In coastal towns—and therefore, surf towns—different parts are often named after waves and shipwrecks. Along the coast of Eastern Samar, Borongan City has Sabang, Locso-On, and Baybay, but the only place named after a figure is Punta Maria: a small fishing village where a story older than surfing begins.
Today, Borongan’s Padul-Ong Festival is an homage to the Blessed Virgin Mary and how her patroness was brought to the city. As the story goes, a mysterious woman boarded a vessel from the port of Portugal in 1718, and remained inside her cabin throughout the trip, forgotten by the crew. As the boat entered Philippine territory, the waters turned rough in every direction. Only when they faced westward of the archipelago, towards the island of Samar, did their sailing become smooth.
Upon docking on the shores of Guintaguican—modern-day Punta Maria—the captain found that their mysterious passenger had disappeared. All she had left behind was her cargo, a beautiful image of Our Lady of the Nativity: a veiled Saint Anne seated and holding Mary as a child in her arms, a divergence from the Madonna and Child.
On September 7 of each year, the city re-enacts this inexplicable pilgrimage: The Padul-Ong begins at two in the morning at the small chapel in Punta Maria, an hour away from the city proper. The roosters are still asleep, and only the nearby residents can be heard praying in rhythmic veneration. Under strings of banderitas, the figure of the Blessed Virgin of the Nativity patiently sits outside on a bed of flowers atop a mobile platform.
Mythmaking is a collective act. Without any written accounts, stories can only be traced by what was passed down through generations.
A novena is held, then a mass. Afterwards, the Blessed Virgin and her caravan move in a slow procession to the nearby port—singing in unison with lit candles, incense burning from the thurible, and the solemn boom of rockets that leave plumes of smoke in the daylight.
Borongan is taken from the word ‘borong’, or ‘fog’ in the local language. At dawn, tendrils of fog still loomed from the surrounding mangroves, crawling over the still water—as if reaching for the statue of Mary as it boarded the waiting banca. She would be ferried to the mother ship, and with her at the helm, lead the flotilla to the city.
Their belief in their patroness has taken a life of its own. Apart from a reenactment, the Padul-Ong is a thanksgiving to Mary for safeguarding the city and blessing its people.
On our own boat, a woman and her grandchild sit across from me, each carrying a rose. They explain that the flower was from the platform of the Blessed Virgin, conceivably blessed with her healing powers. Armando “Mando” Arago, the 71-year-old banca owner, nods sagely, like this is known. The grandmother had planned to bring the rose home, the way we do with palaspas on Palm Sunday, but offered for me to take it.
I decline, instead asking for the story behind the healing powers of Our Lady of the Nativity. The elderly folk of Borongan speak of a Lady in White who would bathe in the Hamorawon Spring, back when it was still a natural water source instead of the grotto that it is today. She was said to disappear when passersby caught sight of her but left behind a scent of ylang-ylang (despite there being no such trees in the vicinity), and wet footprints that led to the cathedral next door.
They say that when they followed the trail, they found that the clothes of the child Mary were soaked. Word spread that if you bathed in the Hamorawon Spring after the Lady in White made an appearance, you would be cured: The lame would walk, a child with an incurable sickness would recover, you could even find the love of your life in Borongan.
Apoy Mando believes in this story—raised by his grandparents who had made the same healing claims, he had grown up swimming in the Hamorawon Spring that sat just across their home. At this, he pauses to clear his throat. “Sorry, ganito talaga ang mga matatanda,” he laughs, wiping his tears. “Ang feeling ko, gusto ko umiyak sa kaligayahan. Alam mo, na-stroke ako, pero nararamdaman ko na mapapagaling ako dahil kay Mama Mary. Kahapon, pagdating ko, dumaloy ako sa kanya sa simbahan. Laking pasalamat ako na buhay pa ako. A year ago, hindi ako makalakad. Buti ngayon, kaya na.”
Part of what makes the Padul-Ong so meaningful to him is how the festival has become a reason to return home from Bulacan, where he works, to his two brothers and three sisters. Even his son, a seaman in Dubai, takes part in the homecoming each year.
For the fiesta, his doors are open even to strangers: “Dito, iba ang tradisyon. Aayain kita sa bahay, ganun yung ugali ng mga Boronganon. Walang magtatanong kung saan galing ka. Basta bisita, you are welcome.”
This sense of community is seen over the flotilla itself: While there had been a banca assigned to the media—including our photographer Jeric and I—it had gotten stuck on a rock bed because of the low tide. Apoy Mando’s boat had returned to the port to adopt our party. As we went farther into the Pacific, more had caught up with the formation: fishing boats, dinghies, all kinds of bancas. All decorated in colorful buntings and balloons, carrying all sorts of passengers: fishermen, foreign and Filipino tourists, religious women, families, solo riders, teenagers precariously perched on the outriggers. The fleet thrummed with belonging—like we were a part of something old and grand, crossing open waters the way humanity has done for centuries in search of the promised land.
After the hour-long journey, we reached our destination: Borongan port at Rawis. As the banca docked, Apoy Mando grasps my hand between his with a smile, and asks if I would come by his home so he could introduce me to his nephew.
While I would have wanted a Borongan miracle of my own, there was still the parade to come. Theirs was a procession by land and sea: from Rawis, the image of Our Lady of the Nativity would be paraded throughout the city by the Santa Fe National High School and the Eastern Samar National Comprehensive High School (ESNCHS)—students in costumes of flowers, crabs, turtles, and shells led by the Reyna Elena carrying the statue of Mary. The streets were shut down to make way for their dancing. While people kept to the sidewalks in anticipation for the parade to pass through, the cadence of the drums and the chanting of “Viva Nuestra Señora de la Natividad!” were enough to approximate how far the kilometer-long parade was from every street corner.
The fleet thrummed with belonging—like we were a part of something old and grand, crossing open waters the way humanity has done for centuries.
The parade culminated with a dance performance at the plaza. This is typically followed by families celebrating the fiesta in their homes, indulging in the hours-long worth of food preparations, but with an open-door policy distinctive to Borongan—inviting strangers to join them for a meal or two. Because of the pandemic, going house-to-house was moderated to extended family and friends. Still, it hadn’t stopped Jeric from being made godfather in a spur of the moment by a surfer he had met during an en masse binyagan at the Borongan Cathedral. (Funnily enough, this was the third time he had been made ninong in a surf town.)
The Padul-Ong has evolved from how it was first conceived by Neil Pinarok, now the Eastern Samar Provincial Tourism Officer, and his friends Edsel Candido and Ramon Gonzales. In 1992, Neil had just finished his bachelor’s degree and was involved in the culture and arts of Tacloban City, where he had been one of the early organizers of the Pintados Festival. While poring over manuscripts and reading materials for the festival, Neil had found that stories about the Pintados had not originated from Leyte, but from Samar.
He dug deeper into their local legends and oral history: about the shipwrecks, myths, folk practices, and traditional medicines of the Ibabao, the Eastern part of Samar. Corroborating with the parish priests and religious sisters, as well as his grandmothers and elderly townsfolk, Neil had pieced together the story of the Our Lady of the Nativity and felt compelled to share it with the rest of the city. As a high school teacher at ESNCHS, he presented the idea of a festival to the municipal council and the cultural chief. By 1993, the city had embraced the festival with its first Padul-Ong.
The Padul-Ong begins at two in the morning, while the roosters are still asleep, and only the nearby residents can be heard praying in rhythmic veneration."
Mythmaking is a collective act. Without any written accounts—except by parish priests, who had doubled as historians and authors back then—stories can only be traced by what was passed down through generations. Memory shifts every time it is uttered, filling holes in the story and lapses in reason. Repeated enough over time, it becomes an oral tradition and a story takes shape.
The origin story of the Padul-Ong that Neil maintains rests on his grandmother Apoy Luping from Punta Maria, and his neighbor along Baybay, Apoy Isabel—a tale of two grandmothers that brought together mythology and religion.
Doctors were unheard of in Borongan back then: Instead, they would call folk healers like Apoy Isabel to treat the townspeople’s ailments. To diagnose, she would hold salts or tawas over a fire, and the shapes that formed determined which oration was needed. But then a new method of treatment came in the form of the Hamorawon Spring.
That healing powers had imbued its waters was plausible: The first people of Borongan were nomads who eventually settled and built the pueblo around Hamorawon, a source of freshwater for their growing population. The spring was for drinking, washing, bathing—it was a stone’s throw away that the water would also be healing.
Back when the pastime of the people was attending mass, Apoy Luping had been the curator of the chapel in Punta Maria. Among the churchgoers, she found that many recognized the Lady in White in the Hamorowan Spring as the Our Lady of the Nativity in the Punta Maria chapel, before the image had moved to the Borongan Cathedral to be at the center of the town. But their reverence is directed towards a replica: They say they lost the original image to arson, or that it was stolen from the church because the statue was made out of ivory or because it contained a relic—a strand of hair from the Virgin Mary.
Even if its origins cannot be traced or if only imitations of her image were left, their belief in their patroness has taken a life of its own. More than healing, the image of Our Lady of Nativity is considered miraculous—the statue invokes protection from dangers, epidemics, typhoons, and earthquakes. She is the object of Marian pilgrimages across the country. Apart from a reenactment, the Padul-Ong is a thanksgiving to Mary for safeguarding the city and blessing its people.
‘Binisaya’ is the mother tongue of Eastern Samar. Neil had corrected me when I had called it Waray, a misconception of Imperial Manila. In Binisaya, ‘Waray’ means ‘nothing’ or ‘wala.’
“Ang sasagot ng taga-Eastern Samar ‘pag hindi nila naiintindihan, ‘Waray’. So ‘yun, tinawag kaming Waray ng sinaunang narinig ng salitang Binisaya. Meron bang airport sa inyo? Waray. May kuryente? Waray. 7-Eleven? Waray.”
This absence is no longer appropriate in defining the city—development-wise or culturally. In its design, the Padul-Ong now showcases Borongan as rich in heritage and the arts. Neil aspires for the festival to be on par with the performances and popularity of festivals all over the country. It is renowned in all of Samar Island, and the city regularly frequents the Sinulog of Cebu in their pageantry for Festival Queen and street dancing parades. Still, he sets his sights even higher for the next staging of the Padul-Ong. Neil wants the festival to be even more inclusive: Not just for the religious elderly or students, but for every barangay and Boronganon—belonging to everyone.
Padul-Ong is taken from ‘dul-o’: Binisaya for ‘hatid.’ Neil stressed how he had chosen the active participle; that the name carries the delivery of Mary in the present day. The Padul-Ong is far from a monolith that resides in the past: It is a tradition growing, in reach of even more people.
This article appears in a print issue commissioned by the local government of Borongan City.