Plan to celebrate 500th anniversary of first Catholic Mass stirs debate

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first catholic mass
The panoramic view of a portion of Limasawa, the smallest town in Southern Leyte province. It is  touted to be the site of the first Catholic mass in Asia, officiated on Easter Sunday on March 31, 1521 by Father Pedro de Valderrama under the fleet of Ferdinand Magellan. (Photo from FB page of Discover Limasawa Island)

As the 500th anniversary of the first Catholic Mass in the Philippines approaches, a dispute over where exactly it was held rumbles on.

Southern Leyte Governor Damian Mercado said the province has been preparing Limasawa Island for an influx of pilgrims to mark the event in 2021. The island’s road network has been upgraded, a new port was also built and the First Mass Shrine complex has been updated.

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Gov. Mercado believes these improvements will help bolster the claim that the first mass was held on the island town and not in Butuan.

“Of course, I will say that the mass happened in Limasawa not because I am from Southern Leyte but because records and evidences presented by historians support this claim,” he said during the 498th First Mass commemoration last Sunday (March 31).

University of the Philippines and Leyte-based historian Rolando Borrinaga said he would deliver his latest research with the National Historical Commission of the Philippines on April 25-27 in Limasawa and Maasin City.

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Before this presentation, in 1996, it reaffirmed the popular belief pushed by Republic Act 2733 signed in 1960 that the first Holy Mass was celebrated in Limasawa Island on March 31, 1521, by Father Pedro de Valderrama under the fleet of Ferdinand Magellan.

“There were also two commissions that had decided on this and both said that Limasawa was the site of the First Eastern Mass,” said Karina Rosa Tiopes, Department of Tourism Eastern Visayas Regional Director.

“But as far as the promotion is concerned, this had not affected the tourism much. For many people, this is really where the first mass took place and that is why they come to Limasawa.” 

Nearly 50 years after the passage of Republic Act 2733 declaring Limasawa as the place of the first mass, last year, a group signed a declaration urging the continuation of the debate on the exact site of the first mass — Limasawa in Southern Leyte and Masao in Butuan.

“I hope that this controversy will be settled so that the people of Limasawa and the people of Butuan will finally have peace of mind and will no longer be squabbling over this issue,” Ms Tiopes added.

Aside from being a pilgrimage site due to the first Catholic mass, Limasawa is also famous as a diving location.

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