Photos by: Nikka Sarthou
I had one thing in mind on my travel to Cagayan de Oro (CDO)—white water rafting. I wanted to experience riding through temperamental Cagayan River, where there is a mix of raging rapids, mild ripples, and still waters. The adventure-seeking side of me wanted to tick this off my bucket list. Little did I know that it was not going to take center stage in this particular trip. I was in for a pleasant surprise.
It was my first time to travel alone in this part of the Philippines, and having no particular plan for my first day in CDO, I allowed my relatives to take the liberty of arranging my itinerary for the day. I let them decide where to go, as they were residents there. They say it is best to tour around a new place with a local and thought that this is so true, as they directed our driver to the city of El Salvador, which is around thirty minutes away from the CDO town proper.
El Salvador, which actually translates to “The Savior,” is the site of the 50-foot Divine Mercy Shrine. Aside from the grandeur of this edifice, the miraculous story behind its inception holds its own charm itself.
It all began when the intercessory group of the Divine Mercy Foundation Mindanao (Philippines) Inc. in CDO, was given a message by the Lord to create His church with an image of the Lord, which would stand at the summit of a hill while overlooking the ocean. This is the birth of the Divine Mercy Hills project.
The Lourdes of the Philippines
Churches and other religious sites are on the top of every traveler’s list when visiting a new place. Who would not want to see St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City? Or pass up a chance going to Lourdes in southwestern France? Lourdes is, in fact, one of the most famous places for healing. It has become so well known that it takes in about 5,000 tourists and pilgrims from all over the world, every season.
The Divine Mercy Hills may not have quite reached that reputation yet, but it has the beginnings of becoming a popular place for pilgrimage. People from different parts of the country go there to get a glimpse of the impressive sculpture, attend healing masses, and partake of some healing water. The so-called healing water is sort of a miracle itself. While the shrine was under construction, the developers discovered that there was lack of water supply, but they were able to find a spot where clear water sprouted from 270-feet below the ground with the help of a Divine Mercy devotee. They did not expect this water source to be one of the reasons for people to go on a mission to Divine Mercy Hills.
My visit to the Divine Mercy Hills happened on a normal weekday. The place was practically empty except for some devotees and a couple of local camera-slinging tourists. The sun was shining high as we entered the site. There was hardly any breeze, except for an occasional refreshing gust of wind. Vehicles are supposed to park at the leveled area below the shrine and visitors should start from there, as there is a proper way of getting to the shrine. One has to step out of the parking area and go up a long flight of stairs before reaching the actual shrine. You are supposed to go up with only the clothes on your back—no umbrella to shield you from the scorching sun and no complaints. This “sacrifice” is meant to be part of the journey to Divine Mercy Hills. But those who have physical disabilities and do not have the capability to walk up can let their vehicle pass by the back entrance and take it from there.
Larger than life
There is an area at the base of the shrine, which is reminiscent of European gardens with all its groomed green hedges, potted plants, colorful flowers, and a well-manicured lawn. You will pass by this picturesque place, as you head up the stairs towards the statue. One of my relatives whispered to my ear that all of this would not have been possible without the generous hearts of the individuals who made donations to the foundation. The project became even more achievable with the services of top-notch Architect Felino Palafox Jr., the project developer, and Nicanor “Nick” Reyes, a multi-awarded artist who designed the statue. These people were instrumental in building this holy place of worship.
As I ascended the last flight of stairs, I wondered why the symbolic rays of light emanating from the heart of the statue of Jesus have two different colors—red and white. My relative was glad to share with me the explanation behind it. There is a set of staircase at the foot of each ray of light. One must go up the red side first—as a sinner being its symbolism. Once you get closer to the middle, you may enter the chamber of adoration, which is located in the heart of Jesus. As you walk down the flight of stairs on the other end, you will be then cleansed from your sins. I thought it was actually a nice representation of being reborn.
Quenching my thirst
One should also take a look at the bottom of the shrine where the healing chapel is situated. But the statue is not the only spot worth visiting in Divine Mercy Hills. My relatives directed me to the back of the shrine where we found the source of the healing water. I did not expect that it would come out of an ordinary faucet; I guess I was hoping for a more symbolic representation of the water source. It did not matter, though, because the water was the attraction and not its outlet. After waiting for my turn, I was able to partake some of the water using just my bare hands. I formed a bowl with my two hands that were put together and collected as much water as I can, carefully brought it close to my mouth and slowly took a sip of the cool, clear liquid. I did not come prepared like the others who brought with them water bottles of all sizes. Unlike me, they knew that this site exists. Now I’m in on the secret. But before drinking the water, I quietly said the prayer posted on the billboard near the water source.
Prayer before drinking the water
Heavenly Father, source of all goodness and mercy, I thank you for the gift of this healing water. May this water wash away all the infirmities of my mind and body, heal every source of diseases and sickness, and cleanse every seed of evil which may have rooted in my life.
May this water nourish my parched faith, quench my thirst for words of everlasting life, and restore in me a new life.
This I ask through Jesus Christ your Son, our King of Mercy. Amen.
A charming city
There could not have been a better welcome for my first travel to CDO than a visit to the inspiring Divine Mercy Hills. It truly was a pleasant surprise—a good start-off point for my trip, as everything else went well after that.
I was able to experience rafting in the Kagay River and tick off an item from my bucket list, go to the lively night market in DVsoria, eat plenty of fresh seafoods, visit the Dahilayan Adventure Park in the nearby town of Bukidnon where one can find the longest zip-line in Asia, sample some sinfully rich and delicious yema-filled buns called pastel, consume a couple of kilos of sweet-tasting lanzones, and just observe the wonderful sights and sounds of Cagayan de Oro.
Apparently, CDO is not just a place to seek some white water rafting adventure; it is also an excellent place to satisfy one’s spiritual side. Whoever thought that the Divine Mercy Hills site could exist in this southern part of the country, where a lot of people belong to different religious denominations?
The Divine Mercy shrine is truly a sight to behold, one you should not miss when you visit the so-called City of Golden Friendship.
At a glance
Divine Mercy Hills
El Salvador City, Misamis Oriental
Distance – 793 kilometers from Manila
Travel time – One hour and 30 minutes plane ride
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