The Philippines, an archipelagic country in Southeast Asia, is renowned for its vibrant Catholicism, a legacy of its Spanish colonial history. With this rich religious history comes an array of ancient Catholic churches, many of which are homes to cherished relics and are thus of particular significance. Among these, the church of Santa Lucia in Ilocos stands out.
Sta. Lucia Church, Ilocos Sur
The majestic Sta. Lucia Church stands as a timeless symbol of faith and heritage in the historic province of Ilocos Sur. Established in 1586 by the Augustinian friars, it is one of the most beautiful and culturally significant churches in the region.
History and architecture
Built in the late 17th century, the church is officially known as the Santa Lucia Parish Church. It is the only church in the Philippines with a dome resembling that of St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. Dominantly Romanesque in style, with flying buttresses, rose windows, and red brick construction called ladrillo, the interior of the church is adorned with Biblical paintings, including an imitation of Michelangelo's Creation of Man on the ceiling of the dome.
An earthquake in 1990 toppled the four-story belfry, but it was restored in 1991. Further renovations include the replacement of the red brick floor tiles with marble tiles, funded entirely by the local community.
Miraculous patron saint
The church is famed for housing two images of Santa Lucia, the patron saint of the blind. The one on the central altar is believed to be miraculous and reputed to have healing powers, especially for those with failing eyesight. Known as the Dark Virgin of Santa Lucia, pilgrims and tourists are drawn to it all year round. A second image, said to have come from Mexico, is housed on the western altar. Both are adorned with silver ornaments representing eyes, arms, and legs, pinned by devotees in gratitude for cures attributed to St. Lucy.
Paoay Church, Ilocos Norte
The construction of Paoay Church began in 1694 and was partly completed in 1702, reaching completion in 1710. This architectural marvel stands as a relic that reflects the cultural and historical heritage of the Philippines, as well as the seismic activity in the region.
Architecture and construction
The design of Paoay Church is a beautiful blend of Gothic, Baroque, and Oriental styles. Remarkably, it was built by Philippine and Chinese craftsmen who had no prior knowledge or experience in Western architecture. The church's general box-like plan may have its roots in traditional long houses, typical of indigenous architecture, and it also bears resemblance to Southeast Asian forms.
Paoay Church is the most outstanding example of "Earthquake Baroque," a term first described by Pal Kelman in reference to Latin America. The design was deliberately structured to withstand earthquakes, which is evident in its massive buttresses, some of which are the largest of their kind in the Philippines. The bell tower, erected at some distance from the church, was finished in the second half of the 18th century for anti-earthquake reasons. Two of the buttresses along the nave double as stairways and are used for roof access.
Materials and construction technique
The facades, buttresses, and walls of Paoay Church were constructed using traditional local concrete. This concrete consisted of lean mortar mixed with rubble made of coral stone, limestone, brick, and seashells. The exterior forms were adorned with coral stones and bricks, with the main facade featuring coral stone finials. The wall thicknesses are substantial, ranging from 4.2m for the main facade to 2.2m for the side walls and 2.5m for the buttresses.
The existing roofing system employs galvanized iron sheets supported by timber trusses, although roof tiles were originally used during construction. In the first half of the 20th century, the main trusses were reinforced with concrete columns that replaced the original brick ones.
Today, Paoay Church serves as a Roman Catholic church and stands as a proud testament to the region's history and cultural diversity. It was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, further accentuating its global significance. The Philippine Government has protected the church under Presidential Decrees 260 and 1505, even though no public acquisition is being considered.
San Agustin Church, Intramuros
San Agustin Church, originally known as "Iglesia de San Pablo," was founded in 1571, making it the oldest stone church in the Philippines. It is located within the historic walled area of Intramuros in Manila. The church has undergone significant transformations through the centuries, a testament to the turbulent history of the region.
When the Spaniards came to the Philippines to spread Catholicism, one of the first churches they built was the San Agustin Church. Initially constructed out of nipa and bamboo in 1571, it was named Iglesia y Convento de San Pablo.
Tragically, Limahong, the Chinese pirate, set fire to the church twice, first in 1574 and then again in 1583. These calamities led to two reconstructions, with the final building constructed using adobe stones. Juan Macias was consulted about the design, and the church was officially completed in 1607.
The church and the adjacent monastery were the only structures left standing in Intramuros after World War II. The current structure is the third version, having survived several natural disasters through time. This resilience and endurance make the church not just a spiritual symbol but also a historical landmark.
San Agustin Church reflects the Baroque architectural style, indicative of Spanish influence and adaptation to Philippine conditions. It has a stunning façade, and the easternmost chapel of the transept houses the tomb of El Adelentado Miguel Lopez de Legaspi, the founder of the City of Manila.
The church's interior is adorned with intricate frescoes, statues of saints, and beautiful stained glass windows. The adjoining monastery's courtyard is a peaceful haven and a reminder of the monastic tradition of the Augustinian Order that administers the church.
Cultural and historical significance
San Agustin Church's significance as a cultural and historical relic has been recognised globally, with it being declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Since its foundation, the church has hosted the devotion to Nuestra Senora de la Consolacion y Correa, celebrated every Saturday. Significant historical events, such as the signing of terms for the American occupation of Manila and the First Plenary Council of the Philippines in 1953, were also held here. San Agustin Church stands as a symbol of the enduring faith and resilience of the Filipino people. It has witnessed significant historical events, revolutions, occupations, and natural calamities, yet it remains a beacon of spiritual and cultural heritage.
Baclayon Church, Bohol
Formally known as La Purisima Concepcion de la Virgen Maria Parish Church or The Church of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception, Baclayon Church is one of the oldest and best-preserved Catholic stone church buildings in the Philippines.
Constructed during the era of Spanish occupation, the first Spanish missionaries, or doctrineros, settled in the area in the late 15th century. This era marked the advent of Christianity in the Philippines, and the church stands as a testament to this significant period in the country's history.
Originally a Jesuit establishment, the area where the Baclayon Church now stands was home to the Spanish Jesuit missionaries when they first arrived in the Philippines. Due to fears of being attacked by Moro marauders, they were forced to move their headquarters to Loboc.
In 1717, Baclayon was elevated to the status of a parish, and construction began on the church building we see today. Remarkably, two hundred native labourers were forced to haul and cut coral stones from the sea, using bamboo to position them and about a million egg whites to cement them together. This meticulous construction process showcases the extraordinary skill of these local artisans.
The church was completed in 1727, and a significant bell was added in 1835.
Architectural features and artefacts
The dungeon within the church, used to punish violators of Roman Catholic Law, represents a stark aspect of the religious and social dynamics of the period. The church's old convent houses a small museum containing centuries-old religious artefacts, such as:
- 16th-century ivory statue of Jesus Christ.
- A statue of the Virgin Mary.
- St. Ignatius of Loyola's relics.
- Gold-embroidered church vestments.
- A collection of books, hymnals, and 1859 paintings by Liberato Gatchalian, a renowned Filipino painter.
These relics provide a unique glimpse into the religious heritage and artistic traditions of the time.
Minor Basilica of the Holy Child, Cebu
The Minor Basilica of the Holy Child in Cebu, also known as the Santo Nio Basilica, was founded by Fr. Andres de Urdaneta on April 28, 1565, when the Legazpi-Urdaneta expedition arrived on the island. The area was designated as a place for the church and convent of San Agustin, where the revered image of Santo Nio de Cebu had been found.
The convent became multifaceted, serving as a house of studies for grammar under the guidance of Visayan linguist Fr. Alonso de Mentrida, a rest house for missionaries, and a retirement home for the aged and the sick. The church has always been the sanctuary of the Sto. Nio and has remained under the custody of the Augustinians.
Fr. Andres de Urdaneta launched an expedition to the Philippines on November 20, 1564, commissioned by the King of Spain. They found the statuette of Santo Nio in Cebu, an image that arrived with Magellan and was given to the Queen of Cebu when she converted to Christianity. This event ignited the devotion to Santo Nio, and the faith spread to various parts of the islands.
Construction of the church and monastery
The Santo Nio church's construction began in the earliest years of the Augustinians in the Philippines. Initially built with light materials, the church and monastery were later constructed with stronger materials. Work started in 1575 or 1576 and was completed in 1602.
A big fire in 1628 razed both buildings, leading to a rebuilding effort. The second church and monastery stood for over one hundred years. In 1729, due to deterioration, a decision was made to replace the church with a stronger one.
Construction faced many challenges, including a lack of appropriate materials and difficulties in transportation. Fr. Juan Albarran took charge of the construction, finding a quarry on Mactan Island for stones and arranging transportation. On February 24, 1735, the foundation was laid, and the present church was blessed on January 16, 1740, with an eight-day celebration. The monastery's construction began in 1751 and finished around 1773.
Further work continued, including finishing the ceiling, adding a wooden choir, gilding the retables, and painting the entire interior of the church. Over the years, several minor repairs were made, with a major facelift in 1964 in preparation for the Fourth Centennial Evangelization of the Islands. Today, the Minor Basilica of the Holy Child in Cebu stands as the oldest Roman Catholic Church in the country. The revered image of the Santo Nio de Cebu, a baptismal gift to Queen Juana by Ferdinand Magellan, still finds its abode within its walls.
Jaro Cathedral, Iloilo
Jaro Cathedral, formally known as Jaro Metropolitan Cathedral and the National Shrine of Our Lady of the Candles, is an iconic religious site in the district of Jaro in Iloilo City, Iloilo, on the island of Panay. This significant cathedral serves as the seat of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Jaro and has a rich history interwoven with the religious traditions of the region.
The cathedral was placed under the patronage of Saint Elizabeth of Hungary, embodying a spiritual connection that has influenced its role in the local community. The Catholic Bishops' Conference of the Philippines further elevated its status by formally declaring it the National Shrine of Our Lady of the Candles in February 2012.
As the second national shrine in the Visayas and Mindanao, following the Basilica del Santo Nio in Cebu, Jaro Cathedral has been recognised as the first and only Marian-dedicated "National Shrine" church or cathedral in these regions. This recognition enhances its standing as a central place of worship and a site of pilgrimage.
Our Lady of the Candles
One of the unique aspects of Jaro Cathedral is the statue of Nuestra Seora de la Candelaria (Our Lady of the Candles) perched atop the façade of the cathedral. This statue holds the distinction of being the first Marian image in the Philippines and Asia to be canonically crowned personally by a Pope and Saint.
The canonical crowning has bestowed upon Nuestra Seora de la Candelaria the title of the official Roman Catholic patron of Western Visayas and Romblon. This honour has further cemented the cathedral's role as a spiritual hub for the faithful in the region.
Relic of Blessed Ivan Merz
Jaro Cathedral is also notable for venerating a relic of the Blessed Ivan Merz, a lay Croatian Catholic. This relic's presence has drawn believers seeking spiritual insight, enhancing the cathedral's reputation as a place of deep religious significance.
San Sebastian Church, Manila
San Sebastian Church, situated in the heart of Manila's Quiapo district, is the only all-steel church in Asia. Completed in 1891, this stunning structure is part of a complex that includes a college (1947), a seminary, and a courtyard (1950s). The church is famous for housing the miraculous image of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, which has survived numerous fires and earthquakes and was granted a Canonical Coronation by Pope Leo XIII.
Historical background and architecture
San Sebastian Church was constructed with 1,527 tonnes of steel manufactured in Binche, Belgium, in 1886 and assembled over two years by local craftsmen. The fusion of baroque and neo-gothic styles, inspired by the Burgos Cathedral in Spain, presents a unique architectural character.
The interior design, credited to the school of Lorenzo Rocha, is embellished with an elaborately painted programme, including faux jasper and marble, trompe l'oeil of angles, saints, medallions, and coats of arms. The church boasts 34 painted glass windows imported from the Henri Oidtmann Company of Germany.
The church's historical significance and vulnerability to damage led to its inclusion in the 1998 and 2010 World Monuments Watches. Subsequent conservation projects were supported by the World Monuments Fund, American Express, and the National Historical Institute in the Philippines.
Repairing steel corrosion due to water infiltration, humidity, and salt air from Manila Bay was the focus of conservation efforts. The project also saw the creation of a website to explain the conservation of the site and act as a conduit for communication and donations. In 2011, the site received a substantial award from the Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation of the U.S. Department of State to continue the effort to study and document the building's condition.
The basilica stands on the site of the first church of the Recollect Friars and the first Carmelite shrine. Three stone churches previously on the site succumbed to earthquakes between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries. The decision to build a steel basilica in 1881 was a strategic one to withstand future tremors. While Don Genaro Palacios, Director of Public Works of the Spanish Insular Government, is credited with the design, documents suggest that Gustave Eiffel, the famed architect of the Eiffel Tower, may have contributed.
San Sebastian Church is an active site within the Manila community and has been a pilgrimage site for devotees since the Spanish colonial period. Its status as the national shrine of Our Lady of Carmel highlights its spiritual significance.
The surrounding area, once the historic heart of Old Manila, is a blend of narrow streets, turn-of-the-century houses, grand historic residences, the Malacanang Palace of Philippine Presidents, universities, and densely packed commercial buildings.
Miagao Church: A UNESCO Heritage Site in Iloilo
The Miagao Church, officially known as the Church of Saint Thomas of Villanova, is located in Iloilo, Philippines. As a UNESCO World Heritage Site, this church houses a relic of St. Thomas of Villanova, its patron saint, and is a powerful symbol of both religious and cultural heritage in the region.
The town's first church was built in Ubos by Nicolas Pangkug and completed in 1731, three years before the first Spanish priest arrived. Tragically, this first church was burned by Muslim pirates in 1741. After two unsuccessful attempts to rebuild the church, which was also raided and destroyed, the townspeople decided to build the third church in Tacas, providing a strategic view of the Miagao River and protection against pirate attacks.
Construction of the present Miagao Church began on a Saturday, the town's market day, in December 1786. It was completed in 1797 under the leadership of Fray Francisco Maximo Gonzales. This baroque-romanesque-style church, sinking six metres deep into the ground with one-and-a-half-metre-thick walls and even thicker buttresses, was designed as a fortress against both natural and human threats.
Local craftsmen oversaw the work and quarried the stones used in the church's construction from nearby locations. Its facade is decorated with relief sculptures depicting various religious figures amid native flora, including coconut, papaya, and guava shrubs. 33 years after the church's completion, twin belfries that are equal in height flank the facade as well.
The Miagao Church's design reflects the creative and aesthetic abilities of Spanish colonisers, synthesised with local, Muslim, and Chinese influences. This indigenization of architecture is evident in the building's structure, which was designed to withstand the tropical climate, earthquakes, typhoons, and fire. Decorative elements such as life-size statues of the Pope and St. Henry, as well as the church's three concrete altars, lighting and sound system improvements, and new benches, further add to its artistic value. The church's facade features an iconic depiction of St. Christopher carrying the Christ child, with St. Thomas of Villanova's large stone image dominating the centre.
Survival and restoration
While the church stood the test of time and calamities, surviving even the strongest earthquake ever to hit Panay in 1948, it did not escape the trauma of two wars. It was burned during the revolution against Spain in 1898 and again during the Japanese occupation from 1942 to 1944. Despite these challenges, the people of Miagao have always been dedicated to the church's preservation, undertaking significant restoration efforts after its destruction.
Several reconstruction and renovation initiatives have been undertaken over the years with the support of various parish priests and local authorities. The church was declared a national shrine in 1973 by Presidential Decree and is currently being restored to its original form by the National Historical Institute.
Former First Lady Imelda Romualdez Marcos popularised the Miagao Church, presenting a painting of it to Pope John Paul II, and it has been featured in stamps, calendars, books, and magazines.
The Miagao Church is a renowned religious structure and is included in the UNESCO World Heritage List. It represents an architecture of stability, massiveness, and durability, built like a fortress for military purposes yet with concessions to artistic embellishments on its facade.
37 parish priests, both Spanish and Filipino, have served the church since its founding as a parish in 1734. Its history reflects the indomitable spirit of the local community and its enduring commitment to faith and cultural preservation.
Today, the Miagao Church continues to be an emblem of Filipino heritage and a source of inspiration for devotees and tourists alike.
Sta. Anna Church: A Symbol of Resilience in Hagonoy
The Sta. Anna Church, commonly known as the Santa Ana Shrine or Hagonoy Church, stands as an 18th-century architectural marvel in Brgy. Santo Nio, Hagonoy, Bulacan, Philippines. Constructed in the Baroque style, the church's rich history is intertwined with the local community and the broader cultural heritage of the Philippines. It is under the jurisdiction of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Malolos.
The church was declared a National Shrine in 1991, solidifying its status as a symbol of faith and resilience. The National Historical Institute (now the National Historical Commission of the Philippines) installed a marker in 1981, recognising the church's significant historical and cultural contributions.
Relic, architectural features, and renovation
One of the most precious aspects of the church is the relic it houses—a piece of the bone of Saint Anne, the mother of the Virgin Mary. This sacred relic attracts devout Catholics from far and wide, turning the church into a pilgrimage site.
The church's Baroque architecture represents the creative synthesis of Spanish colonial influences with local artistry. Its structural composition is both a reflection of the time's architectural techniques and a testament to the church's role as a community stronghold.
Despite its age and the inevitable wear and tear of time, the Sta. Anna Church has undergone careful renovations to preserve its original grandeur. The renovation efforts included not only structural repairs but also the restoration of intricate interior details. Whether it's the painstaking restoration of the facade or the meticulous attention to maintaining the authentic atmosphere of the sanctuary, the renovations ensured the church's historical integrity.
A journey through time and faith
The ancient Catholic churches of the Philippines are more than just places of worship. They are a journey through the country's colourful history, an exploration of its cultural richness, and a testament to its unwavering faith. A visit to these churches, with their revered relics and stunning architecture, is a deep dive into the heart and soul of the Filipino people.