The tree of St. Francis
The more than 12-year-old circular gazebo in front of the two-and-a-half century-old Saint Francis of Assisi Parish in the poblacion of the City of General Trias, Cavite, is not in the original blueprint of the church. The place where the gazebo stands was purposely constructed to shield from the elements the icon of Saint Francis of Assisi that was carved from a fallen heritage acacia tree, which had previously stood on the spot for more than a century.
Oral history narrates that the tree was planted in the twilight of the Spanish era in the Philippines by two men: Mariano Closas Trias, a famous native of the town and general of the Revolution who was elected vice president of the first Philippine Republic; and Artemio “Vibora” Ricarte, an Ilocano native and school teacher in San Francisco de Malabon (now General Trias City) who later became a general of the Philippine revolutionary forces.
The acacia played a significant role in the life of the devotees of Saint Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of the city. When they entered and left the church, the tree was there to provide them comfort and peace. From its luxuriant foliage, they could feel the presence of God’s invigorating breath. It also served as a resting and trysting place for people, and stood as silent witness to many historical and personal events in the lives of the Gentriseños. One such event happened on the morning of June 12, 1898: At the patio of Saint Francis Parish, the Banda San Francisco de Malabon premiered our national anthem, belying the many stories that it was first played when our independence was proclaimed in Kawit, Cavite.
However, the beneficent role provided by the robust, sturdy, and branchy acacia was abruptly and fatally ended by Typhoon “Milenyo” on Sept. 28, 2006. Milenyo was very powerful, directly striking General Trias. Its howling wind and rampaging flood destroyed not only the centuries-old dam built during the Spanish regime, but also wiped out crops, washed away countless houses near the riverbanks, destroyed many buildings, and flooded numerous homes in the poblacion, which had not happened before. It also killed a number of residents, swept away by rampaging waters and never to be found. Trees of different kinds were toppled, including the heritage acacia.
All the fallen trees were cut off by their owners and used as fuel. But then Mayor Luis Alandy Ferrer IV of General Trias, now congressman of the sixth district of Cavite, and Fr. Virgilio Saenz Mendoza, then the parish priest, did not let the once much-loved and useful acacia tree go to waste. Through their ingenuity, and compelled by a deep desire to preserve for posterity the memory of the tree, they had its branches cut off until what remained was a 12-foot-long main trunk with a circumference of eight meters. It was placed upright on exactly the same spot it had occupied before, the base was fortified with cement, and the image of Saint Francis was carved on the trunk by artisans from Paete, Laguna.
A gazebo was then built to encircle the icon for protection. The Most Reverend Luis Antonio G. Tagle, now a cardinal, solemnly blessed it on Sept. 30, 2008, on the 255th year of the parish.
While the demise of the acacia tree left a void of loneliness among Gentriseños, God had His own plan of giving back in a more affectionate way. Through His divine will, the acacia tree would metamorphose into an icon of Saint Francis housed in a gazebo. Mayor Antonio Alandy Ferrer has called it “a source of pride, a symbol depicting the faithful expression of the city’s deep religiosity.”
The icon draws countless visitors going to and from city hall, not far from the church. It is an alternative solemn place to say a prayer before Saint Francis of Assisi, at a time when the church is closed for cleaning.
Vic Jocson Columna, 82, is a retired information affairs officer of the City of General Trias, Cavite. He is a widower and lives alone.
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