I rarely make visits to my oldtime Angeles dealer, whose residence-cum-shop is tucked in one of the narrow side streets of Friendship Ave., near Clark, but when I do, I never fail to bring home a good buy or two. I’ve known this dealer since my interest in santos began in the 1980s, and he used to have a popular shop right on Friendship Ave.
The shop was always filled with Americans back then, mostly dependents and families of U.S. servicemen who populated Clark and its nearby environs. I would see them browse though his store, enthralled by the richness of his merchandise—from Oriental plates, colonial furniture to local arts and crafts and, of course, santos. He enjoyed brisk business all through the 80s and 90s, until Mt. Pinatubo took all that away.
But I remained in touch with my dealer, now grown more hoary, eccentric and sickly. After all, I was a loyal customer, buying regularly what I could afford. What I could not, he would let me take home anyway, to be paid in several affordable installments.
Four months ago, I met up with him and as always, he opened his doors to me. My visit was really a social call, as I learned that he had been hospitalized again. But he seemed fine enough to ply me with his “new arrivals”, a fresh stock of antiques from Ilocos—all laid out for me to peruse on a table. One look and I knew they were mostly clever reproductions mixed up with a few old santos that were not really up to my liking.
I turned my attention to an old cabinet that contained more stuff—and it was there that I found a santo image, broken in 3 different places. It had no hands, and the feet had been detached from the globe base, which clearly identified the carving as an Immaculate Conception image. The santo was of the manikin type, and it was fortunate that the head was still intact, but loose from the body.
A close inspection showed that the head was outfitted with glass eyes and was carved in great detail—including neck rings. The face was not exceptionally pretty, a bit roundish, the nose a bit big and the lips, pursed and thin. The arms were threatening to disengage from the body, which was in good condition. A portion of a snake coiled itself around the globe base, partially eaten by termites and missing its stand.
When I expressed my interest to buy this damaged santo, I could sense my dealer’s surprise. He wanted PhP 1,000 for it, but I hemmed and hawed, until we agreed on PhP800. I am sure he was happy to get rid of that santo which seemed beyond repair. The santo in all her sorry state, languished in a shoebox for another two weeks or so until I finally brought it to the Apalit shop of santero Nick Lugue. I had an ivory project with Nick, and I thought I’d throw in the broken santo too, for him to work on, no rush. That time, I had made up my mind to transform it into a Virgen Milagrosa, by whose name our town patron, Our Lady of Grace, was also known.
Nick carved hands for the santa, added a stand to the globe base, and repaired the snake. The feet were reglued to the base and in a month, I had a 21 inch, completely repaired and repainted Virgin, standing securely on a gilded orb.
Nick had the wonderful sense to keep the original white paint of the santa’s torso, the only part that was undamaged, to serve as proof that this was an antique piece. But Nick did even better—he restored the santa for free, for which I will always remain grateful.
In early November, I finally had the time to bring the restored santa to the shop of Dr. Raffy Lopez. I've always liked Raffy's candor, and as I was still unsure at that time, I asked if my restored santa was worth transforming at all into a Milagrosa--considering its aesthetic quality. he said that with the appropriate vestments and slight facial retouches, he could bring out the beauty of the santa, which to him had an interesting air.
First, the metalworks—a pair of rays, an open crown and a simple 12 star halo—were commissioned from the workshop of master metalsmith, Dodong Azares. I was familiar with his work as some of the metal accessories used by my processional santos were done by him. It was clear that he is just as adept in creating small-scale metalworks as shown by these detailed pieces.
It took a little over a month for Raffy to finish the project, and when I finally got to his shop to see the completed Milagrosa, I was completely bowled over by the amazing transformation, a total makeover that went beyond my expectation.
Vested and robed, and with features defined (the eyebrows were thickened and arched, nostril dots were painted on, the eyes were lined), my Virgen Milagrosa now stands taller (additional 5 inches courtesy of the halo) and more beautiful than when I first found her.
In her blue and white vestments, she reminds me so much of Pampanga’s own Virgen de los Remedios. Home in time for Christmas, our La Virgen Milagrosa now occupies a special place in our altar, a new object of our veneration, and a beautiful reminder that miracles do happen!