Each of the three days usually begins with a morning Mass said by the parish priest. A procession, held immediately thereafter, consists of the three saints' images followed by bands playing instruments made of bamboo or brass, and devotees who dance the fandango while singing the hymn, Santa Clara Pinung-Pino (Saint Clare, Most Refined). The image of each saint leads the procession on his or her designated feast day.
The rites, especially the fertility dance, are popular with pilgrims from all over the Philippines, most of whom supplicate the triad of saints for a child, a spouse, or general good fortune. Throughout the three days, devotees joyously dance in the streets as a form of prayer, asking for the spirit of life to enter into the wombs of women.
The patron saints
St. Clare of Assisi is the oldest saint declared patroness of Catanghalan (the town's former name), her image first enshrined the chapel built by missionaries of the Order of Friars Minor in the town. St. Clare was a 13th-century Italian nun, who founded the Poor Clares according to the rule and teachings of her contemporary, St. Francis.
St. Clare became the patroness of good weather because her Spanish name, Clara, also referred to clearer skies after a storm. This formed the basis for the Filipino custom of offering chicken eggs to St. Clare to ensure good weather, as the Spanish word for egg white or albumen, claro, is also a pun on her name. Devotees participating in the rites would sometimes hold eggs as they sway to the fandango.
The introduction of St. Clare by Spanish Franciscans as a replacement for pre-colonial Tagalog gods, especially the deity of conception Diyan Masalanta, transformed the old, animist Kasilonawan dancing ritual into the offering of the fandango to the saint to prevent or cure sterility in women. Eventually, St. Clare evolved into the patroness of individuals seeking a mate and to have children, particularly daughters.
Santa Clarang Pinong-pino
- "Santa Clarang pinong-pino / Ako po ay bigyán mo / Ng asawang labíntatló / Sa gastos 'di magreklamo!"
- ("Saint Clare, most refined / Unto me bestow / Spouses, thirteen in all / For the expense, I shan't complain!")
- A variation: "Santa Clarang pinong-pino / Ang pangakò ko ay ganitó / Pagdatíng ko sa Obando / Sasayáw ako ng pandanggo."
- ("Saint Clare, most refined / My promise is like so / When I arrive at Obando / I shall dance the fandango.")
During the 18th century, the Franciscan missionaries built the town church and introduced the veneration of Saint Paschal Baylon. His surname, Baylon, was taken to mean "one who likes dancing", ultimately derived from the Spanish bailar, the verb form of "dance". Like St. Clare, he also became the patron saint of fertility, wealth and abundance.
An anecdote tells of how a childless couple from the neighbouring town of Hagonoy met a youth selling crabs. The young man told the couple to visit Obando and participate in the rites to ameliorate their condition. Upon entering Obando Church, the couple were amazed by the sight of Saint Paschal's image, for its face looked exactly like the young crab vendor. This is the origin of St. Paschal's patronage of childless couples who wish to have children, particularly sons.
Our Lady of Salambáo
On 19 June 1763, the image of Our Lady of Salambáo (formal title: "Our Lady of Immaculate Conception of Salambáo"), was the last saint whose cultus was introduced to Obando. Legend tells of three fishermen named Juan, Julián, and Diego dela Cruz caught the Virgin Mary's image in their salambáw, a fishing net supported with bamboo crosspieces and mounted on a raft.
They were fishing at a place known as Hulingduong, Binwangan (now part of Malabon), and when they decided to bring the image to the neighbouring town of Navotas, their boat suddenly grew heavy and immobile. When they eventually decided to bring the image to Obando, their boat quickly lightened and became easy to paddle. This was taken a sign that the Virgin wanted to be enshrined in Obando Church. She is still venerated there as the local patroness of fishing and of good harvests.
Ban and post-War revival
During the Second World War, the church and a large portion of Obando were ravaged by fire; included amongst the damaged property were the images of the three patron saints. A few years after the war's end, both the Archbishop of Manila and the vicar of Obando Church forbade the fertility dance due to its pagan origins. During the prohibition, normal religious processions were still held on the triduum, but without the lively street dancing.
In 1972, parish priest Rev. Fr. Rome R. Fernández and the Komisyon ng Kalinangan (Commission on Culture) of Obando helped in having the ban lifted and in reviving the ancient dance ritual, which is still practised to this day.