By RHAYDZ B. BARCIA, The Manila Times Reporter
DARAGA, Albay - For three centuries the belfry of the church in Cagsawa has been the mute witness to Mount Mayon’s deadliest eruption.
On February 1, 1814, the volcano blew, covering the countryside around it with ash and lahar. An estimated 15,000 people died, including 1,200 who sought shelter inside Cagsawa Church.
Subsequent eruptions further covered the church until only the bell tower remained aboveground.
The belfry has become one of Albay’s most famous landmarks and is one of its most popular tourist attractions.
Recently, however, there were concerns that the structure was weakening and could eventually collapse.
Pita Pacres, municipal tourism officer and Cagsawa Ruins administrator, told The Manila Times that since last year stones from the belfry had been chipping off.
"The structure itself is still durable, but there might come a time when the belfry will fall if not given attention," Pacres said.
The problem is that her office doesn’t have the funds or the expertise to save the belfry.
She said work on the belfry requires experts like Javier Galvan, director of Instituto de Cervantes, to check what kind of materials is needed, as well as financial aid from the Department of Tourism, the Philippine Tourism Authority and local government units.
"We will ask funds from concerned agencies. Our office and the Daraga Cultural and Historical Commission, led by Mediatrix Villanueva, are working together to help us preserve the belfry.
"We hope that by next year we can come up with a budget to carry out its renovation," Pacres said.
Mayor Gerry Jaucian said that next fiscal year his office will allocate at least P200,000 to preserve the belfry.
Maria Nini Ong Ravanilla, DOT regional director in Bicol, said Cagsawa Park is one of the best tourist spots in Albay, bringing in almost P2 million in revenues annually.
Local traders selling novelties, handicraft products and souvenirs report that business is booming, especially during recent weeks, when Mayon began to act up.
Store owners ring up sales of P10,000 to P15,000 a day during summer, the peak season.
The eruption that buried Cagsawa Church was the fifth and the strongest, based on accounts of recorded previous eruptions since 1616.
Besides Cagsawa, a neighboring town, Budiao, was laid waste by Mayon’s fury. Only the walls of Budiao’s church remain today. Three other towns—Camalig, Guinobatan, Ligao—also suffered death and destruction.
As the story goes, the parish priest of Budiao was the lone survivor of the catastrophic eruption. He saved himself through a bent coconut tree.
Cagsawa Church was buried gradually by volcanic deposits from subsequent eruptions. Sand, gravel and boulders were washed down the slopes by rain, and got lodged along the banks of the river near the church.