IN A remote sitio of Barangay Toong in Cebu City, the deep sound of a conch being blown from the steps of the San Roque Chapel alerts the community of the arrival of a priest.
Mobile phones don’t work in Sitio Buacao, which is nestled in the hills of Toong. There is no signal in this part of Cebu City.
The conch, or budyong as it is locally known, becomes the hailing instrument of the community. It is a natural wind instrument.
The wind carries the sound of the conch, allowing those living within the chapel’s radius of one kilometer to hear it, says chapel leader Francisca Ubanan, 61.
Ubanan, being the chapel leader, is the primary conch blower. She has been blowing the conch for a long time. “Dugay na kaayo” is how she describes her tenure.
As a child, Ubanan says, she would hear the conch being blown by Gabina Econas, now 83, to signal that their catechism class was about to begin.
Neither Ubanan nor Econas remembers how the conch came to Sitio Buacao and how it came to be an instrument of their faith.
When Fr. Mhar Balili first said mass at the small San Roque Chapel on Nov. 12, 2019, he was surprised to see Ubanan blowing the conch to herald his arrival.
He learned from Ubanan that this is how everybody in Sitio Buacao is informed that there is going to be a mass in their chapel.
The San Roque Chapel is one of the 41 chapels under the pastoral jurisdiction of the Mary Help of Christians Parish, located in the adjacent barangay of Buhisan and of which Fr. Balili is the parish priest, and the only priest at that.
Every mass said at the San Roque Chapel in Sitio Buacao is special, because it happens infrequently. For a long time, mass was said only once a year and only during the fiesta.
Sitio Buacao is not easily accessible. Vehicles can only go as far as the area called Palakaan.
Unless one is familiar with the place, the narrow path to Sitio Buacao can easily be missed from the vantage point of the barangay road.
One reaches the reclusive place by foot; he has to traverse rolling narrow dirt paths and cross two brooks.
The trek takes 20 minutes or less, depending on how muddy and slippery the path is on a given day.
Only a fit priest would have the endurance to withstand the rigors of the path going there.
Three months into his assignment as parish priest of Mary Help of Christians, Fr. Balili has appointed regular masses in all chapels under his pastoral jurisdiction. Depending on the accessibility of the chapel, the mass can be monthly or weekly.
In the case of San Roque Chapel, it’s monthly. It takes Fr. Balili 15 to 20 minutes to drive his 4WD Jimny to Palakaan from the parish and then another 15 to 20 minutes to trek to Buacao.
He has invested in a pair of trail shoes whose soles have better traction than those of rubber shoes.
A biker, the 42-year-old priest is thankful that his fitness allows him to visit his flock in far-flung areas. At times he is accompanied by Andre, a relative, who helps him lug his portable speaker and bag containing items needed for the mass.
In a special mass he said at San Roque Chapel on Nov. 25, 2019, Fr. Balili said in his homily that the conch has become a community treasure (“nahimong usa ka bahandi”) and a source of their unity (“tinubdan sa inyong panaghiusa) as believers of the Catholic faith. If it were a person, the conch would have many stories to tell about the folk at Sitio Buacao, he said.
Ubanan says the conch has never been blown to signal distress, and it will remain so. It will only be used for chapel activities.
Not anyone can blow the conch. There’s a skill to it that involves tone, technique, intonation and rhythm, Ubanan says.
The Sitio Buacao folk treasure the conch like they do the crucifix and the icons of San Roque and the Virgin Mary found inside the blue and white San Roque Chapel. (S)