First Mass in the Philippines

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The first mass in the Philippines was held on 31 March 1521 on the island of Limasawa, Southern Leyte during the expedition of Ferdinand Magellan. The first baptism in the country was held in the same ceremony, marking the start of centuries of Catholic influence through the Spanish colonial rule.

The Mass

After resting and gathering supplies for two weeks in Homonhon, Magellan and his crew left the island to continue sailing in search of Moluccas. On the morning of 28 March, they saw the island of Limasawa and encountered some natives in canoes whom they befriended and exchanged gifts with. On Sunday 31 March, Easter Day, Magellan and 50 of his men came ashore to Limasawa. He ordered the expedition's chaplain, Fray Pedro de Valderrama, to celebrate Easter Sunday mass. It was only a few days after the blood compact between Magellan and Rajah Kolambu of Leyte; because of this alliance, the rajah allowed Magellan and his men to come ashore to celebrate mass. Rajah Kolambu was also invited to the mass along with Rajah Siagu of Butuan, his brother.

The mass was then attended by the two rajahs, Magellan, and members of the crew, among them Antonio Pigafetta, Gines de Mafra, and Francisco Albo, who would thereafter write accounts of the first mass.

According to Pigafetta's account, Magellan “threw much rose muscat water over those two kings,” largely interpreted as the baptism of the two rajahs. The two rajahs then participated in the mass, kissing the cross in the same way as the members of the expedition did, and receiving communion. After the mass, Magellan asked that a cross be installed at the highest peak, explaining that the cross would defend them from harm. To this the two rajahs agreed, and the cross was set up on two hills on the western side of Limasawa.


The exact location of the first mass has been disputed for decades, primarily between two locations: Limasawa, and Masao, Butuan.

In the seventeenth up to nineteenth centuries, the spot of the first mass was believed to be Masao, Butuan, with even a marker commemorating the event installed there in 1872. The claim was founded on two works: "Labor Evangelica" of Francisco Colin, S.J., published in Madrid in 1663; and "Historia de Mindanao y Jolo" by Francisco Combes, S.J., also published in Madrid, in 1667. While Combes did not mention the first mass at all in his account, Colin claims that it was held in Masao; Combes only notes that the planting of the cross, which was done at the same time as the mass, was done in Masao.

Later historians until the nineteenth century, such as Fray Joaquin Martinez de Zuniga to John Foreman and Wenceslao Retana, would base their works on these accounts and further strengthen the Masao claim.

It was only with the publication of Antonio Pigafetta's account of the expedition in the Ambrosian Codex in 1894 that opinions started to favor the Limasawa claim. Citing evidence such as the maps made by Pigafetta, the geographical description of the island, and the Albo logbook, later historians such as Trinidad Pardo de Tavera; Pablo Pastells, S.J.; and Emma Blair and James Robertson came to support the Limasawa claim.

However, those of the pro-Butuan camp would continue to dispute the Limasawa claim. Independent scholar Vicente C. De Jesus said that these historians do not consider the eyewitness account of Gines de Mafra, one of the voyagers, which bolsters the Butuan claim. He would also claim that some parts of the Ambrosiana Codex, on which the Limasawa claim was founded, was largely mistranslated. Historian Gregorio Zaide, who originally supported the Limasawa claim, also said, “It is high time for contemporary historians and the Philippine government to correct their mistake and accept that the first Christian mass was celebrated in Masao, Butuan, Agusan del Norte and not in Limasawa, Leyte, on Easter Sunday, March 31, 1521.” Other historians such as National Historical Institute Chairman Esteban A. de Ocampo and Far Eastern University Professor Celedonio O. Resurrecion also acknowledged the mistake. This led the National Historical Institute (NHI) to convene a symposium on the issue at the National Library in June 1997. However, the NHI ruled in favor of the Limasawa claim one year later. To this day, Butuan still separately commemorates the anniversary of the first mass.


Numerous Filipino artists have used the first mass as the subject of their works. One of the most famous works was a painting by National Artist Carlos “Botong” Francisco, entitled First Mass at Limasawa. The piece was painted in 1965 and is currently on display at the National Museum. Another painting depicting the first mass is attributed to Cebuano painter Martino Abellana, one of Francisco's contemporaries. National Artist Fernando Amorsolo too produced a work based on the first mass, entitled The First Baptism. The oil on canvas piece, sometimes called “The First Mass,” is believed to have been painted between 1955 to 1960 and was commissioned by the Cebu High School. It is now part of the permanent collection of the Ayala Museum.

See also




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