The veneration of the Blessed Virgin Mary as Divine Shepherdess (Divina Pastora) traces it its origin to Spain, when a Capuchin priest named Padre Isidro had a vision in 1703 of the Virgin Mary as a young woman with a crook or staff in her hand and on her head a large pastoral straw hat falling over her shoulders. Happening after his contemplation on the Lord Jesus as the Good Shepherd, the vision reinforced the priest’s belief in Mary’s tender love and gentle care for the flock of God, to whom she was sent as a mother and guide. Mary’s right hand rested on the head of a trusting lamb that symbolized the follower of Christ who was also Mary’s special charge.

The vision, once visually portrayed through paintings and later on through statues, quickly earned the admiration and affection of the people who made space in their churches for the Divina Pastora. A devotion grew and developed vigorously in Spain and in countries evangelized by the missionaries. Staunch devotees of the Divina Pastoraare now spread all over the Spanish-speaking world.

In the Philippines, this devotion to the Divina Pastora is concentrated today in just a few places but the nexus of fervor is in the historic church of one of the earliest Philippine parishes and towns (est. 1595) formerly known as Ibon but now famous as Gapan City in the province of Nueva Ecija in Central Luzon. In this prosperous city, stands the church sanctuary that houses both the revered images of the Divina Pastora and the Three Kings, co-patrons of the parish.

To those who seek the maternal blessings and the fruitful intercession of Mary, the shepherdess of the flock, the shrine in Gapan City is a locus of encounter with Jesus through Mary. All over the Central Plains of Luzon, people with physical, emotional, financial and spiritual cares draw close to the comforting presence of the Mother of God who shares with her Divine Son a special solicitude for the needs of all the members of the Christian flock.


The original image of the Divina Pastora cherished by the people of Gapan, of all Novo Ecijanos, and devotees from elsewhere is a one and half meter wooden image whose provenance is depicted in two versions. The first of these recalls the arrival of an Augustinian friar bearing the image and entrusting it to the town’s parish church. The image was at times missing or had been lost from the church,  but soon re-emerged among a callos tree abundant in the area.

Another version, supported by recollections of present-day heirs of the Valmonte family, tells of their clan’s special connection with the Blessed Virgin. A certain Juana dela Cruz Valmonte had a perplexing dream of the Virgin Mary and upon counsel of her father, she approached an Augustinian friar in Intramuros for its interpretation. The priest readily surmised that the Blessed Mother wanted the woman to obtain an image of the Divina Pastora from Spain. Another version narrates that the priest, impressed by Juana’s faith, himself gifted her with a wooden image of the Divina Pastora.

The image occupied a privileged place in the Valmonte family’s domestic altar, where they experienced the powerful protection and efficacious intercession of the Blessed Virgin. The people of Nueva Ecija were agrarian folks. The Valmontes beseeched Our Lady for bountiful harvests, and they witnessed their intentions fulfilled. They came to Her for many other petitions, and the Divine Pastora never failed to manifest Her miraculous touch.

It was then that the family celebrated the beneficence of the Divina Pastora with a yearly fiesta in her honor on the 1st of May, the last day of the harvest season, happily coinciding with the start of the Marian month and later, the feast of the St. Joseph the Worker. Family, friends, neighbors and devotees from near and far flocked to Gapan to join in the festivities. Having heard of the marvels of God through the Divina Pastora, people came in droves in an outpouring of affection and tenderness to their shepherdess and mother.

Thus, the family thanksgiving feast gave way to a church and town fiesta where the diminutive image of the Virgin assumed a central role in the merriment and pious expressions. From the family altar, the image was carried in procession through the streets of the town and enshrined temporarily in the main church for the sacraments and devotional prayers. The Augustinian clerics embraced the growing religiosity that evolved around the image, her miracles and her influence on the increasing number of devotees. The town officials exulted in the opportunity to offer people the chance to revel in their newfound spirit of faith, solidarity and communion.

Many years later, the original image owned by the Valmontes has been officially donated to the church. From the family altar, the Virgin Mary descended into the streets of the town inviting her flock to herself and to her Son, and made her way into an exalted and secure niche within the hallowed space of the local parish church and in the hearts of the people of farming and fishing villages of the whole of the central plains. As people flocked to the place of Mary’s famed miracles, the pilgrimages enlisted the quiet town among the faith’s most desired destinations.


The unique Filipino piety growing around the Marian image of the Divina Pastora soon became ready for international recognition and acclaim. In 1964, the Holy Father Pope Paul VI bestowed on the image his pontifical approval by mandating the canonical coronation of the Divina Pastora. This happened on April 26 of that year. The worldwide church gazed admiringly and lovingly on the Divina Pastora of Gapan.

As Bishop Mariano Gaviola put the crown on the head of the Virgin (two images, one church-owned and the privately-owned of the Valmontes both honored), the people’s exuberance and reverence contributed to the solemnity of the occasion. The simple dream of Juana Valmonte became the realization of the people’s religious aspirations and sentiments. The plain prayers of petition and praise at the foot of a family altar metamorphosed into the solemn proclamation of the Divina Pastora’s extended Patronage to the entire Diocese of Cabanatuan and to the whole province of Nueva Ecija.

The Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines, in 1986, elevated the simple sanctuary of the Divina Pastora and the Three Kings in Gapan City into a National Shrine of Mary, through a moving ceremony presided over by the great Filipino Cardinal of Cebu, Ricardo Vidal. This affirmed further the effects of the Divina Pastora devotion, that the doors of the church in Gapan are flung open to the entire Filipino nation.

From there, the Divina Pastora truly lives among her children. She walks in the midst of the Lord’s pastureland, guiding the flock to green meadows. As shepherdess she knows each of the sheep by name, and the lambs run to her for solace and peace. The sheep know Mary’s voice, in the same way that they recognize the voice of the Good Shepherd, Jesus the center of all hearts. The sheep listen to Mary and follow her, as she says to them in turn: “Do whatever He tells you!” (Jn 2:5).