FINDING INA: THE RECOVERY OF THE IMAGE
The morning of August 1981 caught the devotees by surprise. The 275-year-old image of the Virgin was missing. It took nearly a year for the image to be recovered and returned back home. Now, Ina’s real hero tells the story of Her recovery. Once there was a hero whose love for the world was so big that he could sacrifice his well-being for its sake. One day, the world was in jeopardy. The hero was so sad to see the world he loved crumble to pieces. Then he decided to release all his might saving the world but taking his life as the consequence. The world did not know the real score. Until sometime that it was revealed.
This is like what happened to Francisco (Quico) Vecin, a man who played an important role in the recovery of the image of Our Lady of Peñafrancia. Even though he did not save the entire world, he did save our devotion to Our Lady of Peñafrancia. Now, this devotion still continues but the public still does not know about the role Vecin played in recovering our Lady’s image.
At about 4:30 in the morning of August 15, 1981, just before the first Mass was to begin, the caretaker of the Peñafrancia Shrine discovered that the image of Our Lady of Peñafrancia was missing from its accustomed pedestal on the altar. The entire Naga City was filled with sadness, shocked and confused on what had just transpired.
Immediately, Archbishop Teopisto V. Alberto called on the faithful to join prayer rallies for her finding. Governor Felix A. Fuentebella called for all devotees to assist in any way in bringing back the image.
For the police, a syndicate bringing into the black market valuable antiques was behind the crime. Investigations reported that the perpetrators sawed the iron grills at the back of the church and carried away the Virgin’s centuries-old image. Dispatched like garbage in the cemetery grounds at the back of the shrine were her manto and the steel bar which held the image secure to its pedestal.
Mrs. Lorena Hayali, English teacher in the Ateneo High School, recalls her grade school teachers in Naga Central School crying and wailing on the reported loss of the image. Even though the original image usually carried was absent, the same spirit and aura was felt during the procession. For almost nine months, the investigation about the image of our lady was clueless and stuck in a dead end. Until May of 1982, the first genuine lead to her recovery surfaced.
Francisco Vecin, an antique dealer based in Manila with Bicolano roots and a Peñafrancia Devotee was the hero in Ina’s return. In early part of May 1982, he recalls being approached by a man in Mabini St. of Malate District in Manila, probably knowing his antique business. He offered the Virgin’s image then in the custody of a friend.
Knowing it was the missing Virgin’s image, Vecin shelled out P5,000 to initially secure the image which would later be available in few months time. He informed Msgr. Florencio Yllana right away. He was told that the statue was buried in Cebu. In September 3, 1982, the image was turned over to him in a sealed box. The following day, Vecin and his wife brought the recovered image to the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) office of Msgr. Yllana in Intramuros, Manila.
Msgr. Yllana informed Caceres Archbishop Teopisto Alberto about the recovery and immediately those who knew Lady’s wooden image by detail were sent. Verifying the authenticity of the image, they confirmed it was the stolen 275-year-old image stripped of its silver encasing, crown and garments. In thanksgiving, Msgr. Yllana and the Vecin family joined together in a private mass.
The image was brought back to Naga on the Lady’s birthday at the height of Typhoon Ruping’s strong winds in Bicol.
For a long while, Vecin kept his role in recovering the original image of Our Lady and its return to her Bicol home. What most know is that the image was simply turned over to the CBCP office by anonymous individuals. He kept his heroism hidden in his heart as a deep and profound connection with Ina, the Mother of Bicol.
The truth shall be revealed. The Holy Spirit and Ina have led Vecin to reveal what he knew. He saved this devotion and it is only right that at her tercentenary celebration, we recognize the man who played an important role in finding the Image of our Lady. In the next celebration, when we look at the image being carried on the street, we must remember the man who was the missing ingredient in completing the perfect Divine recipe, the image of our Ina.
Text: Bryan Zantua & Michael Real / Photo: Jerry Lee