Joseph Pronechen is staff writer with the National Catholic Register since 2005. His articles have appeared in a number of national publications including Columbia magazine, Soul, Faith and Family, Catholic Digest, and Marian Helper. His religion features have also appeared in Fairfield County Catholic and in one of Connecticut’s largest news dailies. He holds an MS degree and formerly taught English and courses in film study that he developed at a Catholic high school in Connecticut. Joseph and his wife Mary reside on the East Coast.
It happened February 1646 in the Philippines. Warships of the Dutch Republic, which had recently fought a decades-long war in Europe with Spain, were in the South Pacific attempting to wrest complete control of the area.
They had already formed the Dutch East Indies Company in Indonesia. They aimed to control the spice trade in Asia. Now they were harassing sea trade around Manila Bay and preparing to attack Manila, bring down its Spanish government, and replace the strong Catholicism with their Protestant Calvinism.
The situation was dire that February. The Spanish and Filipinos realized what was on the horizon knowing the Dutch had an armada of 18 vessels — mostly galleons, their large warships, split into three divisions around the country’s coast. They were poised to seize any Spanish ship sailing in with supplies before the final attack on Manila.
But the Spanish and Filipinos weren’t going to knuckle under. Even though their whole naval fleet at the time consisted of two — only two — old, outdated, dilapidated galleons that had been converted into merchant ships.
With no other choice but to send this sorry pair to meet the muscular Dutch fleet, the Spanish governor had cannons from the fort loaded onto them. Now the town itself would be defenseless.
Or would it?
The names of the two ships were prophetic. The Encarnacíon and the Rosario. Need we think twice to realize that these two, the Incarnation and the Rosary, were going to be more equipped than the Dutch warships bristling with cannons and muskets and military? Already Our Lady had a hand in how the battle would go.
At the same time, the Battle of Lepanto, and what brought about that stunning victory, was still fresh in everyone’s memory. The Spaniards and Filipinos knew they needed heaven’s help.
That necessary help had its origins in 1587 when the first Dominicans arrived in the Philippines, brought the Rosary, and established a confraternity of Our Lady of the Rosary. Then in 1593, the Spanish governor commissioned a statue of Our Lady of the Rosary and gave it to the Dominicans for the Church of Santo Domingo.
Now in 1646 on the eve of meeting the Dutch invaders, leaders from the admiral to the general, from the simple sailors to the priests, from the Spanish to the Filipinos, all turned to the intercession of Our Blessed Mother. Begging for victory — obviously not only to save Manila but the Catholic faith there — they vowed to honor her as Our Lady of the Rosary by walking together barefoot, officers and crew, to her shrine at Santo Domingo Church and in thanksgiving for the help and intercession she would give them to be victorious.
Two Dominican priest went as chaplains aboard each vessel, telling the men to confess their sins, receive Holy Communion, and pray the Rosary together on their knees before an image of Our Lady. The men were happy and eager to do so.
Since this battle actually comprised five separate battles over the course of several months, the crews did so each time.
Simultaneously, the Governor himself ordered that in Manila all churches and chapels were to expose the Blessed Sacrament for as long as their ships were having to battle the opposing forces.
On March 3, 1646, the Encarnacíon and the Rosario headed to meet the superior Dutch navy just as their first Lepanto counterparts had done 75 years earlier.
On March 15 the two-ship “fleet” met the first Dutch division of four large galleons and one smaller vessel. The Dutch likely reacted with a hearty laugh at the ragtag merchant galleons coming to meet them. The Spanish-Filipino “armada” was outmanned, out-gunned, out-everything — except for heavenly help. But after a fierce cannon battle over several hours, the Dutch were in full retreat with many casualties and two battered ships, one on the verge of sinking.
The Manila pair suffered no fatalities and only minor damage.
The second battle on July 29 saw the heaven-helped Encarnacíon and Rosario meet seven of the attacking Dutch ships. Cannons and muskets fiercely exchanged volleys. Result: one Dutch ship sunk with the others retreating after heavy losses and much damage. On the other hand, aboard the Encarnacíon only two crew members suffered wounds, while the Rosario lost five men.
The third battle on July 31 saw the Manila pair again rout the Dutch. One source related how a cannoneer said he fired 19 cannon shots in a row, with the rosary in one hand, “while proclaiming loudly, ‘Viva La Virgen!’”
The Dutch flagship, heavily damaged, retreated as the Encarnacíon sank one of the other smaller vessels shouting, as the same source reported, “Ave Maria!” and “Viva la Fe Cristo y la Virgen Santisima del Rosario!”
The Spanish and Filipinos immediately credited this as a miraculous win and the general aboard “fell on his knees before an image of Our Lady of the Rosary and publicly gave thanks for the victory, acknowledging it as by her hand,” said the same source.
When the crew returned to Manila, they fulfilled their vows at once to walk barefoot to the Shrine of Our Lady of the Most Holy Rosary in Santo Domingo Church to thank her for the victory.
But all was not over. The thrice-beaten Dutch decided not to give up, and in September six more ships were to join what remained of the armada.
By this time another ship was able to join the Encarnacíon and Rosario. All the men made the same vows and continued praying the Rosary. Now five priests were part of the crew aboard the ships.
The fourth battle in mid-September saw the Rosario in trouble, surrounded by the Dutch. But when they approached, the Rosario, with cannons roaring, inflicted heavy damage to the Dutch ships who again retreated to keep from sinking.
October 4 opened to the fifth and final battle which looked like a sure Dutch victory as the tiny Manila fleet was in trouble. The Dutch headed toward the Encarnacíon which then fought three Dutch warships simultaneously, wreaking such damage and inflicting so many casualties that the Dutch retreated yet again — this time never to return.
Over the five battles, a total of 15 Spanish-Filipino crewmen were lost, a miraculously small number considering the fierce fighting.
Once again Our Lady of the Most Holy Rosary, also given the title Our Lady of Naval de Manila, came to the rescue of those relying on her and arming themselves with her Rosary. They were saved, the city was saved, and best of all, the Catholic faith remained.
Officially Classified as Miraculous
Not only did the crew again fulfill their vows walking barefoot to her shrine to honor and thank her, but the entire campaign would be officially called a miracle. The Manila archdiocese conducted an inquiry into the whole range of battles and circumstances, studied it well, and on April 9, 1662, the council unanimously ordered that the five naval victories of 1646 be declared miraculous. The official declaration read that “we should declare and we do declare that the five battles expressed in the testimonies, which the said two galleons, under Catholic arms, won against the Dutch enemies, were and should be upheld as miraculous, and that they have been granted by the Sovereign Majesty of God by means of and through the intercession of the Most Holy Virgin Our Lady and Her devotion, the Holy Rosary.”
After nearly four centuries, the annual celebration of this victory continues at Our Lady of the Rosary, Our Lady of La Naval de Manila, shrine, located in Santo Domingo Church in Quezon City, near Manila, since Japanese bombs during World War II destroyed the Manila church. But the original statue was removed before the bombing and resides in the new church.
The hardwood statue of Our Lady of the Rosary is 4 feet 8 inches tall, carved in the 16th century by a non-Catholic Chinese man who later converted. Our Lady holds the Child Jesus, their faces and hands (and Jesus’ body) are carved of ivory and have an Asian appearance. They hold a rosary. Since the beginnings the statue has been decorated with ornate garments and donated jewels.
Papal recognition came along. In 1903, Leo XIII wrote the Mania archbishop extolling the shrine.
In 1907 St. Pius X honored Mary with a canonical crowning of her image by his representative.
In February 1981 St. John Paul II blessed the original image during his visit to the Philippines.
In the 1954 Marian year, the church was named the National Shrine of Our Lady of the Rosary.
In February 1986, during the revolution and protest against the declaration of martial law by Marcos and his government, a replica of this statue was processed by the Dominicans, and the victory for the people that followed was again attributed to the Blessed Mother’s intervention. Interestingly, St. Pius V who urged turning to Mary through the Rosary to win at Lepanto was also a Dominican.
In 2009 the Philippine government officially named this statue and the shrine as one of the country’s National Cultural Treasures.
In 2011 EWTN featured this image of Our Lady of the Rosary in one of its programs.
The Feast of Our Lady of the Most Holy Rosary of La Naval de Manila has been celebrated continuously since that original victory.
Lesson for Today’s Siege of Immorality
No matter the overwhelming odds seeming to favor those well-equipped enemies ready to quash the small numbers of believers. Lepanto and Manila — the Second Lepanto — show the way to enlist heaven’s intercession to sure victory. So do the Battle of Vienna (1683), Peterwardein, Hungary (1716), Battle of New Orleans (1815, in the U.S.), Austria vs. Communists (1955), same for Brazil (1966), and more.
Our Lady herself emphasized the way to victory in 1917 at Fatima. It’s her Rosary.
When will we listen?