The only time Alberto Odi gets a rest from the mines is during the feast of Our Lady of the Candles, or the Nuestra Senora de la Purificacion y Candelaria, every Feb. 2. The 42-year-old gold miner prepares a dozen eggs to represent every month of the year and a pinch of gold powder that he brings to church as offerings. The gold, which he exchanges for cash at a local trading post before going to church, comes from his share from the previous month's work. "The church won't accept gold," Alberto jokes after receiving about US$20 for his gold. "It might fall into the wrong hands," he added. Alberto works as a miner in Paracale, a town in Camarines Norte province, about 334 kilometers south of the capital Manila.
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"I started going into the mines when I was just a boy," he said. "It's the only job I know." Almost all his life, he has spent up to 12 hours a day inside dark tunnels with little air and the perennial threat of collapse. There are also times when he joins underwater gold mining expeditions in the swampy districts of the town. Using an air compressor as a source of air, Alberto and his friends dig dirt under muddy water. He said the work is hard and dangerous, but he always prays to the Virgin Mary for protection. "My father used to tell us that it is the Virgin who keeps us safe inside the tunnels," said Alberto. The townspeople call their image of the Virgin Mary "Inay Candi" or "Mother Candle." "Candi" is short for "Candelaria." People of Paracale town in the Philippines celebrate the feast of the Nuestra Senora de la Purificacion y Candelaria, or the Our Lady of the Candles, every Feb. 2 by offering gold in thanksgiving for the blessings they receive throughout the year. (Photo by Mark Saludes)
The image enshrined in the town's church is supposed to be an exact likeness of the original Nuestra Senora de la Purificacion y Candelaria at a Marian Shrine in Tenerife, Spain. Legend has it that the original image of the Virgin carrying the Child Jesus in one hand and a candle in the other was discovered on a beach in Chimisay, in Spain in 1392. Unlike the image in Spain, the one in Paracale carries a sword that dangles from the Virgin's right shoulder. The local people say the sword saved the town from pirates in 1809. People said the Virgin descended from the altar and drove the raiders back into to sea. Because the image has one missing finger, the locals say the Virgin lost it while fighting the pirates on Paracale's beach. The people of the town believe that aside from protecting them from calamities, the Virgin also brings good fortune to the residents. In 1626, years after the first Spanish friars arrived in the area, a large gold mine was discovered in Paracale, which means "canal digger." Today, most of the population is dependent on small-scale gold mining for a living. Through the years, the people of Paracale have shown their gratitude to their image of the Virgin Mary by adorning her with a vestment and crown made of gold. The precious dress and crown, which were donated by the people, only make an appearance once a year during the town's fiesta. A day after the celebration, the parish priest deposits them at a local bank for safekeeping while the statue is stored in a vaulted room inside the parish church. Parish priest Rodello Rempillp describes the townspeople's piety as "very unique," adding that it is "not greedy, not selfish, or grasping." "They give what the image needs, to the extent of being lavish and excessive. We saw it when the people created her dress and crown out of pure gold," said the priest. "They give back to her, all the answered petitions, the fortune, the good harvests, the luck, and protection," he added. Meanwhile, the 407-year-old parish church is under renovation. The priest said he needs at least US$200,000 to finish the first phase of the project. Father Rempillo is optimistic the townspeople will be able to raise the money. In just a year, donations have already reached more than half the needed fund. "Generosity is deeply rooted in the culture of this town," said the priest. "At mining sites, miners give visitors tokens of gold ore. You won't go home empty-handed."