[PHOTO AT LEFT - What a beach!: Bolinao’s Patar Beach has kept its sands white and waters crystal-clear. MANILA, Philippines]

MANILA, MAY 16, 2009 (STAR)  By Ching M. Alano - It’s clear to see that Bolinao, Pangasinan, has faithfully kept its date with history. Its white sandy beaches are probably as sparkling white as when Spanish Captain Pedro Lombi founded the first settlement there in 1575. Its waters are as pristine as when the first settlers first drew water from the Anson well. Its soil is as rich as when a certain Italian priest known only as Fr. Odoric held the first Mass in the Philippines (yes, antedating what is historically considered as the first Mass in the country held in Limasawa in 1521) after setting foot on Bolinao soil during stormy weather in 1324. And this town remains as charming as ever as it welcomes stressed-out, spaced-out city souls seeking refuge from life’s many angsts and aggravations.

As in centuries past, the church continues to be the spiritual nerve center of the town. The townsfolk still regale visitors with stories of everyday miracles they attribute to their revered patron saint St. James the Great as they prepare to celebrate St. James’ quadricentennial on July 25. They believe that St. James mounted on his horse still vigilantly guards the seas and they swear that in the dead of night, they could still hear the clippity clop of a horse’s hooves. Fr. Zosimo Navata says that people are saying that they could see the head of a horse looking out of the window of the convent.

Teofilo Corilla Jr., president of the Bolinao Parish Pastoral Council and a homegrown Bolinaonon, relates, “There was a young man who once challenged the image of St. James, telling him to come down from his horse. The next day, he got sick and had fever for three weeks. He was told to go back to St. James and apologize. He did and he got well.”

Where St. James goes, people follow. Once, people had to build a raft for him so that his image could be ferried to a chapel — they could not do so by land as the place was too cramped to accommodate the rather humongous image.

“People were crying, they were emotional as they accompanied the image on the raft,” Teofilo recounts.

People love repeating stories of miraculous healings. “Like when he was brought to Patar and then transferred to another barangay via Ilog Malino,” Teofilo begins to relate. “Water started to flow from the image. The flow got heavier as the image reached the river. People who touched him said they were cured of their illnesses. For example, there was one parishioner who got rid of his scabies.”

Through St. James’ intercession, Bolinao has eluded many a big storm. “Once, there was a really strong typhoon that was predicted to pass Bolinao,” relates Dely de Perio-Peralta whose late husband Efren Peralta was a former mayor. “Everybody was warned against passing through Bolinao that night. Through people’s prayers to St. James, the typhoon did not pass Bolinao. Again, last year, there was a really strong typhoon that affected almost all the municipalities of western Pangasinan — the roofs of houses were blown away and a lot of buildings were destroyed. Even the big sports complex in Dagupan was dilapidated. But again, Bolinao was spared.”

This good old-fashioned town was also spared from the onslaught of industrialization. Dely is proud to tell us, “For two years, we fought a big Taiwan company who wanted to put up a P16-billion cement factory in our town. I believe Señor Santiago helped us because we always pray to him.”

To celebrate 400 years of faith, Bishop Marlo Peralta will say Mass on July 25 at the town plaza. In the evening, 400 torches will be put all around the church. Expected to be among the multitude of faithful attending the festivities are the Pangasinenses, now living abroad, who can’t wait to come home.

Among them are the De Perio siblings, some of whom now live and work in the US. All 15 of them — three boys and 12 girls — were delivered at home by their father, Dr. Miguel de Perio. Talk about home delivery! Dr. De Perio, mayor of Bolinao for 10 years, lived to a ripe old age of 95 years and six months and was ballroom dancing until a month before he died. His wife, Patrocinio Gaerlan, died at 77.

Bolinao needs to raise some P10 million to renovate its centuries-old church. But for the faithful of Bolinao, renovating doesn’t mean defacing their beloved parish church or selling its prized furniture or doors to antique collectors who are eagerly waiting at the door to cart away the church’s treasures. They shrink and ask, “How would St. James the Great feel about that?”

Much like their deep respect for Señor Santiago, the townspeople revere the place where they were born and raised, and which continues to nurture them. Like the Señor, they jealously and zealously guard their seas and shores, making sure that Bolinao’s natural beauty is preserved for the future generations.

“We have unearthed artifacts that might have belonged to Princess Urduja,” notes Eva Calza, former president of the Bolinao Historical and Cultural Society.

She adds, “The beaches of Patar are still virginal even if in the last five years, resorts have sprouted. In San Fabian, the sand are still white and the waters are never murky.”

The people of Bolinao are ever proud of their beaches, their caves, and tourist attractions that have drawn people to their sacred place. Among these attractions are the caves, where the movies Pinakamagandang Hayop and Djesebel were shot. And then there’s the Cape Bolinao Lighthouse at Patar, the second tallest in the country (351 feet above sea level on a towering hill of solid rock), next to Cape Bojeador Lighthouse in Ilocos Norte. Judy Ann Santos once shot a movie here. Of course, there are the many private beaches and exclusive beautiful resorts, one of which is owned by Boying Celeste.

But the real tourist attraction in Bolinao, according to visitors, is its very friendly and hospital people. “Some visitors end up marrying here,” says Dely. “There’s a joke that once you drink the water of the Anson well, you’ll be smitten with Bolinao forever.”

While Bolinao offers so much food for the soul, it’s got a lot to feed the stomach, too. Our gracious hosts plied us nonstop with the place’s native delights, like binungay (rice cake in bamboo containers); assorted seafoods like the shellfish liswik, mamalantik, noga-noga; the famous ararrosep (seaweeds); lobsters cooked in many delightful ways; shrimps, from the suahe to the prawns; and octopus sautéed in garlic, onion, and tomato; and fresh veggies from Baguio, that can be had for practically a song (or perhaps two songs). Of course, the star of the table is the Bolinao bangus.

“Did you know that 60 percent of the bangus in Pangasinan comes from Bolinao?” Dely de Perio shares this delicious foodnote. “Our bangus has a special diet that makes it really luscious. And they say we have the sweetest mangoes, the juiciest chico, and the best-tasting casuy.”

Then and now, the gracious grand old dame that is Bolinao offers the travel-weary visitor the warmth of home.

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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