An encounter with Nuestra Señora del Rosario

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By Betsy Gazo


Saturday, May 24, 2014

THE San Sebastian Cathedral became an unlikely venue for a mini-adventure for me and Sandy Solinap, the director of the Museo Diocesano de Bacolod.

With the permission of Fr. Felix Pasquin, we both mustered the courage to enter a side door beside the huge crucifix by the entrance door. This led us to the first rungs of the winding steel stairs. Rolls of red carpeting and other stuff blocked easy access to the bottom of the stairs.

I discovered later that the climb up the bell tower wouldn’t be a quick one. Yet, it was to quench my curiosity about how it is to be up there and watch the big bell ring.


The church bell and its tolling feature so prominently in our lives. For centuries, our country had been “under the bell” or bajo la campana and the bell’s influence was and still is, far-reaching.

The bell has called us to worship, informed us of the time, warned us of marauders approaching from the sea, and even gave a rough estimate of the value of property (the louder the bell from where you live, the nearer to the church, hence, the higher the price of real estate.)

The bell that I climbed the tower for is the Nuestra Señora del Rosario; bells have names, as I recently learned. If one faces the cathedral, that would be the one on the left. Nuestra Señora del Rosario has fascinated me for quite some time. When I happen to be at the vicinity when the bells peal, I would stop to look up and see how this lady would try to outdo the lady in the other belfry.

Each reverberation is followed and matched by an equally vigorous one. These Hispanic-era señoras aren’t shrinking Maria Claras with thin, vascillating clangs. The peals are full-bodied, deep, and undaunted. Why, I suspect that these are no ladies. I shall find out soon.

My friend Sandy, who, like me, is climbing the bell tower for the first time, leads the way up the staircase. She is acrophobic and there is no cash prize at the end of the ascent but she bravely forges on.

There are lots of chattering and loud, nervous laughter - mostly coming from her – and a degree of excitement – also mostly emanating from her. I have climbed the bell towers of the churches of Valladolid, Molo and Jaro and, especially the one at Molo, there is a certain feeling of dread as one goes higher.

I discovered my secret acrophobia at that old, lovely church. I felt like my bottom half would fall off. All the time, my mantra was, “Don’t look down, don’t look down.”

There is none of that dreadful anticipation at the San Sebastian Cathedral. Looking up or down did not summon apprehension at all. The winding staircase was sectioned off into levels so there were actually floors to interrupt what was supposed to be one long, dizzying flight.

But instead of dread, there was disappointment. There were too much dust, debris and clutter unbefitting of a place of worship. Some workmen had left stuff behind instead of cleaning up after themselves. Sandy took note of that. At the choir loft, gigantic biblical figures from a Christmas past with no apparent Christmas future were, well, just there. Poor Joseph. All dressed up in winter clothes with nowhere to go this summer.
As I looked beyond the broken chairs, and thick dust (unsuccessfully tempting me to write “Quasimodo was here”) and cobwebs, I could see the three-foot thick walls of the 1876 cathedral.

Twentieth century works were obvious to put in a window or two, construct the winding steel staircase to replace the old wooden one, and a 21st century job staring at me in the face when Sandy and I finally poked our heads up through the belfry.

My old romantic notion of a decrepit and faithful bell ringer trudging out of his bedroom in the wee hours of the morning to ascend the tower to drive away the bats from the belfry in order to ring the bell to call the townspeople to worship has been shattered at the sight of Nuestra Señora del Rosario crowded in by mechanisms meant to do away with the decrepit and faithful bell ringer.

Modern times have caught up with our 19th century belle. The bell rings by itself at designated hours. Quasimodo need not apply.

Sandy and I looked at our watches. It’s 12 noon and things should be happening anytime now. My friend starts her nervous chatter and laughter anew. I can see excitement in her eyes. Then, when an echo signaled the happening we were waiting for, we looked at each other as wide-eyed as owls that have had an overdose of latte. Short of clutching each other like two little girls, we whispered, “The bell is going to ring.” And we covered our ears. But it didn’t. Ring. Yet.

The first 15 minutes were devoted to the playing of hymns. In the meantime, I took note of our lady. She’s not bad looking. A bit bottom-heavy, that’s for sure, and at least 2 ½ inches thick at the rim.

A greenish tinge had coated the surface through the centuries but still as clear as the year it was made were the words: Siendo Parroco Interino de Este pueblo de Bacolod El Pro D. MARIANO AVILA COMPRO ESTA CAMPANA DESU PEULIO Y LA DONO AESTA YGLESIA AN D. 1866.

The scene below was pleasant, bustling and crowded. This is my city. Estoy en la ciudad de Bacolod. The plaza and its famous bandstand were hidden by the green of treetops. There barely peeking through the new arch is Calle Araneta.

Cinco de Noviembre would have been less dramatic had the arch been erected that time because the Spanish soldier who served as lookout that fateful day of 1898 wouldn’t have had the opportunity to observe the group of determined Filipino rebolusyonarios marching towards the cathedral with their arsenal of cannons and cannonballs and rifles. Distance makes the fakes look real.

The hymns took a really long time to finish. The other belfry’s bell had started to toll and I was dismayed that ringing didn’t happen at OUR bell tower. I gazed across and wished that it was happening at MY tower.

Sandy and I decided to descend as low as our sinking hearts. Hello again, winding staircase. Hello again, dust and debris. And finally, hello, red carpet! Out of the cathedral we went and headed off to the rectory. Then, the unthinkable happened. OUR bell rang. We stopped in our tracks and turned to look up helplessly at Nuestra Señora del Rosario gleefully swinging away, glad to get us out of her tower. (Good riddance, you pests!)

She rang and rang and rang out with joyful abandon. I looked at my watch. 12:15. She was up there and I was down here. The bell obviously didn’t toll for me.

Published in the Sun.Star Bacolod newspaper on May 24, 2014.


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