For this year's Bisita Iglesia we go to the central part of my home province, spanning the third and fourth districts of Pangasinan. It includes one of the country's oldest pre-colonial settlements, my hometown, the province's oldest church, and the province's main pilgrimage town.
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Parish Church of St. Vincent Ferrer
We start at the border town of Bayambang, which is the first town of the province of Pangasinan from Tarlac, taking the Camiling route. Bayambang has vast fields planted to the native red onion, and during summer the countryside reeks of onions baking under the sun.
The present church structure dates back to 1869, and the cavernous interiors produce acoustics dreamed by singers, sounds amplified by the thick brick walls. The first church was built in 1614, but numerous natural and man-made disasters resulted in various reconstructions.
St. Dominic de Guzman Parish Church
San Carlos City, Pangasinan
From Bayambang taking the bypass road through the municipality of Basista we arrive at the city of San Carlos, formerly called Binalatongan and Caboloan because of the abundance of mung beans (balatong) and the bolo variety of bamboo, respectively.
The church of San Carlos City used to be the biggest in Luzon, while the parish is Pangasinan's oldest. The church retains its cathedral grandeur, and has the feel of a pilgrimage center. Excellent stained glass windows adorn the thick cemented walls, enriching the time for contemplation.
After saying a prayer at the church, the new city public market of San Carlos City is worth going out of the way for. For heaped under the sun in an open field the size of an entire block are the city's pride - dalikan from giant to play size. Dalikan are the clay stoves of old, with a mouth on which to put pots (clay, too, of course!) and a wide pan underneath to put in wood for the fire. The number of dalikan still being sold made me wonder - I thought everybody had migrated to gas stoves as my family did when I was a kid.
Other implements made from clay are sold here, too. Banga, lasong or lasungan - huge baking pans for latik, small lasong for bibingka, buyug or buyugan (clay water container), as well as small clay saucers for feeding poultry.
Paso (clay planters) in different sizes, shapes and designs, and other landscaping decorative clay materials are also available.
Bamboo huts, and bamboo furniture - rockers, chairs, tables, cribs, benches, cabinets, hampers - and other bamboo decorative creations like baskets, lamps and chandeliers, are also known products of San Carlos City, and all can be found lounging in the market.
St. Ildephonse Parish Curch
From San Carlos City the next town is Malasiqui, the town I am most familiar with, for I was born and grew up there.
The church I attended used to be a cavernous, all-brick structure. In the 1980s the cement facade was chiselled away bit by bit to expose the beautiful brick layering. The entire structure crumbled down, though, in the 1991 earthquake that leveled down Baguio City and submerged the Malasiqui Central School by a meter or so. It took more than ten years for the town to put up a new church, which is a modern, beam-surrounded structure brightened by huge stained glass depictions of the stations of the cross.
In front of the church on Sundays and on big Catholic feasts one can find small discs of rice bibingka and intemtem freshly cooked. In the public market just a block away from the church after the town plaza are the various local kakanins I have been writing about in this blog - like binuburan, kulambo, latik, inkaldit, versions of the Calasiao puto, even buro.
In the afternoons to early evenings grilling stations are set up in front of the market, and one can buy milkfish, catfish and tilapia freshly and perfectly broiled. Grilled bangus and hito are the first things we eat whenever my family goes home to Malasiqui.
The Holy Family Parish Church
Sta. Barabara, Pangasinan
The town adjacent to Malasiqui is Sta. Barbara, which boasts of a very old church, built in 1716. It used to be a common belief among us Pangasinenses when I was a kid that the Holy Family Parish church was the oldest in the province, and the adjacent convent used to be an unassailable proof of this. The convent has since been renovated, while the church lawn on the other side has been landscaped.
What's distinct about the church is the elevated area in front of the altar, around which rows of pews are arranged, so that is is like a centerstage.
Senor Divino Tesoro
From Sta. Barbara we go out into the provincial highway and turn left towards the municipality of Calasiao. The town is very famous for its white gold, the Calasiao puto, and a line of kiosks sell the kakanin and other sweet stuff along the road across the town plaza.
But Calasiao is famous for two other things besides its puto. One, is the excellently preserved National Cultural Treasure 17th century Spanish church. And two, the Senor Divino Tesoro, an image of the crucified Christ that is regarded to be miraculous, drawing devotees from all over the province. The Senor Tesoro is housed in a shrine across the Sts. Peter & Paul parish church.
In Calasiao are many local restaurants worth visiting, and they are the only decent eating places from those found among all the towns and the one city covered in this Bisita Iglesia. There are the fastfood chains at the junction along McArthur Highway, but there is also Dagupena further along, serving stylized bangus. Grilling stations for bangus and hito also abound, and decent lechon manok and lechon baboy are also good stomach fillers. Along De Venecia Road are the main outlets of Jech and Panaderia Antonio, which is the owner of the pita snack kiosks Plato Wraps.
St. Thomas Aquinas Parish Church
From Calasiao go back along the highway towards Sta. Barabara, but turn left into a street which goes straight to the town of Mangaldan.
The imposing church of Mangaldan has a relatively new vintage, having been completed only in 1962 after the first structures were leveled down by natural disasters. Its narrow nave is highlighted by the very high ceiling, so that it appears even narrower.
All around the plaza adjacent to the church premises are grilling stations for good Mangaldan intemtem. Further on, in front of the public market, bangus and hito grilling stations also engage in brisk business, so that sometimes during busy afternoons the smoke along the road can impair visibility. Carabao meat, fresh and pinindang (marinated, and sometimes sun-dried), is sold inside the public market. The famous peanut brittle brand Romana's calls Mangaldan home, and has an outlet downtown.
St. Hyacinth Parish Church
San Jacinto, Pangasinan
The municipality of San Jacinto is the town next to Mangaldan on the way to the pilgrimage town of Manaoag.
The church is spanking new, having been completed only by the turn of the new millenium. The imposing old brick church also gave way during the July 1991 massive earthquake. The present church has the span and style of a chapel, cozy and modern.
Portions of the old church have been left at the former site, and the wall perimeter still outline the church's original size.
the church convent
The Shrine of Our Lady of the Rosary
The church in Manaoag is probably the most well-known, not only in the province but also among the religious in the country. Flocks of devotees visit Manaoag on a daily basis, hearing mass and lining up to touch the back of the miraculous enshrined image.
The church is appropriately vast, situated in a large property housing a covered structure for lighting candles, the second floor prayer room at the back of the altar where devotees line up, a hall selling all kinds of religious paraphernalia, and a meditation garden at the back of the church.
The "unofficial" religious items are sold in the front area lining the path going up the church. People usually buy some of these and have them blessed at the convent beside the church. Pangasinenses also have this habit of having their new vehicles blessed in Manaoag.
Also in front of the church are the many tables groaning with provincial kakanin. There is the Manaoag puto, yeasty and flat, as big as a plate and flecked with anise seeds. It is best eaten with sotanghon sabaw, also sold in the premises. There is good tupig, and sweet patopat. Good chicos, too, when in season, by the roadside, and siriguelas that are unparalleled by any in the province.
About three kilometers from the Manaoag church is a private property with a spring called the Virgin's Well. Devotees drop by this place after going to the church, for it is believed that the spring water is miraculous. It is open to the public, but there is some kind of fee for collecting the water. And yes, people collect the slow-flowing water going through mossy pipes, collecting them in plastic containers by the gallons.
It is believed that the image of the Our Lady of Manaoag once appeared inside the well, rendering it with curative powers. The spring water bubbles up from time to time, but it is hard to see now that the well has been enclosed in a mausoleum-like structure.
The first time I went here was in my elementary grade years, with a black rosary group. The second time was only just recently, with my family. I can say that not a lot has changed from the span of decades that has elapsed. The same rolling, rutted road, the same dusty property. What's remarkable now, though, is the significant amount of plastic trash by the side of the property, and the cemented structures grouped around the well. There is a line of narrow stalls - dingy, mossy and smelly, where one can take a bath using the water purportedly flowing from the well. For a fee, of course.
There is also a small chapel, though it looked closed, and 3D depictions of the stations of the cross, which didn't seem well-made enough to entice me to go take a closer look. A group of women by the entrance offer to everybody arriving at the property anting-anting made of dried lizards and salamanders. For what, I asked, since it reeks of voodoo, and we were supposedly in a religious place. It depends on my faith, I was told. Oh well, typical of Pangasinan faith, mixing everything in.
The bus line Five Star has daily trips to San Carlos City from its Tramo, Pasay and Cubao terminals. Bayambang is two towns away from San Carlos City. Five Star also has a direct trip to Manaoag, and the Bisita Iglesia can start with Manaoag going backwards to end with San Carlos City, from where one can board a bus going back to Metro Manila. Dagupan Bus line, with terminal in New York Street, Cubao, also has daily trips to Manaoag. With the Bisita Iglesia ending in Manaoag, one can go to Urdaneta to board buses going to Manila, or go to Dagupan for the Five Star and Victory Liner bus terminals there.
Jeeps and mini buses interconnect all the towns with one another. Fares do not go beyond Php20 for a trip between two towns.
From Bayambang, one can flag down an air-conditioned bus going to San Carlos City from Manila, which goes through the town of Malasiqui. Mini buses going to Dagupan from Bayambang pass by Malasiqui, as well. In Malasiqui jeeps go to San Carlos City.
In San Carlos City there are jeeps going to Malasiqui, and from Malasiqui the jeeps and mini buses going to Dagupan that queue by the public market pass by Calasiao. From Calasiao jeeps go to Sta. Barbara and Mangaldan. From Mangaldan jeeps go on to San Jacinto and Manaoag.
It is not advisable to take a tricycle, as the distances between towns are lengthy. Pangasinan is one of the biggest provinces in the Philippines in terms of land area. It is possible to cover all churches, however, in one day, as long as the Bisita Iglesia is started early in the morning.