Peñafrancia, the 300-year-old Fluvial Procession Festival in the Philippines

A scene of Peñafrancia ⓒ Gregory Ian Nicerio Opeña

September marks the celebration of one of the most famous and oldest festivals in the Philippines, the Peñafrancia where thousands of people flock to Naga City and show their fervent devotion to Our Lady of Peñafrancia, the patroness of Naga City in the Bicol Region.  For more than three hundred years, religious devotees and pilgrims have attended the religious rites for the Peñafrancia Festival.

The Peñafrancia Festival involves two festivities. The celebration for the Divino Rostro or the Divine Face, usually held in the second week of September, is to pay homage to the image of Jesus Christ.  People’s devotion to the Divino Rostro may have begun in 1882 during a sudden spread of cholera from Manila that reached Naga City. During that period, there was no cure for the epidemic, but according to the locals, when the image of the Divino Rostro was placed at the altar of the town’s cathedral, the epidemic astonishingly vanished. The weekend following the celebration of the Divino Rostro are the festivities for Our Lady of Peñafrancia. Due to the popularity of the Peñafrancia Festival, Naga has been dubbed the “pilgrim city” in the Philippines.

A scene of Peñafrancia ⓒ Gregory Ian Nicerio Opeña
Due to the 333-year Spanish colonization in the Philippines, various cultural traditions have been hemmed and blended into the country’s heritage particularly on religion. At present, almost 85 percent of the Philippines’ population are Roman Catholic. Thus, most festivals in the Philippines are associated with Catholic beliefs and traditions. The devotion of millions of Roman Catholics to Our Lady of Peñafrancia in Naga City every year is one of the most intense religious rites in the country. During the festival, a nine-day novena is dedicated to Our Lady of Peñafrancia. A ceremony called Translación marks the first day of the novena through a land procession to transfer the image of Our Lady of Peñafrancia to Naga Cathedral. The most awaited part of the festival is the ninth day of the novena when the image of Our Lady of Peñafrancia is returned to Basilica Minore in a fluvial procession along the Naga river.

During the fluvial procession, images of Our Lady of Peñafrancia and Divino Rostro are boarded in a gazebo on a boat with Catholic clergies. The barge with the religious images is then followed by long canoes paddled by young men in colorful shirts. They paddle as fast as they can as though in a boat race. Only men are allowed to paddle the canoes, according to the beliefs of locals from the Bicol region, as women could trigger disaster. However, only chosen devotees (voyadores) can ride the canoes while the remaining devotees watch the procession on the shores of the river as they cheer “viva la Virgen.” A religious mass is held once the religious images arrive at the Basilica of Our Lady of Peñafrancia.