The Malitbog image was believed to be crafted by local artisans in the 1720s to be a replica of Cebu’s Santo Niño. (Photo: Maasin Diocese)
A Catholic antique collector has returned a stolen centuries-old Santo Niño (Child Jesus) image to grateful parishioners in the Philippines.
The statue was returned on Sept. 22 to parishioners of Holy Child Church in the town of Malitbog in Maasin Diocese of southern Leyte in the Visayas region.
Antique collector Francis Ong said he knew about the missing statue through a friend who had called him to read an article about it.
Maasin Diocese said the image was stolen in 1988 together with other religious items.
“I thought it was previously owned by a rich family during the Spanish times. I never expected it was stolen in a parish from the Visayas region,” said Ong in a radio interview.
Santo Niño is the title of the Child Jesus made famous on the island of Cebu when Spanish explorer Ferdinand Magellan gave the image as a gift to the wife of the island’s chieftain, Rajah Humabon.
The image is known for wearing a golden crown on its head and scepter — symbols of royalty that Filipinos attribute to the child as the king of heaven and earth.
The Malitbog image was believed to be crafted by local artisans in the 1720s to be a replica of Cebu’s Santo Niño.
Ong said that after he had received his friend’s call he browsed a publication of stolen antique religious items in Philippine churches.
“I found an article with photos about the missing statue and I realized the statue I had just bought had an uncanny semblance to the missing statue of Holy Child Parish in Visayas,” said Ong in his interview.
Ong said he looked for distinguishing marks to confirm if the image he bought last November and the stolen image were one and the same.
“It’s never easy to identify antiques. One has to have a trained eye to spot the kind or quality of wood of the statue,” Ong told UCA news.
With the help of fellow antique collectors, Ong confirmed that the image he had purchased was the image stolen in Maasin Diocese.
“With my friends’ help I was able to confirm that until today the parish in Leyte still had not found its missing patron, the Santo Nino. So, I sent a picture of my image and it was confirmed by the diocese that I have their missing Santo Niño,” said Ong.
He said he would return the statue to its original home “without a fee” from parishioners or clergymen.
“I will return the image with all my love and devotion to the Child Jesus. There was no remorse or regret but pure joy and happiness, for not everyone is made a conduit for the recovery of such a spiritual and cultural treasure,” Ong added.
Devotees and parishioners of Holy Child Parish are delighted about the return of their patron saint.
“We are very happy and we are now preparing for the return of our Santo Niño after more than 30 years. This is the best thing that has happened to us in this pandemic,” said Bishop Precioso Cantillas of Maasin.
Churchgoer and devotee Gregoria Vintano said the return of the image was an “answered prayer” for many people.
“I still remember when we would pray after Mass since the time the image was stolen. I thought the Santo Niño had left us already. But no. Now he’s back. Maybe he also touched the lives of many when he was gone for more than 30 years. But now he’s home,” Vintano told UCA News.