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Looking Back
Flooding and the Sto. Niño de Tondo

By Ambeth Ocampo
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 00:41:00 10/07/2009

Filed Under: history, Religion & Belief, Flood, Robbery and theft

In the wake of the destruction wrought by ?Ondoy? (international codename: Ketsana), many people tried to recall the worst typhoon in living memory and the name ?Yoling? always crops up. I remember Yoling packed more wind than rain. Unlike Ondoy which caused floodwaters to make cars float like toys, Yoling huffed and puffed, and blew flimsy houses down. Windows were broken, galvanized iron sheets and other objects were flying about in Yoling?s fury. Memory, however, creates its own fictions likewise blown away by a primary source.

Elvie Irremedio of the Lopez Museum was amazed when I turned up in the library this week to request newspaper clippings on Yoling. Under the museum are shelves upon shelves of Manila envelopes stuffed with clippings from the pre-martial law newspapers: Manila Times, Taliba, Daily Mirror. All that news?now, literally, history?are consigned to a bodega aptly called a ?morgue.? Since Elvie is old enough to be my grandmother, I asked what year Yoling passed through the Philippines and her eyes brightened as she declared, ?1968!?

We descended into the morgue and searched under ?Typhoons 1968.? Yoling was not to be found there. I asked for ?Typhoons 1972? to verify a persistent urban legend regarding rains that lasted a biblical 40 days and 40 nights. This great flood reminiscent of Noah?s was attributed to the theft of the image of the Santo Niño de Tondo in 1972. If we are to believe legend, the persistent rain ceased when the Santo Niño was returned to Tondo in procession led by Imelda Marcos.

Inside a slim envelope labeled ?Tondo, Crime? were detailed reports on mayhem, and murder. No theft of Sto. Niño de Tondo. These clippings in Filipino read just like current tabloid, radio, or 6 o?clock TV news.

Finally I found the story, only to be disappointed because the image was stolen from Tondo church on July 14, 1972, and dismembered parts were recovered three days later on July 17. After the arrest of suspects, the image was put together and returned to Tondo from Malacañang on Aug. 2, 1972.

Contrary to popular belief, it didn?t rain 40 days and 40 nights though the first typhoon to hit the Philippines after the theft was a strong one named ?Gloring.? Not content with the havoc it produced, it left the Philippine area of responsibility on July 15, 1972 but decided to return on July 20 bringing some friends on her tail! The names of the other 1972 typhoons??Lusing,? ?Maring,? ?Osang,? ?Paring? and ?Reming??made me wonder whether we should maintain the practice of renaming typhoons when they enter the Philippines or just keep the international name to avoid confusion.

The Sto. Niño image was reported missing on the morning of July 14, 1972, by the assistant parish priest, Fr. Lorenzo Egos, who suggested that the thieves hid in the church when the doors were bolted at 8 p.m. the night before. He suspected someone who had been attending Mass days before and described this character to the police.

The image was described as being: two feet tall, a wooden body with ivory parts, adorned with accessories of gold and silver. To the faithful, the image was priceless, but for police purposes a P500,000 price tag was provided. (Not all news was bad news because on the day the Sto. Niño de Tondo was stolen, a silver incense burner stolen in Carcar, Cebu, was recovered and returned.)

Manila?s Finest engaged their informants and three days later a suspect was arrested. Reynio Rivera, 24 years old and jobless, named three companions in the theft. Parts of the image were recovered in separate houses on Balagtas Street, Tondo: the wooden body dumped in a canal near Rivera?s house, the left arm, a silver scepter, a golden cross, and a bronze crown.

On Aug. 2, 1972 the weather improved, the floods subsided and the Sto. Niño de Tondo (or most of its parts) was recovered, presented to President and Mrs. Marcos in Malacañang and brought in procession back to Tondo church.

Postscript to the story is that the thieves were Kapampangan who specialized in looting churches of their precious antiques. Before striking in Tondo, the thieves had taken another image from a church in Tuguegarao, Cagayan. The gold cross of the image was bought by Eugenio Milan of Bulacan for the magnificent sum of P43! Milan charged as an accessory to the crime.

Where the other stolen parts were recovered from is not clear. Police were not allowed to enter an art gallery on Vito Cruz where the thieves offered the more valuable parts, including the ivory head, for sale. These parts were presented to Mrs. Marcos in Malacañang by Dr. Eleuterio Pascual, the art gallery owner, then the famous santo sculptor of Malate, Maximo Vicente, was called in to put everything together. A thanksgiving Mass was held in Malacañang, with President Marcos reading the Epistle in English and Tagalog, while 2,000 impatient devotees waited outside to escort their patron back to Tondo church. It was described as an an emotional moment. Many were moved to tears even as they were distracted by the beauty of Mrs. Marcos, who was described as a Norma Blancaflor look-a-like.

Then as now, churches are looted of their treasures. Some artifacts are returned, but many remain at large, leaving the faithful waiting in vain.

(Comments are welcome aocampo@ateneo.edu)

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