Although foreign-sounding first names such as Anne, Sam, and Angel have been the vogue these past few years, the practice of naming Filipinos after Spanish-named saints still pervades up to modern times. For instance, my real name José Mario was taken from two saints: St. Joseph, the foster-father of Our Lord and Savior, and his bride, the Blessed Mother of Christ Jesus.
In Biñán, La Laguna, we came across a curious case of an incorruptible “saint” who is not yet recognized by the Catholic authorities. Her name is Filomena Almarínez, obviously named after a canonized Greek princess who was martyred sometime in the 4th century: Saint Philomena.
To Catholics, Saint Philomena (English translation of the Spanish Stª Filomena) is also a curious case. Christians started venerating her in the early 19th century when her remains were discovered in the Catacombs of Priscilla (in Via Salaria, Rome, Italy). There is not much information known about her aside from a Latin inscription found at her tomb: Filumena which means “daughter of light”. She is also known to be the patron saint of children.
I first became acquainted with this saint more than a decade ago. One of my cousins, Amador II L. Alas, or Josh, was stricken with the deadly cancer Burkitt’s lymphoma. After several months of battling the fatal disease, Josh’s doctors here in the Philippines have given up hope on him. But not us, of course.
I can’t remember anymore if it was my grandmother or one of my aunties’ who distributed St. Philomena novena prayercards among family members. I got one and kept it inside my wallet, praying the novena from time to time for the quick recovery of my cousin. Eventually, he was brought to a famous medical facility in the US and there he was miraculously healed.
Doubting Thomases would be quick to retort: it’s science who healed your cousin, Pepe. Not totally true. The wise logic and argumentation of the Doctors of the Church have proven time and again that science is dead without faith (but that’s for another blogpost).
Today, as you look at my cousin’s photo below, who would’ve known that he was a victim of Burkitt’s lymphoma many years ago? (and who would’ve even known that he’d grow up to be as handsome as me?)
But after that cancer incident, I’ve completely forgotten about St. Philomena (I can’t even remember where my prayercard is anymore). Until last week when I read in Facebook that my comrades Arnaldo Arnáiz and Levi Soledad are talking about a possible Biñán “field work”. They’re talking about visiting some beata there. I sent them a message saying that I’ll join them although I don’t know exactly what they’re up to.
Initially, I thought that we’re going to visit only a relic or some preserved body part of a saint. I was surprised to hear from Arnaldo that we’re going to visit St. Philomena. Upon hearing of the familiar name, it started to register into my mind the events of long ago, about my cousin, his cancer, and the prayercard (I just couldn’t forget the picture of the young saint with the arrows). So I thought that one of her relics was in Biñán. I misunderstood Arnaldo: he was referring to a totally different person, another Philomena, an incorruptible who is yet to be recognized by the Catholic Church.
We went to Biñán on a rainy Wednesday afternoon (4 November 2009). We were on a rendezvous with Levi, a Biñán native, inside Pavilion Mall. On the way, Arnaldo explained to me what little information he had about this “unrecognized saint”.
Upon meeting with Levi (whose slick red car we used), we drove towards the place where Stª Filomena was interred: Biñán’s public cemetery, popularly known as the St. Filomena Cemetery (nicknamed after her).
Stª Filomena’s incorruptible remains are housed inside a well-maintained chapel named after her. We got to talk to a lady called Nanay Deneng who has been taking care of the chapel for years (later on, she told us that we were so lucky to have arrived at a very opportune time — the chapel is rarely open nowadays). From her we got to know a lot about this mysterious Filipina whose lifeless body refuses to rot…
Filomena was born on 6 July 1913 in Barrio San Antonio Biñán (then spelled as Viñáng) to poor farmers. Unlike many female saints, she wasn’t a nun nor was she a member of any religious organization. She was just an ordinary citizen. But stories today say that she was a very prayerful lady during her lifetime.
One day, on 13 August 1938, she suddenly died of unknown causes. She was only 25, very young. Stories say that she died of emotional stress and heartache because her parents were against her lover.
Nine years later, in 1947, her father followed her to the grave. And when the people dug her coffin so that her father’s remains could rejoin hers (a common practice a long time ago), they were shocked to discover that her mortal remains didn’t rot!
She was discovered to be incorruptible!
Too bad Stª Filomena’s incorruptible body is no longer available for public viewing. It used to be in the past. But a couple of years ago, it was buried in a tomb inside the chapel, and that tomb was what we saw when we went there. Sayang talagá. And Nanay Demeng doesn’t know the exact reason as to why it was decided to bury the “uncanonized saint” altogether. So the only thing we saw, aside from the chapel and the glass coffin which used to house her incorruptible body, were photos of her when she was still alive and during the time that her incorruptible body was still available for everyone to see. (Go to ALAS FILIPINAS for more photos and info… but written in the Spanish language)
It was –to borrow from today’s youth– creepy! In books and on Cable TV, particularly a National Geographic documentary on incorruptible saints, I’ve encountered cases about the incorruptible beatos y beatas of the Catholic Church. But this is the first time that I saw a photograph of an incorruptible whose eyes didn’t decompose! And, surprisingly, the eyes of Stª Filomena in the said photograph are partly open! Everything seems to be intact: the cornea, the sclera, the iris, the pupil!
When a person dies, the eyes are supposed to be one of the first parts of a human body to decompose since it is composed mainly of aqueous components and proteins (collagen). But this is not the case with those of Stª Filomena!
I am not an authority to speak out as to why such a phenomena happens. Even that National Geographic episode on incorruptible saints wasn’t able to give a firm conclusion. But what struck me more is that why the Catholic Church still doesn’t recognize this “saint”. According to Nanay Demeng, –and Nanay Rosa who later joined us that afternoon– it could be the fact the Stª Filomena is now under the auspices of the Iglesia Filipina Independiente, the schismatic group dating back to the revolution of 1896.
The members of this group are more popularly known as Aglipayans or Aglipayanos because its first bishop was Gregorio Aglípay. When the ilustrados (composed mostly of Freemasons) staged a revolt against Spain, they chose Fr. Aglípay to head the schismatic church. The leaders of the revolution still considered the Iglesia Filipina Independiente as Catholic. The only thing is that they refused to recognize the authority of the Vatican for the simple reason that the Holy See is connected with Spain and the much hated friars. The founding of the Iglesia Filipina Independiente is actually a part of the Filipinos’ rebellion against Madre España.
But just like what Levi whispered to me in the chapel, the Aglipayans are still Catholics. But darn, Spain is no longer here. So is there still any other valid reason why they refuse to reunite with the Vatican?
The curious case of Stª Filomena, the saint who is not yet a saint, should not be taken lightly. People have been talking about miracles attributed to her intercession. Not to mention her apparitions. To avoid a possible cult-like behavior from the ignorant, both the local Catholic authorities and leaders of the Iglesia Filipina Independiente should work hand in hand to once and for all come up with a conclusion as to whether or not Filomena Almarínez’s sainthood is valid or not.
In parting, let me share to you our photo below taken inside the venerated chapel:
The original Stª Filomena of Greece, by the way, is also known as the “Daughter of Light”. That’s why it freaked me out a little bit to see those eye-like lights from two small windows right above us, very open like the eyes of Stª Filomena de Biñán!
Other peculiarities: Both Filomenas (the one from Corfu, Greece and the one from Biñán, La Laguna) died at a very early age. And what’s more shocking is that both died almost at the same date: St. Philomena of Greece died on August 10; ours died on the 13th of that month!
Are these coincidences?
And one more thing: how does one perceive light?
Through the eyes, of course…