Tuesday, September 28, 2010

*216. ARAP-PISAMBAN: A Town’s Gathering Place

MEET 'n GREET PLACE. Our Lady of Divine Grace Church, with its wide and secure churchyard makes an ideal place of convergence for students, barkadas, sports enthusiasts, lovers and friends. It is strategically located in the center of the town, within reach of the market, schools, the municipal building and the national highway. Ca. 1968.

Our town church, Our Lady of Grace, is plain by any standards. It was built by the more austere Augustinian Recollects—and the church as I remember it back in the mid 60s—was but a high-ceilinged box, with a detached belfry and an undecorated façade—no columns, no fancy arches, no stained glass windows. It may not be as impressive as the baroque church of Betis and the cathedral of San Fernando, but it is strategically located in the heart of the town, sandwiched between the market, the municipio and the Mabalacat Elementary School.

The church’s most remarkable feature is the 'arap-pisamban', the churchyard—one of the most spacious in Pampanga. Facing the Macarthur Highway, the churchyard is big enough to contain an all-purpose court that faces a covered stage. This was once the venue for the P.T.A. Balls of the 1960s, formal, fund-raising affairs in which best-dressed Mabalaqueños danced the night away to the music of Iggy de Guzman and his Orchestra. Basketball leagues and tennis players take turns playing on this cement court, and of late, this section and its stage continues to be in use today, as the venue for the annual search for Miss Mabalacat. During Maleldo (Holy Week), on the other hand, the stage is converted into a “puni” , complete with pasyon-reading.

When I was a snotty schoolkid in short pants, however, the church grounds were something of a hallowed, almost holy place. Framed by a concrete fence topped with iron grills, the church was accessible through two side gates—one that opens to the school, and the other leading to the market; the main gate fronts the national highway. To go home from school to Sta. Ines, Poblacion or San Francisco, we always had to cut through the church yard. We would be such a noisy bunch as we trudged home with our bags and books, but the moment we passed before the church, we would shut our mouths and automatically bend one knee to the ground and kneel.

When we were feeling more prayerful, we would even stop and go inside the church where my adventurous classmates and I would climb up the stairs leading to the Calvario. There, we would touch our hankies to the huge statues of the grieving Mary, St. John and Mary Magdalene, avoiding the gaze of the crucified Christ. Donated by Don Gonzalo Tantingco and his family in the 1950s, these wooden figures are still in the church, now set on a concrete ledge, with the stairs gone. The bell tower was another place to explore but it was too risky—the sacristan always hovered nearby with an eagle eye.

We would also pay homage to the Santo Entierro—the shrouded dead Christ carved by Paete carver, Aurelio Buhay. I always had goosebumps as I wiped the Lord’s feet with my handkerchief—I thought it would wake up any moment.

Another source of wonder in the church was a small skull that once rested on an antique comoda. Local legend had it that it was the skull of a Spanish friar, but it was too small to be one. It must have been just a monkey’s skull, but as a child back then, we believed in everything!

Sundays were the best time to be in church, for the yard was a-buzz with so much activity. Peddlers of balloons, pink cotton candy, clay pots, ice drop and toys would gather around churchgoers with their wares. I was always attracted to the folk toys made from tin and I remember going home with a pair of red-painted tin horses that raced against each other when you pushed the stick attached to them. There were also those acrobat toys with moveable limbs that jumped and flipped when you squeezed the bamboo sticks on which they were strung. I don’t see those any more.

It has also been a tradition during the annual fiesta that the church grounds are rented out to stall owners as well as to carnival operators. The priest needs the extra cash, you know. As a child, I always looked forward to going back to the church grounds in the evening to ride the tsubibu and the rueda, watch the ‘Taong Gubat’ eat a live chicken and enjoy the sights and lights of the perya. My Ima loved going to the baratilyos the day after the fiesta, carting off utensils, pots and pans for the house sold at hefty discounts.

On Christmas, we would once again crowd the arap-pisamban as we attend the midnight masses, although what I really looked forward to were the mouth-watering bibingkas cooking on the clay kalang. The whole lantern-lit church yard would be packed with crowds, waiting for the Christmas lubenas, and the misa de gallo awhile later. This is the one of those times that even the expansive grounds are filled with people – families, neighbors, young and old, Christmas revelers all.

In the 1950s, the owners of a local high school, St. Anthony’s Institute, petitioned the parish to allow them to build a branch of the school within the church grounds, but the request was turned down by the Archdiocese of Manila. In later years, a decorative fountain was constructed to improve the look of the churchyard. Children would gather around it, until the day a dead man was found dunked into the fountain.

Through the years, our arap-pisamban has been an all-purpose ‘tabnuan’, a convenient meeting place of sorts-- for students to discuss their projects, for sweethearts to set their dates. Vendors congregate here to ply their wares while drivers use the space to park their cars. The youths come here to practice their ball games, enjoy a round of tennis, fly kites, frolic and gambol. This special place has seen it all: the whole cycle of life—from the baptisms of newborns, first communions of children, marriages, anniversaries, deaths and funerals. And in all these, it is comforting to know that our Lady of Grace, our Apung Gracia, keep watch over us.

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