By Ambeth R. Ocampo | Philippine Daily Inquirer 

Contrary to popular belief, I frequent Ermita for antique shops and Solidaridad Bookstore, not for the sad remainder of a once-bustling red-light district that has since moved to the northern end of Makati Avenue. Manila’s red-light district used to be in an area between Ermita Church and Malate Church, both shrines of venerated images of the Virgin Mary. Not wishing to lose this religious element, the Makati red-light district is concentrated around P. Burgos Street, named in honor of Fr. Jose A. Burgos (the “bur” in “Gomburza”). 

Ermita (the hermitage) has seen better days and is no longer the genteel residential district described by Nick Joaquin and Carmen Guerrero Nakpil. Present-day Ermita is worse than the district in decline described by F. Sionil Jose in his novel “Ermita.” But in spite of the urban blight, the faithful still come to pray at the feet of Nuestra Señora de Guia (Our Lady of Guidance), perhaps the oldest documented Marian image in the Philippines. It predates the arrival of Miguel Lopez de Legazpi in Manila in 1571. 

This simple image made of Philippine hardwood, molave, measures about 50 centimeters in height. Buried under an embroidered skirt and chemise, it has a serene face and wears a wig of human hair. The image is adorned with a crown presented by Pope Paul VI during his Manila visit in 1971 as well as jewels presented by Manila Archbishop Rufino L. Cardinal Santos. Like the venerated image of Nuestra Senõra de Paz y de Buen Viaje (Our Lady of Peace and Good Voyage) in Antipolo, the Virgin of Ermita is also invoked by travellers, especially those who seek visas in the nearby US Embassy.

According to the late-seventeenth-century manuscript Anales Ecclesiasticos de Philipinas, the image was found after the taking of Manila from Rajah Soliman. After a hard and bloody battle, Legazpi entered the beautiful and magnificent city of Manila with its 4,000 beautiful houses on May 19, 1571, the feast day of Santa Potenciana. Manila was then seen as the capital of the powerful and famous island of Luzon. A soldier walking along the shore of Manila Bay (remember, the US Embassy compound was reclaimed from the sea) found the miraculous image of Nuestra Señora de Guia among the center foliage of a pandan tree. According to local lore, the natives built a quaint wooden temple for the image, where it was transferred a little beyond the place where it was originally found. 

Historians trying to establish the origin of this image have come up with a theory that it was brought to the Philippines, together with the Santo Niño de Cebu, by Ferdinand Magellan in 1521 and was given to the rulers of Manila as a present by the rulers of Cebu. However, there is no recorded amity between the pre-Spanish rulers of Cebu and Manila. As a matter of fact, Legazpi took Manila with the help of Visayan warriors. Soliman of Manila is quoted to have said that his people were different from the mercenary Visayans. Therefore, the image cannot be traced back to Magellan. 

Nationalist scholars maintain that the image carved from molave with distinct Oriental rather than Western features was made by pre-Spanish Filipinos (or perhaps a Chinese artisan) who venerated it as an idol, a likha, a diwata, or perhaps an anito. Yet, when the Virgin of Ermita is seen without her finery, she is definitely a Roman Catholic image of the Virgin of the Immaculate Conception. The question is: Where did this image come from? Why was it worshipped in what is now Ermita long before the Spaniards took possession of Manila?