A visit to ‘Apo Baket’
She is, by the standards of Filipino iconography, rather small and unprepossessing. Dark-complexioned, the Madonna and the babe in her arms impress mainly because of the elaborate outfits which a couturier coming all the way from the capital Tuguegarao fashions for them.
But to the faithful in Cagayan, especially the Itawes, as the ethnic group in the Cagayan Valley is known, Our Lady of Piat is not just the patroness of the town of Piat and the “Mother of Cagayan,” but also one of the most venerated Marian images in the country, well-known for the many miracles attributed to her.
Officially, the image is known as Our Lady of the Most Holy Rosary, given the Dominican devotion to the Blessed Mother, and the fact that it was the Order of Preachers that commissioned the image from Macao and brought it to Cagayan to “pacify” the natives. In Ibanag, Our Lady is known as “Yena Tam Ngamin” (A Mother To Us All), but her most popular designation by far is the simple “Apo Baket” (literally Old Lady, but more formally, “Venerable Matriarch”), an Ilocano term of endearment.
The story goes that in 1622, a few years after being enshrined in Piat, the image was brought to Tuguegarao and was replaced by another image deemed “more beautiful,” at least physically, than the little dark brown Madonna. But according to church records, “the people rose up in public protest and asked to the point of insistence that the original image be returned to them.” Our Lady’s return was met with great rejoicing, but a dispute arose between the folk of Piat and of the neighboring town of Tuao. So a compromise was arrived at where the building of the present-day Minor Basilica was located midway between the two towns.
Among the most ardent of devotees of “Apo Baket” is Alex Wong Chu King. It was upon his invitation that I joined a group from the Wong Chu King Foundation (WCKF), named after his father who founded the tobacco concern now known as Mighty Corporation, to attend the inaugural of two projects founded by the foundation and pay a visit to Our Lady.
The first was the ribbon-cutting of a waterworks system for Barangays Dugayung and Sicatna in Piat. Because of their high elevation, the water table is quite a distance from the surface, which is why it had been quite difficult to establish a water system. “People had to get up at two or three in the morning to fetch water from the nearest source,” said James Navarette, general manager of the WCKF. “And sometimes, water was not even available.”
“Maybe now all of you will smell better,” Mayor Carmelo Villacete jokingly told the schoolchildren of Dugayung Elementary School on whose grounds the water tank stands (“for security purposes,” explained an official of the Department of Education). Some 7,000 residents of the two barangays stand to benefit from the new water system.
The mayor had another concern, though: There has been no electricity in the barangay since Typhoon “Lawin” struck late last year.
Next to be inaugurated was the “guardhouse” along the highway and a road leading to the home of Archbishop Emeritus Diosdado Talamayan of Tuguegarao. Though called a guardhouse, the structure is actually a small residence, with two rooms, a kitchen and bathroom meant to serve visitors to the Archbishop’s home and to a nearby spiritual renewal center and home for retired sisters. “Transportation is so difficult to access here,” explained the retired prelate, “and I wanted to provide visitors a place to wait in comfort and safety.”
Ironically, the majority of projects funded by the WCKF are found in the Ilocos region, where most of the tobacco used in cigarette production is grown, and where the foundation runs a scholarship program, apart from funding several public works and religious construction.
But Alex Wong Chu King says he believes that piety and religious devotion play a big role in the success of any business, which may explain why he and his personal as well as WCKF family make it a point to visit “Apo Baket” as often as they can, and pair this devotion with projects to benefit the people under her guidance and care.
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