Enchanting Biri Island and thriving faith of its people
Inspired & Blessed

Enchanting Biri Island and thriving faith of its people

Jun 10, 2024, 12:40 AM
Bob Acebedo

Bob Acebedo


I had the auspicious chance of spending three days in this exquisite island some weeks ago and I was simply struck with awe for what it is: adorably beautiful and bewitching.

Biri is an island municipality nestled in the northernmost tip of Northern Samar, facing the Pacific Ocean to the east and the perilous San Bernardino Strait to the west, with 8 barangays and a population of over 11,000 (2020 census).

The island served as gateway landmark for the Acapulco-Manila galleon trade vessels upon entering the Philippines. Thus, the name “Biri” is said to have originated from the Spanish word “barrer” (which sounded “berey” to the locals), meaning “to sweep”. The story goes that upon approaching the island, the captain of the Spanish Galleon would command his men to “sweep the ship’s deck” before proceeding to Capul (another island in N. Samar, derived from Mexico’s Acapulco) lighthouse, which served as guidepost for trade vessels. 

Biri is famous for its iconic – and yes, incredibly enchanting – rock formations, that have been illustriously sculpted by waves over time which, according to experts, date to some 18 to 24 million years back. Its seven mountainous rock formations – Bel-at, Caranas, Macadlaw, Magasang, Magsapad, Pinanahawan, and Puhunan (me and wifey visited only 3) – are incredibly enchanting, magical, or even mystical.

The natural beauty or grandeur of these rock structures is made even more bewitching by the mythical story of Lady Berbinota, believed to be the enchanted guardian of Biri. Legend has it that a male engkanto (mythical spirit) was attracted to a beautiful lady in the island named Berbinota. The lady mysteriously disappeared, which the natives believed to have been taken by the engkanto. Later on, she came back as a sea goddess who’s guarding the rocky temples, and who sometimes allows herself to be captured by tourists’ cameras.

One local story has it that several years ago, with starvation having plagued the island due to natural calamities, a cargo ship loaded with rice and other agricultural products accidentally, if mysteriously, ran aground the island shores causing wreckage to the ship. Thereupon, the food cargoes were then distributed to the natives – and the inhabitants attributed this serendipitous streak to Berbinota.

But, apart from the natural beauty of its rock formations, are there other “enchanting” assets of Biri?

More than a decade for so ago, a popular TV documentary news magazine program featured an episode on Biri, suggesting that more than the enchanting natural resources, “foreigners are also attracted to Biri Island for its residents – the girls”. The episode insinuated even further that the girls, instead of being sent to school, are primed or prepared for marriage to foreigners. 

In the course of my brief sojourn in Biri, I tried to validate this perception (or “misperception”) with my host, the parish priest of Biri’s St. Vincent Ferrer parish, Fr. Zandro Gorgonia. “Naku, hindi po totoo na ang aming mga dalaga ay inihahanda upang makapag-asawa ng foreigners. Yes, there is a paltry number of own women who have been married to foreigners, but majority of our young women at studying in schools in nearby Catarman, Sorsogon, or even in Manila. But, to generalize that our girls are prepared for foreigners is a blatant stomp on the moral dignity of Biri-anon women,” Fr. Zandro aptly clarified.

On hindsight, thus gleaned from my brief stay in the island, Biri unmistakably thrives – not just with its majestic rock formations, and neither for its “girls” – in the simplicity or authenticity, unadulterated hospitality, and pure faith of its people. According to Fr. Zandro, Biri’s population is 95% Catholic.

But, in qualitative terms, how can Biri’s Catholicity be categorized?

Fr. Zandro, who’s already on his 6th year as parish priest of Biri, explains: “When I first arrived here, I already observed the innate traits of the people – simple, respectful, and with deep regard for the Church. Most of them are mass goers. But I noticed that their kind of faith was just something of a ‘religiosity’ rather than ‘spirituality’. So I made a way to reach out to them to develop not only their religiosity but their spirituality as well.”

And how did Fr. Zandro strategize it? “By implementing the thrust of putting up Basic Ecclesial Communities or BEC. In other BEC models, sometimes the parishioners’ livelihood is over-emphasized to the extent that spirituality becomes sidelined or overlooked. But here in Biri, I have thought it wise to begin first and foremost with their faith. Their livelihood is more of the work of the government or of the NGOs.” 

“What I did was to implement a 3-steps strategy. Firstly, was to organize religious cofradias (in honor of Saints and pious devotions) or confraternities in each barangay focusing on devotional practices coupled with proper evangelization. Secondly, we are now on this stage, to adopt apostolate works or activities for each cofradia or confraternity. Thirdly, is already to divide the faithful into smaller groups or basic ecclesial groups by themselves,” Fr. Zandro continued.

On a final note, I asked Fr. Zandro what’s his guiding principle behind Biri’s successful BEC program: “You see, there is the tendency of a pastor, priest, or of any community leader to control (if not, be controlled) others or those within his fold. But there are two dangerous extremes to this – one is you impose on others or you want others to become you; two, you are swayed or pulled by others, or you become them. But, in my case, it’s neither I want my parishioners to become me, nor I want myself to become them. Rather, in our work of DEVOMISSION (Devotion + Mission), it’s only Christ who should be at the center as our model.”

Hurray, Fr. Zandro! Indeed, Biri is not all about rock formations and pretty girls – but an icon of true faith and spirituality as well. 

#WeTakeAStand #OpinYon #OpinYonNews #OpinYonColumn #ColumnbyBobAcebedo #InspiredAndBlessed

We take a stand
OpinYon News logo

Designed and developed by Simmer Studios.

© 2024 OpinYon News. All rights reserved.