The Feast of the Ascencion at Villa Escudero

One of the lasting memories of the summer now ending is May 16 at Villa Escudero (just past San Pablo City), the Feast of the Ascension. The traditional celebration of the Escudero family must have been like how it has always been, only better.

The morning began with a parade of gigantes (12+foot high figures with papier mâché heads) to the Chapel, along a shady lane festive with bamboo arches and coconut palms, cut and shaped Balinese style into chains and balls.

Misa Cantada was celebrated with priests and sacristans all in heavily embroidered blue and white vestments. Incense filled the air as Latin Mass was sung with the UST Symphony Orchestra and Choir. Fireworks signaled the end of Holy Mass.

The image of the Risen Christ (Jesus Resuscitado) was brought to a riverside landing, reverently placed on a barge that then headed upstream in a fluvial procession.

Mass-goers proceeded to the Pag-Ibig Pavilion, a breezy hall designed for wedding receptions. Soon enough, the barge landed and the image of Christ arrived, accompanied by sacristans bearing heavy silver ceriales. Two young ladies danced a quaint welcome ritual.

After-lunch entertainment was provided by the famous Dulce and Banda Anak Zapote of Bacoor, Cavite. The afternoon ended with the return of the image of the Risen Christ to the Escudero ancestral house.

Once a very private 2,000-hectare coconut plantation (guarded by machine gun emplacements when I first visited 40 years ago), the Villa now entertains tourists.

A visit usually begins with a slow ride on a large carabao-pulled cart. The rest of the day is for swimming at spring-fed pools, boating on a picturesque lake, lunch at the foot of a waterfall with feet in cold rushing water, folk songs and dances by the Villa’s young people, and more.

At least three generations of Escuderos have been great collectors. Their treasures are in a museum building that provides a full liberal education. The building itself is a museum piece, its pink façade reproducing Intramuros’ vanished San Francisco church (destroyed by World War II). The interior is also laid out like a church, with a nave and a choir loft and balconies on both sides. There is an altar at the far end, composed of parts from Quiapo church and elsewhere and adorned with silver objects, frontal and candlesticks included.

Decorated and lit carrrozas line the “nave,” as if ready to emerge in procession. Spectacular is the Santo Entierro that once highlighted Manila’s Santa Cruz district Good Friday processions.

Exhibits of Philippine cultural communities, flora and fauna (from a stuffed tamaraw to trays of colorful butterflies), and religious vestments are behind the magnificent relieves and santos by the carrozas.

Upstairs are fascinating cases of pre-Hispanic ceramics, pottery, and gold objects excavated from the Escudero property; costumes of First Ladies; period rooms; an array of Spanish regime salakot; and miscellany including archival documents, Greek amphorae, and South American mummified heads.

Through the Escuderos’ vision and hard work, a working plantation has been transformed into a memorable destination.