Mabalacat Church was said to have been established in the year 1768, but a more realistic date would be around the early 1830s. The oldest bell in the parish is dated 1835, during the term of Fr. Jose Varela, the town’s first cura parocco. Cast by 19th c. Quiapo bell maker, Mac.(ario) E Los Angeles, the bell pre-dates those cast by the more renown Hilario Sunico. A second bell, dated 1846 is dedicated to Nuestra Señora de Grasia ( as spelled). It is certain therefore that a structure of more permanent materials must have existed earlier to house these bells.
The Estado General of 1879 reports that the parish was elevated to a vicariate status under the titular patronage of Nuestra Snra. De Guia around 1836. In November 23, 1881, in compliance with the Recollect Provincial Chapter of 1876, the Mabalacat parish was named as one of the head parishes (“priorato”) of the San Nicolas de Tolentino province, together with Sta. Cruz, Balayan in Batangas and Boac, Marinduque.
The Recoletos have always had an early devotion to the Nuestra Señora de las Gracias (Our Lady of Graces) and it is certain that they propagated this among Mabalaqueño converts. The original shrine in Guadalupe, Makati was first dedicated to her Divine Grace. The imposing image of the seated Mater Divina Gratiae in the main altar was installed during the term of Fr. Felipe Roque. In one of his visits to Rome, he beheld the a similar image in San Giovanni Rotonda (home of stigmatist saint, Fr. Pio) and was inspired to have a copy carved after the original image. The Virgin is flanked by the figures of San Joaquin and St. Ana, installed through the sponsorships of Dna. Paz vda. de Wijangco and Dna. Maningning de Naguiat respectively. The recent repainting of the images was done in 2002.
There is a slight confusion as to who the real town patroness is. February 2, the traditional date of the piestang balen, is actually the Feast of the Purification of Our Lady or Nuestra Señora de la Candelaria. There is, in fact, an old ivory image of the Virgin in the Parish, which is made to look like a Candelaria Virgin by having her hold a candle. Surprisingly, this image is not displayed on the main altar. On the other hand, the feast of our Lady of Grace is observed every June 9 (piestang patron) according to the Catholic calendar. Church records from the late 1930s show that processions were still being held in June, with a devout woman from Dau, Dña. Cecilia Samson, shouldering the expenses.
There now seems to be a practical explanation to this date change, as explained by oldtimers. In the olden days, they recount, it was very inconvenient for the people to negotiate the dirt roads just to attend church service in June—the onset of the rainy season. So, a mutual agreement was reached between the townfolks and the parish priest to move the date to February, when the weather was drier and better.
The actual construction of the Catholic church as reported in 1909 by then parish priest Fr. Teodoro Garcia to Luther Parker, began on October 2, 1904 . This was done under the guidance of Capitan Domiciano Tizon. A 1906 report of Fr. Francisco Sabada, “Nota de los Edificos Parroquiales (Yglesia y Conventos)”, Mabalacat church was classified as a 2nd class church made of mixed materials , like sawali, nipa, wood and stone (1st class churches were de mamposteria, 3rd class were of wood).
In the 1984 souvenir program of the renovation of Our Lady of Divine Grace Parish however, it is claimed that the construction began in 1912 through the initiative of Fr. Maximino Manuguid, after a fire gutted the market and other major portions of the town. It was renovated during the term of Fr. Pedro Jaime in 1938. Another bell was donated by Bibiana Lim, and the Siopongcos: Gliceria, Francisco, Candida, Marcela and Emilia on 12 October 1958. Two years later, another bell donation was made by Mrs. Pilar Siopongco de Lara on 4 April 1960, during the term of Fr. Cancio.
During the administration of Fr. Alfonso Ducut, the church was further expanded and refurbished from 17 June 1983 to December 1984 . The starting budget was a meager P11,000, although the entire job was estimated at 2.1 Million Pesos. The construction covered 2 phases, involving major reworks such as the widening of the floor area by 2.5 meters, replacement of timber posts, electrical re-wiring and the installation of stained glass panels especially ordered from Kraut Art Glass, a German-owned glass shop established 1911 in the Philippines. Its façade and its interiors were tiled , marbled, glazed and re-painted and today, the church bears little resemblance to its original yet simple architectural grandeur.
(*NOTE: Feature titles with asterisks represent other writings of the author that appeared in other publications and are not included in the original book, "Views from the Pampang & Other Scenes")