Youths carry photos of statues that are housed in the Dambana, a Filipino shrine in the upper gardens at The Grotto.
Youths carry photos of statues that are housed in the Dambana, a Filipino shrine in the upper gardens at The Grotto.
A Filipino celebration held at The Grotto in Northeast Portland July 28 began with a rosary led by children. In a tour de force of Filipino American Catholic youths, teens then walked in a procession to start Mass, offered the readings, sang the psalm and delivered a post-Mass reflection.

Oregon’s Filipino Catholic leaders chose this year’s Dambana Festival to launch local observances of the Filipino church’s Year of the Youth. The yearlong event in the Philippines, meant to solidify youth disciples, is part of the nation’s 500th year of Christianity.

In Portland, the annual Dambana Festival marks the day 11 years ago when a Filipino shrine, or dambana, was dedicated in The Grotto’s upper gardens. The graceful little building houses images of the child Jesus, or Santo Nino, plus the Virgin Mary and St. Lorenzo Ruiz, a 17th-century Filipino lay missionary who was martyred in Japan.

After the Portland Mass, Ethan Johanson gave the reflection on behalf of youths.

“The dambana has a message of love, a vision for hope and unity for the community,” Johanson said. “We the youth would like to walk side by side with our elders bringing that message of hope, love and unity to our fellow Filipinos and all of God’s people.”

The Grotto was the ideal location for the Dambana, a favorite spot for Filipinos, whether residents or visitors. Often, The Grotto is the first stop for Filipino sailors after they have docked in the city.

When Servite Father Jack Topper, then director of The Grotto, decided to place international wayside shrines in the gardens, Filipinos embraced the idea, raising funds and offering a design.

“It is a legacy we wanted to leave as a community, especially as a Catholic community,” said Pia de Leon, a Filipino Catholic leader and pastoral associate at St. Clare Church in Southwest Portland. “It’s been a source of unity.”

Father Cary Reniva, a native of the Philippines and pastor of St. Cecilia Parish in Beaverton, gave an impassioned homily at the festival Mass, speaking especially to young people.

“Dambana is a place of encounter with God,” Father Reniva said. “And through this encounter we get to know God deeper, and it leads us to a more intimate relationship with him.”

The priest called the image of the Santo Niño a sign of divine solidarity. “When things are dark and bleak, the image of the Santo Niño assures us that God is walking side by side with us,” he told the full church.

Father Reniva urged worshippers not to stop at being messengers of God’s word, but to let the word be incarnated in their lives so others can encounter God through them.

“We are the living dambanas of God,” he said.