Edited by Fr. Manoling Thomas, CSsR
Kept in a bomb-proof vault; the historic icon of the Sto. Niño de Cebu, spent seven months in the safekeeping of the Redemptorists at the close of World War II. This is a little-known page of history which took place when an emergency arose at the close of 1944. The Augustinian friars had to find a safe place for the icon because the basilica located at the Cebu City’s pier area had been heavily bombed. According to an account of the emergency transfer written by Fr. Antonio Dizon, OSA, the icon of Our Lady of Perpetual Help was kept in an underground chamber by the Redemptorists, who were mostly Australian and Irish missionaries.
The icon of the Holy Child was hidden in a vault in the Redemptorist monastery. The vault was placed under the image of the Blessed Virgin Mary. [The metal vault still exists today. It is on display at the left side of the main entrance to the church.]
For Catholics, the symbolism is clear: the child Jesus took shelter in the home of his mother. The Augustinian friars’ account appears in a devotional booklet of the Redemptorists printed in 1984:
Why the Redemptorist Monastery?
Its location at the time was in a countryside setting. The Redemptorist Monastery was standing there alone; amid mango trees and cornfields. It made the place far enough from trouble.
Heavy bombardment had badly damaged other Cebu City churches, including the Sto. Niño or San Agustin Church and convent near the harbor. At one time, a bomb dropped inside the Sto. Niño Church near the main altar, Dizon wrote. The sacred image, which was at the center with no protective glass case, shook but did not fall directly on the ground.
Instead, it was found tilting and hanging with the cape snagged on the electric candles of the altar. The original icon of the Sto. Niño de Cebu, fell from its niche and acquired a “chipped eye and scratched cheek”.
The incident left a visible “scar” on the right upper cheek, which remains one of the signature marks of the Sto. Niño de Cebu for devotees who wonder if this is the original 16th century icon given as a gift by Ferdinand Magellan to Rajah Humabon as a baptismal gift in 1521.
After that, the Augustinian friars took the image from the debris of the church and hastily carried it to the Redemptorist Monastery. This was the first time that the Sto. Nino icon had left its base since its enthronement in 1740. First-hand accounts are sketchy, so a photo of the return of the statue is a precious evidence of the cooperation between the Augustinians and the Redemptorists during this war-time emergency. The archive photo shows the end of the seven-month sanctuary on April 20, 1945; with Fr. Thomas McHugh, CSsR, the Irish rector at the time, turning over the image of the Sto. Niño, with its crown, cape, and pedestal intact to Fr. Leandro Moran, OSA. The photo is kept in the McArthur memorial Museum in Norfolk, Virginia, USA.