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Edgar San Diego’s holy couture

Nuestra Señora de la Candelaria in Tagoloan through the years: A Vision in Pink, 2022; Abby San Diego at Flores de Mayo 2015 and vesture version, 2016; Hand-painted vesture, 2021; Vesture in Indian Saree, 1997.

TAGOLOAN, Misamis Oriental—In this first-class municipality, 19 kilometers east of Cagayan de Oro City, is the Church of Nuestra Señora de la Candelaria. Inside the hundred-year-old structure, at the altar alongside the Crucified Christ, is the Virgin Mary in all her glorious finery.

In the Philippines, devotion to Candelaria is derived from the original Virgin of Candelaria (Our Lady of Candles) enshrined in the Basilica of Candelaria in Canary Islands, Spain. A more ancient local image is venerated in Jaro Cathedral, which Pope John Paul II personally crowned in 1981. During her feast day on February 2, also known as the Feast of Presentation of the Lord, candles are blessed to represent Christ the Light of our lives and of the world.

By mid-January every year the Virgin Mary at the Tagoloan church is dressed in a new garment, in time for the nine-day novena before the town fiesta. Since the mid-1990s, fashion designer Edgar San Diego has created her garments, drawing devotees from far and wide to this place of worship on Fr. Jaime S. Neri S.J. Street, presided by Rev. Fr. Roberto C.Balsamo Jr., SSJV, and assisted by Rev. Fr. Robert Roey M. Pajo.

“I am always inspired by the beauty and holiness of Mama Mary when I create clothes whether for my clients, fashion shows, or vestments for her. The different interpretations religious artists created for her, according to the period in history and cultural background, never fail to amaze me,” San Diego shares.

San Diego and I were wondering if “vestment” was the right term for Mama Mary’s “dresses.” So he asked Dom Martin Hizon-Gomez, OSB, the legendary former designer who closed his Gang Gomez House of Fashion in 1990 to become a Benedictine monk at the Monastery of the Transfiguration in nearby Malaybalay, Bukidnon.

“There are many ways to look at the word ‘vestment.’ In a very general way, it could mean clothing. In which case, you can also use ‘vestment’ or more properly, ‘vesture,’ to describe Mama Mary’s clothing,” Dom Martin explains. “But in the strict sense, vestments mean the specific clothing used during liturgical celebrations, like in the Mass. In this case, they are more correctly called liturgical vestments.”

It was San Diego’s Tita Nice Yap Casiño (his nanay’s sister) and cousins Dorothy Antillon and Bobby Casiño from Tagoloan, who have been facilitating the improvements and decorations for the parish church, who reached out to him to create garments for Mama Mary.

“They were aware that they have a designer-relative based in Manila but were unsure if I would be interested or affordable. In 1995, they tried to ask me. I was more than willing to do it,” San Diego says.

There is a yearly sponsor for Mama Mary’s vestures (including the outfit of the Child Jesus, whom she carries on her left arm) but somehow San Diego would always get carried away and overshoot on the budget.

“Cousin Dorothy determines the yearly sponsors as they take their turns. They grew up in Tagoloan but are now based overseas. It’s their way of giving homage and paying back to their old parish. Bobby takes care of the details. He would usually tell me what color the sponsor would like and he also suggests a few things but they usually leave everything else to me,” San Diego says.

Some of the generous parishioners include Perla Fortich, Janita Eduave, Perla Bainbridge, Mely San Diego, Nona Abejuela, Totie Alfante, Charito Yap, Acero Family, Acion Yap, Pongase Sisters, Anesa Paquiao Family, Meme Vasquez, Claresa Casio, and Gina and Teresita Rohrer.

“I don’t really stop until I achieve what I like, which means I partly sponsor, too, every year. I don’t do the traditional heavy embroidered vestures like the one you see in the Santo Domingo Church because, first, it costs hundreds of thousands and definitely out of our budget, and, second, I want something different every year,” he says, adding that Bobby takes care of the Virgin’s candles and the other accessories like the crown and halo.

Then Bobby and Dorothy came up with the idea of putting up a museum to house the growing number of vestures. The funds for the museum came from cash gifts from friends and relatives for his Tita Nice for her birthday in 2012 (in lieu of material gifts), then she added some amount for the completion of the small building. It opened on December 8, 2013. It is being managed by the Mother Botler Guild led by Mrs. Aloma B. Emano.

My Tagoloanon friend Dwight Go introduced me to the museum curator, Maricel Casiño Sy, and barangay captain Dede Spinosa, who graciously gave me a tour of the museum and the parish. While the earlier creations are in storage, about a dozen extraordinary, intricate and exquisite vestures are on display at the museum.

The centerpiece is the vesture from 2021. “It is hand-painted with angels and flowers. It was created in the middle of the pandemic when I didn’t have any beaders or embroiderers. I just did what I did best, which is painting,” San Diego says. Another amazing piece is the vesture of lantern cape with LED lights installed inside the embroidery cutouts, for 2018.

One of San Diego’s favorites is his first creation. “I just came from a show in Malaysia and I was able to purchase a lot of beautiful Indian materials in Penang. The most beautiful one I got was a gold-embroidered saree with a multicolored background,” he recalls. “I wanted to reserve it for a special client or as a fashion show finale, but then our dear Mama Mary came along. I embellished it with additional gold anahaw appliqués and turnazul beadwork.”

The only time they worked on a theme was in 1998, during the Philippine Centennial year when San Diego used a lot of native materials including banig and wooden beads: “I usually use contemporary materials. With the guidance of Mama Mary, I always find the right one at the right time,” he shares. “I personally ask for help, guidance and inspiration from her in everything I create [in fashion and now in my paintings] and she never fails to supply me with beautiful and original ideas.”

The creation I was most astonished by is the one from 2016. It also has a fascinating back story.

“When my daughter Abby was 16, she was my sagala at the grand Flores de Mayo at the Mall Of Asia. I created a blue terno for her with mosaic embellishments on the skirt, sleeves and the long train. She was crowned Flores de Manila 2015. Then I transferred the mosaic artwork to the new dress of Our Lady of Candelaria, in time for the February fiesta the next year,” says a proud San Diego.

For 2022, the vesture is truly a vision. “This year, the sponsor provided the materials and gave me lace and silk. In pink,” discloses San Diego. “Mama Mary must have sent me a message.”

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