MANILA — This Lent, the best way to renew faith is to visit trails of new and old Catholic imprints spread out in secluded and non-crowded parts of the country.

Along this category are faith tourism destinations in Northern Mindanao such as the Divine Mercy Shrine in El Salvador, Misamis Oriental; the neo-gothic St. Augustine Metropolitan Cathedral in Cagayan de Oro; the Monastery of the Transfiguration in Malaybalay, Bukidnon where the exact replica of the Our Lady of Montserrat from Catalonia, Spain is housed; and more sites hidden in the less-promoted Misamis Occidental.

St. John the Baptist Church, Jimenez

Commonly referred to as Jimenez Church, this century-old Spanish Catholic church features rustic interiors adorned with painted ceilings that date back to 1800s.

According to Jimenez tourism officer Roel Lueis Abedilas, the baroque structure made up of sand and coral stones is one of the oldest and most well-preserved churches in the Philippines.

It is nestled within the predominantly Catholic town of Jimenez which also boasts of over a hundred centuries-old Spanish houses.

In 2001, it was declared one of the country's National Cultural Treasures.

At the right side of the altar, Jimenez Church displays a first-class bone relic of Saint Faustina Kowalska, patron saint of mercy.

Cotta Fort and Shrine, Ozamis City

Another must-visit site is the Fuerte de la Concepcion y del Triunfu, also known as Cotta Fort and Shrine in Ozamis City.

This fort houses the miraculous image of Our Lady of Triumph of the Cross which is engraved on its wall facing the Panguil Bay.

Immaculate Conception Cathedral, Ozamiz City

A few meters away from Cotta Fort is the Immaculate Conception Cathedral where the recently returned Nuestra Señora dela Immaculada Concepcion y del Triunfo dela Cruz de Mipangi, or the Birhen sa Cotta image, stolen 42 years ago, is kept safe.

One of the tourism officers in Misamis Occidental said it is believed that a sacrilegious antique collector must have stolen the image after it disappeared in December 1975.

It was returned December last year when a Quezon City-based religious icon collector willingly returned the Virgin's statue to the Cathedral after he found it on display, bought, and restored it.

Caluya Shrine (Christ the Redeemer statue), Sapang Dalaga

Among the latest additions to Misamis Occidental as an emerging faith tourism hub is the Caluya Shrine in Sapang Dalaga where a 45-foot statue of Christ the Redeemer stands tall overlooking a magnificent view on Murcielagos Bay, Naputhas Island, Mount Malindang, and Dioyo River.

Department of Tourism (DOT) Region X Director Marie Elaine Unchuan believes their agency must step up the information drive about the beauty and serenity of Misamis Occidental.

“It's on our part to exert effort in putting the products for sale because most of the visitors, they don't know what the place is, people get scared because they don't know where to stay and they don't know what to do," she admitted.

“So really, it's more of an information drive right now to let people know where we are, and what is here in store for everybody."

When we were invited by the DOT to visit Misamis Occidental and participate in the province's 25*50 back-to-back celebrations for the 25th anniversary of Tangub's Festival of Lights and its 50th Charter Day, we were treated to a roadtrip from Ozamis City to Tangub City and Oroquieta City visiting the churches and shrines.

The trip was generally laid-back and without mishap other than the time we got stuck for 5 minutes at the shallow part of Bawbawon Mangrove Park in Plaridel.

When we set out for dinner at a floating restaurant, it was good timing that we travelled at dusk when it was almost pitch-black. 

Aside from having the statue of Christ the Redeemer as backdrop! during the entire boat trip to the float, you get to witness the tranquil water get sliced into neon-blue glow due to bioluminescent phytoplanktons, creating what seemed like clusters of stars--this time not from the sky but at the surface of the lake.

The experience is both ethereal and riveting.

For more information on getting there, where to stay and what to eat in Misamis Occidental, visitors are urged to contact the DOT Region X office at 880-0172 or via email at [email protected] Their main office is at Pelaez Sports Center, Velez St., Cagayan de Oro City. (PNA)