Ofelia "VJ" Tanjutco, 77, learned the pabasa as a child in her Philippine hometown of Bataan. The elders taught her the way — or rather, forced it on her, she jokes.
Farther north, in the farming province of Nueva Ecija, Remedios "Reme" Cargado sang it in her neighbor's home. She recalls how it made her feel closer to God.
Sister Loretto "Lory" Mapa never practiced it until she left her convent in Manila and came to the United States in the 1980s. "Believe it or not," says the 83-year-old nun.
All three women now are part of a community that carries on the Filipino Lenten tradition of the pabasa in the Philadelphia area. Usually at 5 a.m. on Good Friday, in Catholic churches and private homes, the faithful begin singing the pasyon, the story of Jesus' life, and do not stop until they have reached the end of the 200-plus-page Pasyong Mahal, a 16th-century epic poem translated into Tagalog. At Our Lady of Hope on North Broad Street in Logan, the singing wraps up by 6 p.m., to make time for a procession around the church with a statue of Jesus. But in some houses, it can stretch past midnight.
Tanjutco, a retired chemist who lives in Cherry Hill, is part of the large Filipino community that attends St. Augustine Church in Old City. There, she says, they try to finish before 10 p.m., picking up the pace of the songs as it gets later. One or two leaders set the tone of how the group will sing the pasyon, which can range from chant-like to pop-like. They often change the tune with each new chapter. Otherwise, Tanjutco says, people might fall asleep.
Holy Week, preceding Easter, is huge in the largely Catholic Philippines. Holy Thursday and Good Friday are days off, and Filipinos show their devotion by taking part in not only the pabasa (pa-BA-sa, meaning "reading") but also the senakulo, or passion play, where townspeople reenact Jesus' life and suffering, and even the bloody penitensya, in which men whip themselves in the streets and are nailed to a cross.
In the Philadelphia region, where the 2010 census counted 21,000 foreign-born Filipinos, performing the pabasa is a way to make the States feel like home.
"Before I became a priest, people were always longing for the traditions that we have in the Philippines," said the Rev. Efren Esmilla, who started hosting the pabasa at Our Lady of Hope more than 10 years ago. About 100 parishioners come and go throughout the day during the event, he said, including some who aren't Filipino.
By 9 a.m. on Good Friday in the church's social hall, eight singers, mostly older women plus Esmilla, were seated in rows of chairs facing a statue of Jesus flanked by candles. They sang a cappella from faded copies of the Pasyong Mahal, the spines held together with tape. At the ready were cups of salabat, a spicy tea brewed from fresh ginger to soothe their throats. After all, they were only on Page 63 — 176 pages to go.
"These are the early birds," said Evangeline "Van" Kalugdan. "Later on, there will be more."
Kalugdan, a former pharmacist who runs a Filipino grocery on Bustleton Avenue, said she has never worked on Good Friday in her life, even though she's been in America for almost 50 years. She arrived at the church before dawn with the Cargados, toting a stock pot full of champorado, chocolate porridge, and dried fish from her store.
The tone was more solemn than lively, but it was clearly a social event as well, with the men sitting around a table and snacking while the women sang.
Until churches here began observing the tradition, Filipinos gathered in private homes to sing.
Cargado, 77, a retired nurse, hosted a pabasa for a decade, sometimes cramming 50 people into her basement in the Northeast. Her husband, Mario, cooked such Filipino dishes as kaldereta, a beef stew, and pancit, or noodles, and there was always a dessert spread to fuel the singers during breaks. Technically, the devout are obliged to fast on Good Friday, but pabasa participants get a pass since they're singing from before dawn to after dusk. (The Cargados liked to host theirs right before Holy Week, avoiding the issue.)
At Our Lady of Hope, Mario Cargado plays the same role, bringing tray after tray of food out of the kitchen as the singers get deeper into the pasyon. The breaks are rare, only minutes in duration, and the song never stops.
Has Reme Cargado ever gotten tired during the marathon?
"Oh, no," she said. "The more I sing, the better my voice becomes."
When she sings the pasyon, she says it feels as if the Holy Spirit is uplifting her.
Similarly, Tanjutco said, "I feel like our Filipino spirit is alive."
But she worries about passing the tradition on to the younger Filipinos in the area. It's a concern even in the Philippines.
"We are all getting a little bit older," she said. "We are nervous."
Those unfamiliar with the pabasa should not be daunted, Tanjutco said. All kinds of voices are welcome.