Very few Cebuanos remember that the patron saint of their capital, Cebu City, is not the wildly worshipped Santo Nino but the obscure Catholic martyr, San Vidal. As you probably know, in 1521, Ferdinand Magellan gave the queen of Cebu a statue of the Santo Nino because she took a fancy to the image. She loved its royal robes, the crown and scepter and golden boots. Magellan was only too happy to give it to her; it probably lured the natives to have water poured on their heads and become baptized Christians.
After the unfortunate Battle of Mactan, the survivors of Magellan’s fleet sailed away to safety and nothing more was heard of the Holy Infant of Prague until the Adelantado Miguel Lopez de Legazpi, former mayor of Mexico, came to our shores,50 years later. He ordered a search for the Santo Nino which was found (an apparition!) on 28 April, the feast day of San Vidal.
All throughout the Spanish colonial period and to this day, the official patron of Cebu City, San Vidal, the martyr of Ravena with a mournful countenance, has consistently been overshadowed by the adorable Infant with golden tresses and a playful smile. From the center retablo, San Vidal was transferred to a side altar on the Gospel side, then shuttled to the Epistle side only to end up as a doorman of the church, then exiled to a grotto in the patio. . He was briefly rescued from anonymity by the late Cardinal Vidal, for obvious reasons. If the Santo Nino had not been found on his feast day, no one would be praying to San Vidal.
During those early years of conquest when Cross and the sword — the Church and State — were one and indivisible, the power of the government and the authority of religion reinforced each other. San Vidal, a second-century martyr chosen to be the patron of Ciudad de Cebu, was the representative of the Kingdom of Castille, even if the had died thousands of years before, he was the bearer of the Pendon de Castilla ( the Standard or Banner of Castille) which symbolized the Spanish Empire. That political role was not shared by any other deity, not even the Santo Nino. As a result, the popularity of San Vidal was closely linked to the vicissitudes of both the cabildo and the parish. Whenever the political administrative unit was diminished, San Vidal’s importance ebbed, But every time the diocese and the cathedral gained eminence, so did San Vidal. When the port of Cebu was opened to international trade in 1840, San Vidal basked in the prosperity of the city. In fact, San Vidal as representative of the municipality became one of the three wealthiest property owners in Cebu city together with the Augustinian order who possessed real estate in the name of the Santo Nino and the Diocese of Cebu which held enormous corporate assets for the Holy Souls in Purgatory. Imagine, San Vidal was the owner of at least 20 percent of inner-city real estate properties, so there were ample funds for pompous celebrations on the day of his martyrdom.
However, towards the end of the 19th century, San Vidal’s good name was ruined for he became known as a greedy and oppressive landlord. How did that happen? In 1878, Antonio Martinez, the politico-military governor of Cebu, raised the rent of San Vidal’s properties to such astronomical proportions that even the richest tenant complained. Don Gavino del Rosario, wealthy and influential, took the governor to court for unreasonably raising the canon (rent). As expected, the governor was acquitted and Don Gavino was sent to jail where he would have languished , if not for his diplomatic status as vice-consul of Portugal and Venezuela.
San Vidal was not the only landlord saint, there were many behind whose robes the colonial government would hide until the end of Spanish rule.
(Read more about this fascinating subject in Dr. Michael Cullinane’s, “In the Shadow of the Santo Nino, San Vidal’s Sojourn in Cebu city, 1565-2018” Philippines Studies, Sept-Dec 2019.)