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When I went to visit the church of Our Lady of Good Voyage in Antipolo last week, I never expected it to turn into a fascinating pilgrimage. On Friday I embarked on the second leg of the pilgrimage in the historic Bulacan area, making my way towards San Jose del Monte, where the renown replica of Our Lady of Lourdes Grotto is. Having been to the original in France, I had a very clear picture in mind as to what I expected to see, or at least hoped to. The drive out there was already an adventure in itself, passing through the back roads of Fairview and Kalookan, and discovering an entire road that sells nothing by the native brooms (walis tingting and walis tambo), items that are usually associated with places further away such as the mountain province of Baguio. The brooms are made locally and not nearly as expensive as what you would shell out in Baguio.

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Shrine of Our Lady of Lourdes, San Jose del Monte, Bulacan ©MTHerzog

Upon arrival at Our Lady of Lourdes Grotto, the first thing that struck me was the similarity to the original one in France. Built in 1961 by Anita Guidote-Guanzon after she was cured from cancer following a pilgrimage to Lourdes, France, the statue in the grotto was built from marble originating in Carrara, Italy (source: Joy Dot / Philippine Inquirer).

Instead of the European trees, the grotto in San Jose del Monte is surrounded by native trees such as mango and star apple (caimito). There are numerous controversies surrounding the church, and it currently does not under the Dioces of Malolos. It is quite obvious that funds are limited, but it is still a serene place for prayer. It being a weekday, there were very few people around and the most noise emanated from the birds inside the church.

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Parish of Santa Monica, Angat, Bulacan ©MTHerzog

The next stop was the parish of Santa Monica in Angat. The route from San Jose del Monte to Angat via Santa Maria is is one of the more picturesque drives in Bulacan that you can ever undertake. After passing all the lusciously green rice paddies of the lowlands, you work your way upwards and at some point after Norzagaray have a spectacular panoramic view of the Angat Reservoir. Life is slower in the province, so is the driving, especially since you inevitably get stuck behind tricycles, jeepneys, and trucks crawling at snail’s pace. If you get hungry, there are a couple of noteworthy native restaurants in Santa Maria, quaintly built in the traditional nipa hut style out of bamboo, cocolumber and thatched roofs lovingly woven together from palm leaves.

The little town of Angat is quite a busy place and if you are not careful, the entrance to the church grounds is easily overlooked because of all the tricycles and food carts crowding the entrance. The church as closed because all the people of the parish office were doing the way of the cross around the church. But after a little while, a lively and lovely social worker named Cherry showed me in through the sacristy. Wow, this is by far the greatest find ever.

Dating back to 1683, the parish of Santa Monica is one of the oldest in Luzon and initially belonged to the diocese of Plaridel. The first Augustinian parish priest was assigned in 1686, and construction of the church. The spectacular ceiling frescos are a celebration of the story of Creation and depict all the salient points of Genesis. The corner markers are dedicated to the prophets and evangelists, and finally, the rear elevates the history of Catholicism in the Philippines.

As I looked around in fascination, I came to a complete standstill when I gazed upwards and saw the huge banner painted on the ceiling Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam. Noting the expression on my face, Cherry smiled knowingly and remarked “Ah, an Atenean”. 

it was past sunset by the time I hit the road again, so whatever illusions I harbored for a romantic sunset over the rice paddies or overlooking the Angat dam were ditched. Instead, it was a drive in in the dark towards Bustos, to the church of the Santo Niño. Sadly, by the time I reached there only the gardener was left and the church was locked. He pointed us towards the adoration chapel and that is where prayers were said.

By the time I walked in through the front door, Champagne, my faithful feline, had held out for 9.5 hours without food, water or toilet. I always carry her entire equipment with me and am prepared for every eventuality, but she refuses to take any food or drink while traveling.

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