Where and when was the First Mass held?

Published May 31, 2021, 12:36 AM

by Jaime Laya

Wala Lang

Early on Easter Sunday morning, March 31, 1521, Magellan sent some men ashore to prepare a suitable place. Some 50 men including Magellan followed, dressed in their Sunday best. Six muskets fired as they stepped ashore and were greeted by Chiefs Kulambo and Siaui. The two were brothers, the former being chief of Butuan and Calaghan.

In solemn procession led by Magellan flanked by the two chiefs, all proceeded to the appointed site.

The chiefs were sprinkled with musk (holy?) water and Mass began, said by chaplain Fr. Pedro de Villarrama. Kulambo, Siaui, and their followers observed Mass alongside the Spanish. At the elevation, artillery of the three ships simultaneously fired. It was pageantry designed to impress the natives who were described as also venerating the Cross with the caveat that Enrique de Malacca, the translator, probably could not explain how bread and wine were transformed to flesh and blood. After Mass, the crowd was treated to a fencing exhibition. In the afternoon, a cross was carried and placed at the summit of the highest nearby mountain.

Antonio Pigafetta, chronicler of the Magellan expedition, identified the place as “Mazaua.”

A MATTER OF PLACE AND TIME – Detail from the Murillo-Velarde Map (1734), reproduction by Domingo Abella

Early accounts—mainly by friars relying on available writings and on tradition—reported the First Mass as being held in Butuan, Agusan del Norte, specifically on an island called Masao. The 1734 Murillo-Velarde map, for example, indicates the first land sighting as Surigao from where the expedition headed north to Dinagat and Limasaua, then south to Butuan, back north to Limasaua, from where they sailed along the west coast of Leyte, the Camotes Islands, and down to Sugbo and Mactan. In 1872, a marker was raised in Agusan, at the place where the First Mass was then believed to have been held. With changes in place names and in the course of the Agusan River, the marker’s location is now in the town of Magallanes, across the river from Butuan City.

Historical thinking began to shift in the early 1900s with the availability of more primary sources, notably accounts of Antonio Pigafetta, Francisco Albo, Gines de Mafra, and other expedition members, as well as records of interviews of Magellan expedition survivors.

Pigafetta organized and expanded his notes into a more detailed manuscript written possibly in the Venetian dialect that was published in a French translation that was in turn later published in Italian translation. These were rare books by the 19th century and even Jose Rizal seemed to have been unaware of their existence. American librarian James Robertson was thorough. He went the extra mile and translated from scratch what is considered the most complete Pigafetta manuscript in Milan’s Biblioteca Ambrosiana. His translation of Pigafetta’s account of the First Mass is in Vol. 32 of Blair and Robertson’s The Philippine Islands.

The official declaration is that Mazaua is the island across from the southern tip of Leyte named Limasawa. This is hotly disputed by those who insist that Mazaua is in Butuan and is the true site of the First Mass. They question the reasoning and accuracy of the studies leading to the decision favoring Limasawa.

A MATTER OF PLACE AND TIME – Magellan’s ship Victoria (from a woodcut in Henry Stevens’ Johann Stoner, London 1888, reproduced in Blair & Robertson’s The Philippine Islands)

The Philippine justice system has been brought into the picture with complaints now before the Ombudsman against the National Historical Commission of the Philippines (NHCP) chairman for graft and corruption and before the Butuan City prosecutor against academicians from seven universities for libel.

Matching place names written 500 years ago with how they are now known is not simple. Names may have changed and inquirers and respondents may have misunderstood each other. Furthermore, what the locals said would have been written by Pigafetta, Albo, etc. as they heard them and the latter’s transcription depended on the language they spoke and wrote—the Venetian dialect in the case of Pigafetta.

And as long as we’re stirring the pot, aren’t we celebrating on the wrong day?

First, Magellan’s chroniclers kept meticulous daily records and at some point realized that they were one day off. It was much later that science came up with the explanation. When traveling westward, one crosses the international date line and gains one day.

Second, in 1521, Spain and other western countries were on the Julian Calendar that was not precisely consistent with the time it takes for the earth to revolve around the sun, i.e., 365.2425 days. The calendar was adopted by Roman Emperor Julius Caesar in 45 B.C. and the accumulated 1,600+ year discrepancy caused the seasons to be out of synch with the calendar—the calendar said it was already spring when it was still snowing outdoors. This made Pope Gregory XIII adopt the system we now use (the Gregorian Calendar) with an extra day in February for years divisible by 4, except for century years whose number is not divisible by 400. The shift was made in October 1582 when 10 days were erased from the calendar—October 4 was followed by October 15.

March 31, 2021 is not 500 years after Pigafetta’s March 31, 1521. We may be celebrating on the wrong day and, if the Butuanons are correct, also in the wrong place.

Note: (a) Transcription obviously depends on the language and pronunciation of the transcriber.  The early conquistadors, for example, heard and wrote “Manila” as the name of the settlement at the mouth of the Pasig.  Locals may have called it “May-nilà” meaning where there is nilà (indigo) or “May-nilad” meaning where there is the water plant called nilad; and (b) The Murillo-Velarde map and eyewitness accounts do not tally.  The latter are clear that Samar was the first place sighted by the expeditions.

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