Twice, lightning struck San Blas, patron saint of veterinarians. Also invoked to ease choking and to perform healing miracles, the saint’s venerated image in Baclayón, Bohol, was twice stolen and twice returned through the efforts of the same person, handicraft exporter and discriminating collector Antonio “Tony” Martino, who also owns the well-known antique shop Via Ántica on Mabini Street.
The way the business works, antique shop owners have runners who scout for old santos, furniture, odds and ends. Freelance agents also bring in stuff, “walking” them from one dealer or collector to another.
Sometime about 1987, a Pampanga freelancer offered Martino a fairly large image of San Blas and a large crown of gold-plated silver. Penalties for fencing are severe and, like most dealers, Martino is cautious. The agent swore that the objects were legit so he bought both and took them home.
Martino participates in the antique fairs that the Peninsula Manila had been holding every so often since the 1980s and San Blas was a highlight of his booth in the fair held a year later. Enter Regalado “Ricky” José, noted culture scholar and head of the University of Santo Tomas Archives. José has both a photographic memory and an extensive collection of photographs of churches and their contents, most taken by himself. He instantly recognized San Blas as the one missing from Bohol’s Baclayón church. He said as much to Martino, adding that both townspeople and the military were looking for it and that the crown of Baclayón’s Virgin was also missing.
Martino immediately said he would return both objects and arrangements were promptly made. Martino and José brought the objects themselves to Bohol, via PAL. Awaiting them at Tagbilaran airport was a grand welcome by a large crowd of priests and parishioners, with band and tarpaulins.
They proceeded to Tagbilaran church and for the rest of the day were overwhelmed with Boholano hospitality. The next day was turnover day starting with a motorcade to Baclayón where it seemed like the entire town lined the highway, cheering. The church was full and Martino was asked to carry the image to the main altar and climb the stairs of the retablo mayor to return the crown to the town patroness.
San Blas was prominently exhibited in the church museum where about 1999, it disappeared again. Suspected was a notorious gang headed by the Samareño brothers specializing in church robberies but there was no proof and no arrests were made. Anyway, in their rush the thieves made away only with San Blas’ body and left the detachable head and hands behind.
Fast forward to Halloween, Oct. 31 of the following year. After the usual treat-or-tricking in his Villamár Court community in Parañaque, a neighbor invited Martino for a drink. The neighbor was also an antiques enthusiast and proudly showed off his image of San Agustín that Martino immediately recognized as his old friend San Blas disguised with different head and hands. The headless and hand-less San Blas had been brought to Manila, sold as San Agustín to Martino’s neighbor who then upgraded the image with new ivory head and hands.
Martino and José contacted Fr. Ted Torralba, a prominent personality in church heritage and a Boholano. The dumbfounded collector entrusted the kidnapped saint to Fr. Ted, then Baclayón’s parochial vicar who in turn brought it to Msgr. Leopoldo Tumulak, bishop of Tagbilaran. The bishop brought the image back to Baclayón, “amid much joy and shedding of tears,” reminiscences Fr. Ted.
San Blas, complete with his own humbler wooden head and hands, is back to his old home in the retablo on the Gospel side of the Baclayón church altar, presumably with a burglar alarm.
Notes: (a) Fr. Ted Torralba is executive secretary of the CBCP Episcopal Commission for the Cultural Heritage of the Church and member of the National Committee on Monuments and Sites of the National Commission for Culture and the Arts. He is also chair of the Diocese of Tagbilaran Church Heritage Commission. He was parochial vicar of Baclayón in 1997-1999, among whose responsibilities was superintending the cultural properties of Baclayón parish; and (b) The Gospel side is on the viewer’s left facing the altar.
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