GIBALON CHAPELMagallanes, Sorsogon July 14, 2003 By GINA RODRIGUEZ (MALAYA) AS far as Rogerio Escobal is concerned, nothing compares with the loveliness of his hometown of Magallanes, one of Sorsogon's 16 towns in the Bicol region where the first Catholic mass in Luzon was celebrated in 1569.

A certified public accountant, Escobal, 71, has been avidly researching and writing for the past four years now about the history of his town, a municipality of 34 barangays that sits on the mouth of Sorsogon Bay on the southernmost part of Luzon.

A fishing paradise where underneath its crystal clear waters "lie submerged coral reefs that stretch towards the deepest seabeds" and a "marine community from coral reefs to various species of fishes, crustaceans and mollusks," Magallanes has a glorious past that need to be appreciated by the present generation, he says.

Escobal recalled this past when Magallanes was known as Gibalon or Ibalon, an important center of trade and commerce during the Spanish period, during a lecture he delivered during the last Lenten season. It is a subject covered at length by his first published study Magallanes:Gibalon Revisited, limited copies of which were disseminated to his townmates.

His study focuses on how the spread of Christianity in the Bicol region and later in Luzon started from the missionary work of Augustinian priest Fray Alonso Jimenez who held the first mass in Gibalon. Today, this event is remembered by a sparsely adorned chapel located at a hilly terrain in the lonely Magallanes-Bulan road in Magallanes.

Sometime in April 1999 when he visited the Gibalon Chapel, Escobal was intrigued by an inscription in the commemorative marker that says "somewhere in this spot" the first mass was said. The question haunted him as to where was the most appropriate place to hold the mass during Jimenez's time.

The query spurred him on a "fearless journey" to scour museums, archives and shrines for records, maps or any evidence as to the existence of Ibalon 400 years ago. He pored through volumes of documents stored by the Augustinian priests and the Franciscans who later evangelized Bicol, and even established correspondence with the archivist at the Basilica de Sto. Niņo in Cebu.

Escobal painstakingly read the records, some of which were written in Spanish, which he analyzed with help from a translator. He was so engrossed in the research he ate meals with the religious priests and was "short of sleeping in their convent-quarters," he says.

At one point in this "journey" he discovered that the present site of the Gibalon Chapel is an interior part of the ancient Ibalon village in 1569. He theorized it would be dangerous for Jimenez's group to travel to the interior, which is a kilometer from the shore, just to be able to hold the mass. In his book he asserted that "logically the shore was the most appropriate site for the mass."

Far from being contentious about his findings on the site of the first mass, Escobal finds his initial study a natural springboard for other stories about his hometown. He has since written about Magallanes during the American, Japanese and post-Liberation periods. His third study focuses on the Malaspina Expedition and the Pacific Islands while the fourth one deals with the shipyards of Bagatao island and the Galleon Trade.

One of nine children of parents who lived off the sea's bounties, Escobal remembers the hard life of a fisherman and how he himself managed to survive several sea disasters when he was but eight or nine years old. He recounts how until his high school years he was doing nightly rounds guarding the fish corals built by his father who was known in the town as a master builder of deep sea fish corals

The difficult life in the sea pushed him into excelling in school where he got the highest honors and gave him this "burning desire to finish a college education." In Manila, he became a working student and finished his accounting course on partial scholarship, one of only three siblings to afford a college degree.

He later passed the board and other government exams and as a professional had the chance to travel in parts of Asia, US and Europe. During these trips he observed how despite modernization, the people in these places maintained a high regard for their culture and gave much thought to preserving their monuments and historical sites.

One of the few voices on local history, Escobal now dedicates part of his time to researching on the cultural history of Magallanes while going through the grind of his work as an accountant and auditor for a Makati firm. At the same time he is linking up with national historical bodies, local government units and cultural agencies, church authorities and townmates so his findings would get wider acceptance.

Magallanes will continue "to be a deep wellspring" from which he would draw inspiration but Escobal's fond wish is to see more of his kababayan or fellow Bicolanos becoming more aware of their glorious heritage through what he has written.

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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