Footprints

For Cultural Hybrids Seeking Home

The Curse of Tukgawan

29 May 2021

In the course of the last several hundred years, settlements founded during pre-Hispanic times have changed their names several times over. If they came back, those who had played major roles even during the recent past would no longer recognize these place names. One such old settlement in northern Negros was called Tukgawan. Relative to their neighbours, Tukgawan was an unusually spiritual community. They had numerous rituals of worship to their anitos (deities), and made regular sacrifices to the spirits to give them good harvest and bountiful catch in their fishing grounds.

The Spaniards’ arrival in the 16th Century initially perturbed the natives who by then were set in their spiritual life. However, in due course, they adapted to the governance of the Augustinian Recolletos, a religious order, who converted them to the Christian faith. Along with water systems and other infrastructure, a Catholic church was soon built. Despite the intermittent raids of the Moros, migrants from the nearby islands were attracted to the rich soil of Tukgawan and the village grew into a township. From the physical landscape, a plaza complex was constructed and the church next to it, whilst a cemetery was added at the back. The plaza was surrounded by a market, an administrative center, and in due course, a public school./1/

By the late 19th Century, the Moro raids had virtually stopped and Tukgawan in its many transformations soon became a peaceful place devoted to the Roman Catholic faith of the Spaniards. Like other Catholic communities, the town venerated icons of saints in their homes and in their church. Like other Catholic communities, they processed these icons during Holy Week. Like other Catholic communities, they celebrated the feast day of their patron saint in a fiesta where the saint’s icon was paraded.

Then came the Americans, and with them the American Protestant missionaries. They were probably the Presbyterians and the Baptists—iconoclasts both—who preached and converted the townsfolk. The destruction of their saints’ icons was actively encouraged by these missionaries who equated their veneration to idolatry. According to the founders of Protestantism, or so they preached, Christians should strive for a direct communion with God, and icons simply impeded this direct communication. Even more important, we should listen only to God’s words as found in the Bible. It is the Bible which commands, “Thou shalt not make unto thee graven images.”/2/ As a consequence, iconoclasm gained roots among the previously iconophile citizenry.

It was one market day, a sunny Wednesday, when the town’s leading families and their friends gathered together in the town plaza. Ardent converts to Protestantism all, they had emptied their homes of icons, and together, burned them. Soon, the rest of the community followed suit, and a fired-up crowd proceeded to rob the nearby church of all its icons in order to participate in building what was by now a giant conflagration./3/

The Catholic priest found himself completely helpless! He fought, cajoled, pleaded, threatened with excommunication and the pains of hell--all to no avail. He was instead mocked, but mostly ignored and pushed out. An uncontrolled, riotous mob had taken over. Above the din, he finally shouted, “I curse you, I curse all of you!” It was then that a hush fell on the throng.

“I curse every family here—may you always fail in everything you do! I curse this place—may it never taste abundance! I curse you all until you ask for forgiveness. Let every firstborn atone for the sins of their father!”

On a sweltering day, made hotter by the flames as they lapped and consumed the icons, witnesses claimed there was an ear-piercing clap of thunder, as though the heavens had concurred. Thereupon, the priest turned his back and left the town, never to be heard from again.

Meantime, heavy rains poured down incessantly for days on end. The whole town flooded, and when the floods finally subsided, a labourer found an image of the Santo Niño in a nearby field, underneath the ashes, unblemished. He presented it to his amo (master), one of the leaders of the icon-burning melee. Now humbled and contrite, the amo placed it at the altar in his home and led the community back to repentance. From then on, the re-converted Catholic town processed the Santo Niño during each religious holyday in a constant reminder of their need for atonement. Additionally, devotions to the Blessed Virgin were purportedly held every Wednesday, the market day of the past, and especially when it rained, the church would be filled with penitents who remembered the flood that extinguished the flames.

It was said that each family had vowed to dedicate their first born to the vocation of priesthood. Is that possibly why up to this date, approximately two-thirds of priests in the different dioceses of Negros come from the little town formerly called Tukgawan?

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Ascription: From interviews done by Chona Gosiaoco.

Footnotes: /1/The “plaza” is a Spanish word which meant “field” or an open public space. Patterned after those constructed in Spanish America, King Philip II’s ordinance of 1573 outlined the plan of the four-sided plaza centered on the church and a cemetery beside it, a convent, administrative centers and a market place. The residences of the parishioners surrounded them. /2/Protestantism was born in Germany in 1571, when Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-five Theses on his church door in reaction to the excesses of the Roman Catholic Church, especially its sale of indulgences. In its variety of sects, it quickly spread to other countries in Europe, later leading to a 30-year war between Catholics and Protestants when as many as 20% of the European population and as high as 60% of Germany’s died. The European immigrants to America brought their religious faith with them to be later transplanted to the Philippines by American missionaries. /3/It would seem that burning "false" idols was a relatively common occurrence. Antonio Pigafetta, Ferdinand Magellan's journalist, writes about Magellan's instructions to his crew to destroy pagan idols that the natives kept in their homes.  By the seashore, one could thus see burnings of collections of these crude figures made of wood or clay.