The incessant tolling of the bells of the San Guillermo de Aquitana parish church in Dalaguete at noon on June 1, 2002 told residents of the quiet town something was wrong. A few blocks away, Andree Alfred R. Navarrete was helping prepare for a youth camp at the Dalaguete Central School when he heard the bells. He knew why they were tolled.

Earlier that day, Navarrete’s mother, Rosario, told them that the Sacred Heart of Jesus was already without his head. Navarrete said he joined scores of parishioners who rushed to church when the bells were tolled for more than three hours.

CULTURAL TREASURE. The San Guillermo de Aquitania Parish in Dalaguete was designated a National Cultural Treasure and its marker was installed during its recent town fiesta in February. (PHOTO BY ALBERT ONG)
CULTURAL TREASURE. The San Guillermo de Aquitania Parish in Dalaguete was designated a National Cultural Treasure and its marker was installed during its recent town fiesta in February. (PHOTO BY ALBERT ONG)

The Sacred Heart of Jesus wasn’t an antique nor was it made of anything valuable, a fact that made police suspect the burglars were clueless locals. But the discovery of the burglary exposed a bigger loss – the earlier theft of centuries-old life-sized images of Santo Tomas de Villanueva and San Juan de Sahagun from its retablo mayor. It happened a week earlier on May 25, according to a newspaper report. Apart from the two, the church also lost an image of San Vicente Ferrer and the head and hands of San Antonio de Padua.

Navarette said in a video interview from Cornwall in the UK where he now works that what angered parishioners was the fact that the church was burglarized twice.

Five thefts were reported in four parishes in Cebu in May 2002. The Sta. Monica Parish in Pinamungajan lost its Virgin Mary; the San Roque parish in Balamban lost its namesake saint described as having a body made of ivory and reported to have been brought to Cebu from Barcelona by Augustinian friars; Asturias lost several images; and Dalaguete, which was burglarized twice.

The spate of thefts prompted then Cebu Archbishop Ricardo Cardinal Vidal to issue a call for priests to bring their valuable church items to the Archbishop’s Palace for safekeeping. Vidal threatened those who wouldn’t comply with punishment. But when asked to specify the penalties, he said in a Sun.Star Cebu report that he was only joking.

The Sun.Star Cebu report on the thefts of San Guillermo de Aquitana parish church in Dalaguete on its June 3, 2002 issue.
The Sun.Star Cebu report on the thefts of San Guillermo de Aquitana parish church in Dalaguete on its June 3, 2002 issue.

Today, Dalaguete parishioners assert that the Santo Tomas de Villanueva and San Juan de Sahagun auctioned at the Leon Gallery in 2017 and 2018 are the images stolen from their parish.

After this reporter posted photos of the auction images to crowdsource their provenance, Dalaguete parishioners immediately reported that these were the religious statues stolen from their church 22 years ago this month. The parishioners, many of them young lay volunteers, started gathering old photos of the statues to compare with the Leon Gallery catalog images.

LISTING. The listing of the Santo Tomas de Villanueva with Cebu listed as provenance in the Leon Gallery auction. Dalaguete residents claim this was the image stolen from their parish church in  May 2002.
LISTING. The listing of the Santo Tomas de Villanueva with Cebu listed as provenance in the Leon Gallery auction. Dalaguete residents claim this was the image stolen from their parish church in May 2002.

The Santo Tomas de Villanueva was listed for P360,000 during The Asian Cultural Council Auction 2018 on March 3, 2018 and sold for P443,840, according to the Leon Gallery auction site.

“This molave statue of Sto. Tomas de Villanueva must certainly have been one of those that stood in a retablo of a Cebu church. It shows him as an Archbishop with a miter and a crozier, with an accompanying statue of a beggar at his foot pleading for alms,” according to the catalog information.

Leon Gallery listed a “Statue of an Augustinian Saint” for P400,000 during its The Magnificent September Auction 2017 on September 29, 2017. It was sold for P467,200. The catalog said the image “must have originally been part of the retablo of the main altar of a church in Ilocos, Pampanga or Cebu, the provinces administered by the Augustinians during the Spanish Colonial Period.” It said the image came from the collection of “a distinguished lady.”

That statue is the San Juan de Sahagun was stolen from Dalaguete, parishioners claimed.

Navarrete’s older sister, Faith Navarrete Abangan, shared a photo of her wedding that captured the retablo mayor with blurry images of the two saints in their niches. Their aunt Asuncion “Sony” Buenconsejo, who will turn 85 in August, joined in looking for clearer photos. While going through her belongings, a box of images fell on her and she had to be brought to the nearby Julio Cardinal Rosales Memorial Hospital, where she was still confined as of this writing.

The box that fell on Sony, however, contained one of the clearest photos of the two images in the retablo.

COLLAGE. A collage of old photos of the Santo Tomas de Villanueva and San Juan de Sahagun in the Dalaguete retablo and the images in the catalogs of Leon Gallery. (PHOTO PROVIDED BY DALAGUETE LAY VOLUNTEERS.)
COLLAGE. A collage of old photos of the Santo Tomas de Villanueva and San Juan de Sahagun in the Dalaguete retablo and the images in the catalogs of Leon Gallery. (PHOTO PROVIDED BY DALAGUETE LAY VOLUNTEERS.)
REPLICAS. The retablo of the San Guillermo de Aquitana parish church in Dalaguete now contains replicas of the Santo Tomas de Villanueva and San Juan de Sahagun. (PHOTO BY ALBERT ONG)
REPLICAS. The retablo of the San Guillermo de Aquitana parish church in Dalaguete now contains replicas of the Santo Tomas de Villanueva and San Juan de Sahagun. (PHOTO BY ALBERT ONG)

Apart from gathering photos, parishioners asked lay volunteers active in the church during the burglaries to write what they remember of the incidents. The narration will then be notarized into affidavits that will support their claim on the images. They also interviewed retired policeman Lope Belciña, who had a rank of SPO4 and was the chief investigator of Dalaguete during the burglaries. The crime was listed in the police blotter but the record was destroyed by Typhoon Odette.

The Dalaguete Parish Pastoral Council will meet on Sunday, May 5, and officers will go over the narrations for the affidavits. PPC President Evelyn Pimentel Belandres told Rappler in a phone interview that they will recover the two images.

Leon Gallery Director Jaime Ponce de Leon said in an earlier interview that he would help the church and local governments in Cebu locate the items. He said, however, that there has to be proof of the theft because priests selling church items was common in the past and continues to this day.

AUCTION. A photo posted on the Leon Gallery Facebook page shows the Santo Tomas de Villanueva on exhibit for auction. It was listed for P360,000 during The Asian Cultural Council Auction 2018 on March 3, 2018 and sold for P443,840.
AUCTION. A photo posted on the Leon Gallery Facebook page shows the Santo Tomas de Villanueva on exhibit for auction. It was listed for P360,000 during The Asian Cultural Council Auction 2018 on March 3, 2018 and sold for P443,840.

In the May 2002 thefts, suspicions were raised on then parish priest Fr. Maximino Villamor, who denied any involvement. Police and the PPC cleared him of any link, saying it really was a break-in.

“Cebu provincial policemen had to rush to the southern town in response to reports that a group of townsfolk was angrily confronting the parish priest to do something about the losses,” Sun.Star Cebu reported on June 2, 2002.

Cebu Archbishop Jose S. Palma, when asked about the Boljoon panels and the images from Dalaguete, said the Archdiocese will go after them “because it is our duty to do that.”

“It is our responsibility to the people. It is unfortunate that either because of neglect or whatever intentions, these things were, quote-unquote, either lost or stolen, whatever. But now that they are recovered, we’ll do every step and every move and, of course, use our rights. We have the law on our side,” Palma said in an interview.

Fr. Brian Brigoli, chairperson of the Cebu Archdiocesan Commission for the Cultural Heritage of the Church, said the statement they issued about the panels applies to other church items from Cebu – they are considered stolen because their removal was not authorized.

Cebu Gov. Gwendolyn Garcia said previously she would recover other heritage items stolen from Cebu. Last April 22, Garcia discussed with Capitol lawyers legal actions to take back the items, including the Dalaguete church images.

Volunteers in the Dalaguete parish said the resurfacing of the two images is timely because they are currently going over the papers of church properties because of a land dispute.

Max Limpag is a journalist, blogger, and developer based in Cebu. He started as a reporter covering Cebu City Hall in 1996. He has written on technology for various print and digital publications since...