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How a religious replica brought change to a struggling community

What was once a church that was rarely visited and distant from its own community, has now brought in an influx of devotees and brought about progress for the people of Nampicuan.

“Nakita na nila na may nagmalasakit sa isa’t isa. If we can care for our Shrine, why can’t we care for our neighbors?” - Fr. Christian Magtalas

Tucked in a leafy side street in Nampicuan, Nueva Ecija is a church that has drawn an influx of tourists and devotees over the last three or four years.

When Fr. Christian Magtalas, a newly ordained priest, arrived in 2011, only a handful of parishioners would attend Sunday mass in the parish of the Immaculate Conception. He would see the same faces. A small provincial church to begin with, only a few rows toward the front of the altar would be occupied.

“I thought,” Fr. Christian now remembers, “Kawawa naman ang Nampicuan.”

He wondered about the lack of enthusiasm for the church and social activity in the small town, which has a population of 14,900. “We realized that everything stemmed from economic hardship. There was no sense of community because people were so hard up,” he says.

One of 27 municipalities in landlocked Nueva Ecijia, this fifth-class municipality, like much of the rest of the province, depends on agriculture. “Agriculture is their main source of livelihood, and when the harvest is not good, the entire local economy suffers. I would see the farmers eat lugaw, puto, and even coffee powder mixed with rice for months on end, and they would barter their chickens to exchange them for canned goods,” shares Fr. Christian.

The parish is in the town proper, inaccessible to many who couldn’t afford a car or the tricycle fare. To the farmers, it was the “church of the rich.” Fr. Christian says, “I wanted to reignite my parishioners' love for God.” 

Fr. Christian may have moved to another parish and town altogether but the community he helped will never forget his efforts. After several years helping improve the church and its parishioners, Fr. Christian was given the honor of “Adopted Son of Nampicuan.”

Nearly three years into his ministry, Fr. Christian had an opportunity to help his parish. Parishioners Ernest and Lenlen Alzate arranged for a replica of a cloth believed to have covered the face of the resurrected Christ to be brought to Nampicuan.

Known as the Veil of Manoppello, the replica was brought to the Philippines by the caretaker of the original relic, Fr. Carmine Cucinelli. “Our parishioners prayed 4,000 Hail Marys to ask Fr. Carmine to allow and leave it with us in Nampicuan,” Fr. Christian remembers. It is a miracle that the small town in Nueva Ecija was allowed to keep the replica of one of the most important relics in the possession of the Catholic Church.

Through the generosity of the Alzate and Gallego families, Fr. Christian built a shrine for the relic. In September 2014, Fr. Carmine journeyed from Manopello, Italy, to Nampicuan and enthroned the replica in the Immaculate Conception Church. Since that day, the humble parish church has become known as The Shrine of the Holy Face of Jesus. 

What was once a tiny parish serving a handful of parishioners has become a place of worship for thousands of pilgrims who have descended on the town from all corners of the Philippines.

Access to the pilgrimage site was by San Miguel’s Tarlac Pangasinan La Union Expressway (TPLEX), which, in August 2014, opened an exit in Anao, Tarlac, just 10 minutes away from Nampicuan. 

According to TPLEX marketing and business development manager Tony Reyes Jr., TPLEX has put up markers and signs to direct motorists to the church. Like Fr. Christian, Reyes sees the replica as another blessing for the little town and often visits it when he works at TPLEX.

TPLEX has nearly a dozen brown signs—many of which point to churches. Reyes says, “They are there to drive traffic to our expressway and inspire tourists to explore our provinces and discover what our small towns offer. It’s a nice way to create growth for places like Nampicuan.” 

"It's a great blessing not only spiritually but also economically dahil pangangailangan talaga ng mahihirap ang tulong ng Diyos, and nakikita po namin that the poor need God's help” says Fr. Christian.

On some days, as many as 30 buses full of pilgrims will arrive at the church.

It was once referred to as the “church of the rich” by many in the community and Fr. Christian needed it to be a church for everyone. “I wanted to reignite my parishioners love for God,” says Fr. Christian.

Thanks to his efforts in bringing a replica of a religious relic to his parish, Nampicuan has seen tremendous growth in and out of his community, from the rise of small businesses to outside visitors making the pilgrimage to the church.

The influx of tourists has given rise to other businesses. The Volto Santo Food Park adjacent to the church was established with the help of the parish. There are eight different food stalls, all owned by locals. Says Aries Ledesma, who owns a healthy pasta and juice bar with his wife Melissa: “Each of us tenants agreed that we will not offer the same food so that people have a choice and to avoid being in direct competition with one another.” 

According to Fr. Christian, the Shrine's impact was more than economic. Something changed in their people: “Ang daming na-reconcile na traditions, experiences, and efforts, especially among community leaders.”

“Nakita na nila na may nagmalasakit sa isa’t isa. If we can care for our Shrine, why can’t we care for our neighbors?” says Fr. Christian. Early this year, he was assigned to the Parish of San Geronimo a few towns away. Before leaving his first parish, Fr. Christian was bestowed the honor of “Adopted Son of Nampicuan” for all his efforts in the Shrine. 

Parish volunteers Crisostomo Roque Jr., Cristino E. Alvior, and Ariel S. Ulaye (the latter also happens to be one of the town’s councilors), all agreed that they noticed a change in their town—the people were more enthusiastic would help each other more, and also feel that sense of pride and place in their beloved town. 

The Sanctuary of the Holy Face of Jesus of Manoppello in the Immaculate Conception Parish was declared a Shrine by the Catholic Church in December 2017.

And a month after the shrine was formally established, the town’s harvest doubled.

A version of this article originally appeared in the May-June 2019 issue of Kaunlaran Magazine and was written by Luisa Pineda.

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