Sunday, September 2, 2018

Buildings of faith

The black pulpit contrasts
starkly against the all-white
interior of the Theatine Church 
of St. Cajetan in Munich.
My humanities professor would have been thrilled.

Prof. Carmelo Tamayo is the reason images come into my mind when I hear the words Baroque, Rococo, Romanesque and Gothic architecture – which he used a lot when he took us on a tour of churches in the south of Cebu.    

I remembered him  when my family and I had the chance to visit churches in parts of Germany and Austria recently.  Would he have remained articulate in describing and explaining the influences on the architecture and design of the churches in that part of the world, or would he have been rendered silent by their magnificence?

Because I was struck dumb. There are no words. It’s all feeling. The first few minutes inside the church doors are spent trying to take it all in. There’s just so much happening at once and it’s all beautiful.

The towering alter piece called
Fall of the Angels(1782) by Karl Georg Merville
inside St. Michael's Church in Vienna.
The altars are majestic, and not just the main one that you walk into, but even side altars. There is just so much detail – in the floors, columns, walls, ceiling, doors, pews, etc. The amount of painstaking work that must have gone into building these cathedrals and churches when mechanized construction must have been nonexistent is mind-boggling.

I do not know how many churches there are in Europe, but we were able to visit 18 churches and three chapels during our two-week stay in parts of Germany and Austria.

This view of the Old Town of Salzburg reveals as many as
three churches in one area: Kollegienkirche (Collegiate
Church), Franziskanerkirche (Franciscan Church)
and the Salzburg Cathedral.

Most of these visits were unplanned. We simply walked into these churches because they were in the vicinity of tourist spots and within walking distance of each other.

In Germany, there was the St. Nikolaus Church in Muhldorf am Inn; Theatine Church of St. Cajetan and Frauenkirche (Cathedral of Our Dear Lady) in Munich; Shrine of Our Lady of Altotting or the Chapel of Grace, Basilica of St. Ann and Brother Konrad Church in Altotting; and the Parish of Maria Himmelfahrt Partenkirchen in Garmisch- Partenkirchen.

Inside the Hospital Church of the Holy Ghost
in Innsbruck, Austria
We made stops in Austria that included the St. Jakob Parish Church in Burghausen; St. Michael’s Church, Schottenkirche (Scots church) and St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna; Franziskanerkirche (Franciscan Church),  Kollegienkirche (Collegiate Church) and St. Sebastiankirche (St. Sebastian’s Church) in Salzburg; the Evangelical church and the Catholic Church in Hallstatt and Hospital Church of the Holy Ghost and Hofkirche (Court Church) in Innsbruck.

Charming and smaller were St. George’s Chapel located inside the Hohensalzburg Fortress in Salzburg, St. Barbara’s chapel (it was more an image protected by a structure) on the way to the salt mine in Hallstatt and the Maria Heimsuchung chapel on the slopes of Zugspitze.
Taking of photos is not allowed inside the
Gnadenkapelle (Chapel of Grace), seen
here in the middle of the square in Altotting.
Behind it is the Church of St. Magdalena

I ask my 14-year-old daughter who tuned out by the third? fourth? (“see one, see all Mommy”) church which ones stood out to her and she shrugs.  “The small one that had this silver stuff on the walls and was very dark, and where people were praying.” I ask why and she says, “It was the most quiet and holy. And it was small.”

She is referring to the Chapel of Grace that houses the “Black Madonna,” a wood carving of a standing Mother Mary carrying the child Jesus, whose miraculous healing power draws over 1 million pilgrims each year to Altotting.

Votive offerings line every
available space on the chapel's
exterior ceiling and walls.
When I ask my husband the same question, he ruefully confesses that the churches are all one magnificent blur, but reconsiders. “Okay, the one with the hearts.” Like my daughter, he picks the Chapel of Grace.

It is easy to see why he remembers the silver urns containing the hearts of the Bavarian dukes, kings and prince-electors that stand in the wall niches of the chapel, “placed as a princely guard of honour” opposite the image of the Black Madonna.

He explains his choice further. “I like all the votive offerings outside the structure.” Framed drawings and pictures offered in thanksgiving to Our Lady for prayers granted line every space available on the exterior walls, posts and ceiling of the chapel.

Outside St. Stephen's Cathedral
in Vienna
For wow factor alone, I choose St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna. It is massive at  107 meters (351 ft) long, 40 meters (130 ft) wide, and 136 meters (446 ft) tall at its highest point.

The mind struggles to catch up with the eye that wanders from the Giant’s Door dotted with dragons, birds, lions, monks and demons, the two spires above it, the colored roof covered by glazed tiles, the Gothic south tower which soars above the city, etc.

Inside, it is even more beautiful with giant sculptural columns soaring high over the three-aisle church. We could not enter the main section which had been closed off for an event or see the High Altar, which was covered by a gigantic projector screen. Still, there was enough for the eyes to feast on. Among them, the pulpit that spirals around a column and side altars which include the Wiener-Neustädter Altar.

The Wiener-Neustädter Altar inside
St. Stephen's Cathedral
I don’t think I have ever seen a winged altar in the Philippines, none of this magnitude at least. The altar piece has a fixed main shrine, but its wings (think cabinet doors) can be opened and closed, with each side featuring a painting or a sculpture or a relief, in color and gilded with gold.

We did not have enough time to explore the entire church, but I remember thinking that the beauty and splendor of St. Stephen’s Cathedral also makes it the most tourist-infested.

There are very few of us
inside the St. Peter's
Abbey Church in Salzburg.
There were not that many people inside the other churches, and the few we found praying inside also took pictures.  It makes me think that there are more tourists than the faithful in that part of the world.

There is material online that says a number of churches in Europe has been closed down or re-purposed because they are too expensive to maintain. The numbers of the faithful have dwindled over the years, with less and less people going to church.1

I find this a pity because I come from a country where it can be difficult to find a seat in Church if you don’t come early to mass (and not just on Sundays), and where you can always find people inside praying, lighting candles, standing in line to pray before miraculous images and even walking on their knees all the way to the altar while praying the Rosary.

If only these churches were in the Philippines, professors like Mr. Tamayo and the country's dominantly Catholic population (80.3 million or 79.5 percent) would have a blast. 2

1 Europe's church creatively rethinks as numbers plummet (

2 Source: 2015 Census of Population (POPCEN 2015) conducted by the Philippine Statistics Authority

Monday, July 30, 2018

Was ist dat (what is that)?

It is true what they say about travel. It is wonderfully entertaining. You set foot on another land and see amazing places, different ways of doing things as well as different-looking and -sounding people. You also see (and long for) the familiar.

We were in different parts of Germany and Austria in the first half of this year and for two weeks, it seemed like we were in a totally different world.

Our itinerary included churches, castles, museums which meant walking, walking, walking and driving in between. I counted some 20 churches by the time we boarded our flight back to the Philippines, most of which we had not planned on visiting. But turn a corner, and there stands a cathedral or a smaller version of it that you just have to enter.

A lot can be said about the grandeur of Europe and the fascination its well-preserved cultural heritage holds for visitors like me, but I leave
that to the more cultured lot. Instead, let me just count the many, small things that struck this Filipino first-timer in Germany.

Mini trash cans on the table. My sister-in-law, who lives in Germany,  explains to us that the open containers labeled Für den sauberen Tisch (for the clean table) are on hand for us to deposit all the refuse we’ve generated from breakfast (usually butter, jam, yogurt and nutella portion cups, sugar and cream sachets, paper napkins, etc.) provided by the hotel.

Easter eggs. Not really. Just boiled eggs that are colored to distinguish them from the raw eggs displayed on the same supermarket shelf.

Drinking fountains. You can fill your reusable containers with water from drinking fountains in Europe, most of which are labeled only when the water is NOT safe for drinking (Kein Trinkwasser) since they are the exception rather than the rule.

Drinking water fountains 
dot the streets of Vienna.
Tap water in Germany and especially Austria is generally safe for drinking even if many Europeans go for bottled water, particularly sparkling water.

It's ironic because piped water in Germany is considered to be as good as or even better than mineral water.

A drinking water fountain in Hallstatt (left) and another in Altötting (right).

By the way, did I mention that some of the drinking water fountains are really beautiful? 

Pay toilets. What you save in drinking water may go to pay restrooms or WC  (water closet) in Germany.  There are ways to avoid this, of course (the use of this facility is free in most museums), but one usually pays anywhere from 50 to 70 Euro cents to use the WC elsewhere. 

Some restaurants even have personnel manning these facilities. In rest stations along the autobahn, you have to slip coins into a slot to open the barricade. What's nice is that you usually get a voucher for 50 Euro cents, which you can use in the rest station store.

Still, the cost of using toilets can add up because you will be out walking most of the time so make sure you have enough coins handy.

Not your ordinary gutter system.
Euro-gutters.  I first notice these half-round gutter systems on the old buildings in Muhldorf. “What are those pots near the gutter?” I ask my German nephew. 

The “pots” are actually called leader heads or collectors for water runoff from the gutter system before the water flows down the drain spout. Most of them use copper, which is pliable and can withstand extreme weather conditions.  Though found in most historic buildings across Europe, the half-round gutter system is slowly becoming popular in homes even outside Europe and now come in a variety of materials that include steel, zinc and aluminum.

Hausmadonna. This is a sculpture of our Blessed Virgin Mary, with or without the child Jesus, installed on the outside of city houses and buildings in Germany.  According to Wikipedia, some of these sculptures date back to the Middle Ages, while some are still being made today. These are usually found on the level of the second floor or higher, and often on the corner of a house. I find a number of these while walking along the streets of Muhldorf. Of course, the Catholic in me finds this very comforting.

Snow guards.  Okay, so this is strange only to people from tropical countries like the Philippines where it does not snow.  They look like spikes installed in a pattern across the roof with what looks like a mini fence or rail just before the gutter.  These devices are used to retain 
“Vintage” snow guards.
snow and ice formed during winter so that they do not fall in an avalanche and harm people or damage property below. 

This is the same principle behind the rocks placed strategically across the roof of a structure that stands in the village of Hohenschwangau near Fussen in southwest Bavaria. Obviously, these are the "snow guards" before the advent of technology.

Anti-bird net. I first notice the net enveloping the façade of the Neue Rathaus (New Town Hall), a magnificent neo-gothic building from the turn of the century which architecturally dominates the north side of Munich’s Marienplatz  or central square. It is almost invisible. 

The net covering the statues is barely visible.
But once I become aware of it, I see it on almost all of the historic buildings that we tour in Germany. Birds, particularly pigeons and gulls, can cause significant and extensive damage on these buildings not only aesthetically (droppings are unsightly), but also physically. Bird feces are corrosive and can cause long-term damage to masonry and metal that can often be found on such buildings.

Abi signs.  We pass by the St. Irmengard School on our way to the Zugspitze train station in the town of Garmisch-Partenkirchen and we notice that the school’s wire fence is practically covered with what looks like congratulatory signs made out of cloth. My German niece confirms that students usually put up the signs to wish each other well for the Abitur or Abi, which is Germany's qualifying exam for higher education.

Tilt and turn windows.  They look like our awning windows which we open by turning a lever and pushing the window out from the bottom. In Germany, the lever at the side is pulled, tilting the window inward and opening from the top. It then locks into place after opening a few inches, resting at an angle. Both types of windows are good for ventilation, but I think our awning gives us better protection from heavy rain. What’s good about the tilt and turn window, though, is that you can also turn the lever to make the window swing inward, allowing access to both sides of the glass which makes it easier for cleaning when you’re above ground floor level. It’s more expensive, though, which is probably why it is not common in the Philippines. 

Of course, so many more things stood out for me, but I cannot write them all. Germany is a wonderful place to visit and so different from the Philippines. But there comes a time when one just stops trying to document everything to simply enjoy the moment, and capture everything not with the camera but with the heart.

Tuesday, July 3, 2018


1990 column picture
It is done.

Some four months after we buried our mother, I have finished scanning all of her clippings of the “Light Sunday” column that she kept from 1990 to 2017.

I learned many things. One, that my mother would have made a very poor librarian. So many of her clippings lacked dates. I guessed at some of the dates based on the order in which the clipping was glued to the page of a large notebook, one of many which featured the faces of long-gone Tagalog celebrities on its covers.  

She was not much for presentation either. I cringed at how unevenly she cut out the columns and felt a faint sense of vertigo over how they tilted left or right on the pages. And she lacked several. My mother wrote for Sun.Star Daily every Sunday from November 25, 1990 to August 6, 2017. I counted 1,340 Sunday columns in her possession, but figured that she lacked about 41 more.

1998 column picture
Two, she wrote about us. Many times I stumbled on a half-forgotten memory retrieved from the yellowed edges of her clipping. There we were growing up, getting jobs, leaving home, getting married, having children, getting sick…named or unnamed, we peppered her columns for some 27 years.

And she wrote about her concerns, things that were real to her. Most importantly, she spoke with hope and total belief in the Lord even if she highlighted issues and challenges that seem insurmountable.

My young immature self then had wondered if my teacher of a mother, whose strong religious beliefs and love of God always managed to work itself into every piece she wrote – masked or unmasked – would register with a newspaper-reading public (Internet access was not widespread then) that seemed to feed on current and more worldly, trendy and cosmopolitan topics.

This column pic lasted just months in 2004.
I should have known better than to doubt her. I have friends who tell me that their mothers would look for and read my mom’s column every Sunday. We would get positive feedback via mail and in person. 

My mother wrote as she lived. With a love for God and family, and a genuine concern for mankind even if that concern was often shortchanged. Sure, she was also critical and sometimes got burned for her opinions, but this never stopped her from expressing what she felt was right. 

Finally, color in 2007.
As I scan page after page and read through years of her writing, I relive having a wonderful, caring, imperfect, stubborn, strong-willed, God-loving and -fearing mother, and I miss her even more. So do my sisters.

We laugh at the memories her writing evokes, wince at the times we unknowingly caused her pain because we had grown up and away from her, share her frustration over how problems remain unsolved because of lack of leadership or will, and admire her tenacity of faith and unfailing belief in the power of prayer.

She got a new column picture in  2017,
the last year she wrote for Sun.Star Daily.
My sister says it best:  "Most people will say that their mothers are special. But Mommy Really. Was. Special."

I have four sisters, a lifetime of memories and 1,340 pages of mostly undated, unevenly-cut and discolored clippings to back me up.