Stolen Sto. Niño image from S. Leyte church found after 32 years

Stolen Sto. Niño image from S. Leyte church found after 32 years

The original image of Sto. Niño de Malitbog in the possession of an antique collector from Metro Manila. PHOTO COURTESY OF FRANCIS ONG

By Ryan Christopher J. Sorote

September 19, 2020

Manila, Philippines

A centuries-old statue of the child Jesus stolen from a parish church in Southern Leyte province has been found after more than three decades.

The Sto. Niño will soon find its way home to the Holy Child Church in Malitbog town. Thanks to a devotee and antique collector from Manila who opted to return the image.

Francis Ong said that on Sept. 18 he found an article with photos about the missing statue and had “uncanny semblance” to an image in his collection.

With the help of his friends, Ong was immediately able to get in touch with the Diocese of Maasin, which confirmed that the image under his possession is in fact Malitbog’s lost icon.

“There was no remorse nor regret but pure joy and happiness for not everyone is made a conduit for the recovery of such spiritual and cultural treasures,” he said.

Ong, who works as a marketing professional for a pharmaceutical company, said he acquired the image only in November 2019 because its last owner passed away.

“What a privilege to be able to have in our home for a few months, such a revered and miraculous Niño,” he said.

Malitbog became a parish in April 1850. The Sto. Niño image was enshrined inside the church after its construction in 1857.

Fr. Mark Vincent Salang, the diocese’s chancellor, said local accounts believe that Malitbog Santo Nino was crafted by local artisans in the 1720s “to be a replica of Cebu’s Santo Nino”.

The “crudeness” of the image’s design, according to him, is evident of local craftsmanship.

In 1988, however, the revered statue along with some church artifacts were stolen from the parish.

Fr. Salang said “it is truly providential” that the image will return in time for the Church’s celebration of the 500 years of Christianity in the Philippines.

The diocese has been preparing for the quincentennial celebration of the First Easter Mass that happened on Limasawa Island this coming March 31, 2021.

Fr. Salang said they have also commissioned the creation of Sto. Niño image, which they would enthrone at Limasawa Island to remind the pilgrims of its connection with the image in Cebu.

“Was it the Child Jesus found or was it us finding Him?” the priest said. “It’s coming home to a community that continues to have a burning devotion to the Child Jesus.”

“We will forever be grateful to you for being instrumental in the return of this sacred image of the infant Jesus,” Fr. Salang told Ong.

Ong said he will turn over the image on Sunday to an atelier that was asked by the diocese for the minor restoration works.

He said the plan is to return the statue before the Malitbog fiesta celebration on January 15 next year.

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