First Mass Day in the Philippines Date in the current year: March 31, 2024

First Mass Day in the Philippines First Mass Day (Araw ng Unang Misa) is a special working holiday in the Philippine province of Southern Leyte celebrated annually on March 31. It commemorates the first documented Catholic Mass that was held in the Philippines upon the arrival of Ferdinand Magellan’s fleet.

The first Europeans to arrive in the Philippines were Ferdinand Magellan, a Portuguese explorer serving the Spanish crown, and members of his fleet during Magellan’s 1519–1522 expedition to the East Indies. Magellan’s fleet reached the Philippines on March 16, 1521. They first sighted the island on Samar, and then landed on the uninhabited island of Homonhon, where they encountered some friendly locals from the neighboring island of Sululan.

After spending almost two weeks on Homonhon, the Spaniards continued their journey and arrived in what they referred to as “Mazaua” on March 28. Many historians believe the site to be the island of Limasawa in Southern Leyte. Magellan and his comrades befriended the local ruler and sealed their friendship with a blood compact.

March 31, 1521 was Easter Sunday, and Magellan ordered a Mass to be celebrated. It was officiated by the only priest present, fleet chaplain Father Pedro Valderrama. This service is believed to have been the first documented Roman Catholic Mass in the Philippines. In the afternoon, Magellan and his crew planted a large wooden cross on top of the hill overlooking the sea and claimed the island for Spain in the name of King Charles V.

It has been disputed both whether the 1521 Mass was indeed the first Catholic Mass to be held in the Philippines and whether it indeed occur on the island on Limasawa; some assert that the first Mass was celebrated in Butuan. Nevertheless, the site where the First Mass allegedly took place was declared a national shrine in 1960. A little over two decades later, in 1984, the Shrine of the Holy Cross and First Mass was built on a hill overlooking the barangay (neighborhood) of Magellanes at the initiative of First Lady Imelda Marcos.

The controversy regarding the site of the first Mass continued even after the erection of the shrine. The National Historical Institute of the Philippines created two panels in 1995 and 2008 to investigate the claims that the first Mass was celebrated in Butuan. Another panel was formed in the 2018 by the National Historical Commission of the Philippines (the Institute’s successor); it unanimously concluded that there wasn’t enough evidence to corroborate the Butuan theory.

Even though the Philippines is a secular country where freedom of religion is guaranteed by the constitution, nearly 80% of its population identify as Roman Catholics, and Limasawa being the site of the first Mass in the country is a matter of pride to the residents of Southern Leyte. Due to this, President Rodrigo Duterte declared March 31 as a special working holiday in the province in 2019. This means that First Mass Day is marked by various events and activities held across Southern Leyte, but employees are not entitled to a day off unless the holiday falls on a weekend.

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First Mass Day in the Philippines, holidays in the Philippines, observances in the Philippines, special working holidays