Holy but Hot (A)


Jaime C. Laya

There is great excitement among Malitboganons of Southern Leyte. Malitbog’s miraculous image, Sto. Nino de Malitbog missing since 1991, has been found. The Malitboganons 7 in Manila Association (MIMA) held a formal sendoff last Saturday with Holy Mass at the Sto. Nino de Leyte Shrine on Commonwealth Avenue, Quezon City with safety and health protocols enforced by Malitbog soldiers and policemen including Gen. (Ret.) Remigio Sedanto. Back in Southern Leyte, townspeople are eagerly awaiting the return of their beloved Balaang Bata.

After its 1991 Sinulog festival, the town woke up to discover their patron saint and other valuables missing including images of San Roque and San Isidro. There were reports that four suspects had boarded a boat bound for Cebu but the trail went cold and neither suspects nor missing items were found.

Malitbog’s image is an almost exact replica of Cebu’s original, relatively small and entirely of wood. It may date from the 18th century when the town was founded. Pictures were occasionally posted by later innocent owners but the image has many lookalikes and no one made a connection.

Sto. Nino de Malitbog, before and after restoration.

Antiques enthusiast Francis Ong saw a posted photo in 2016 and started tracking the image and its owner. As it turned out, the owner and social media poster passed away and Ong shifted to high gear. He found that the image had changed hands, traced it to a Mabini antique shop, and finally landed it last September, after four years of monitoring. (Collectors including me are like Javert stalking Jean Valjean—unrelenting when it comes to targeted objects.) Ong says he had no idea it was a hot item, having been published in a 2001 Sto. Nino book and repeatedly posted on Facebook.

Then last April a friend, John Felix, forwarded to him an internet link to a virtual Visita Iglesia designed for the Diocese of Maasin to which Malitbog Parish belongs.  The link included Malitbog church and among the photos was a Sto. Nino with a distinctive base identical to what he had recently acquired. Ong immediately contacted Jayson Maceo, a santo restorer friend who he knew was doing work for Maasin. 

Maceo relayed the information to Dr. Rafael Lopéz of Atelier Rafael Lopéz, considered top santo restorer in collector and church circles. López contacted the Maasin Chancery that confirmed that indeed Ong’s Niño is the missing treasure. It took only a few hours from the time Ong clicked the Visita Iglesia link to his decision make a donation and let the Child return to its home.

The image has been restored, given a new crown of gold-plated silver and new gold-thread embroidered vestments, donated by Lopez and Maceo.

The happy ending is shared by other venerated church images stolen over they years, including Sto. Nino de Tondo, Naga’s Nstra Sra de Penafrancia, Cavite’s Nstra Sra de Porta Vaga, and Nsrta. Sra. De la Soledad of San Isidro, Nueva Ecija. Others are still missing.

I happen to have a similar experience, with the disappearance and recovery of San Isidro’s Soledad. I bought the image—a painting on wood with a silver frame and similarly valuable accessories. Shortly afterwards, another antique dealer showed me a photo, said that it had been stolen, and asked if I knew anything about it. I said nothing but confronted the dealer who had sold it to me. It turns out that a relative of the parish priest was the seller. Thinking that a repeat would happen if I returned the image, I decided to wait, particularly as I was in government then and was apprehensive that the incident could be twisted against me. 

Years later, when I was no longer in government, I contacted Congresswoman Sonia Lorenzo through a mutual friend, Ar. Cristina V. Turalba, and we arranged for Nstra. Sra. De Soledad to return to her home. We had a send-off Mass at my parish church, Holy Family in Quezon City, and Congresswoman Lorenzo brought her back to Nueva Ecija. I decided not to join but went soon after to visit the Lady.  She was high on a wall, in a glass case, and behind iron bars.

Note:  Francis Ong is former actor at GMA Network and currently chief marketing officer at Nilandingan Cove, Cagbalete Island.

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