Was the first Catholic mass really held at St. James Church in Bolinao?

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By Anna Valmero

BOLINAO, PANGASINAN—The four centuries-old St. James the Great church is said to have celebrated the first mass in the country -  some 200 years before the Spaniards did so in Leyte, according to history textbooks.

A marker in front of the church states that the Franciscan missionary “Blessed Odorico” from Friuli (now Udine), Italy officiated the first Catholic mass in the Philippines, particularly in Bolinao.

As the “pioneer of missions in spreading the gospel of the Bible to Asia”, Blessed Odorico was said to have visited the Philippines from China in 1324.

In 1324, after landing and taking refuge in Bolinao during stormy weather, Father Odorico celebrated a thanksgiving mass in honor of their safe journey and his mission in Asia. He also indoctrinated and baptized Malay immigrants in Bolinao.

Father Odorico returned home to Italy after 13 years of his mission and died on January 14, 1331. His remains are kept in a tomb at the Church of Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Friuli.

There is also a map cast in bronze summarizing the journey of Father Odorico from Italy to China and then to the Philippines. The marker, including a wooden cross painted in black, was put up based on Father Odorico’s notes by Italian priest Luigi Malamocco, who hails from Odorico’s hometown.

The National Historical Institute, however, still recognizes that the first mass in the country was held in Limasawa in Leyte on March 1521.

In 1594, the Spanish colonial government entrusted Bolinao to the Dominicans, who  left in 1607 due to the vastness of their mission territories so the Augustinians took over the mission and built the church in 1609.

The church tower, then measuring  75 feet, was the tallest in the whole of Pangasinan and the entire Northern Luzon. However, an earthquake in 1788 toppled about half of the tower. The church convent also survived a huge fire in 1819.

Located in the town center, tourists visiting Patar Beach often drop by St. James Church.

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