We have plenty of old churches in the Philippines. Our gallant Spanish conquerors must have enjoyed the tropics, the smiles of women and the tinola (clear chicken stew with ginger and green papaya) so much and ensconced themselves prettily and long enough – in this charming group of islands… Ahah, let’s say, 333 years. 😉 That’s a whole lot of time – to propagate the Catholic faith, to build really thick and sturdy churches, to subjugate the natives and to sow their seeds around, ahaha. 😉
That’s not to say, am not guilty. I have at least one-third Spanish blood in my veins and my grandfather and father looked every inch, Spaniards. Their ancestry can be traced to the Southern region of that European country, the provincial part. And yes, they are short in physique, hairy and rather fierce-looking… But hey, the rest of the country is teeming with people who have Spanish surnames and Spanish-looking kababayans (fellow citizens), that it’s almost not an issue around here anymore – unless one is running for a public office. Then (like now, it’s election time here), people take care to point out the physicality of the candidates – who is mestizo and who is not…
Anyway, folks, that is just my round-about introduction to our topic – old churches in the Philippines. I had the chance to visit this church recently, two weeks ago… It is called the Taal Basilica or Basilica de Saint Martin de Tours, in the town of Taal, province of Batangas, about 65 kilometers, South of Manila.
This gigantic cathedral is situated atop the hill. Standing at the elevated church patio that now serves as the parking area, one could feel and almost touch the sky – amazing. Looking down, one could observe the flowery surroundings (lots of bougainvillea plants on old, old walls) and watch with awe the pueblo or the Spanish town of old – in this quaint, hidden setting…. Around the church compound are Spanish houses – darkened, peeling-off, really huge pillars and antique-looking windows. By the way, the ground floors of most villas appear like merchandize stores or warehouses for grains. It is said that they were homes to the pioneer Chinese-Spanish traders of the Southern Tagalog region, 300 to 400 years ago…
The historic town of Taal, a half millennium-old settlement, isn’t walled all around, as most ancient European towns are. Perhaps, there’s no need… I imagine the bandits, the lawless and the Chinese pirates of centuries gone by, would have a hard time laying siege to this corner of civilization. It is concealed, somehow and one has to pass by mountains to reach the place. As there were no concrete highways yet, 400 years ago, horses and men would be panting and breathless, by the time they reach the hilltop.
It is said that the Taal Basilica is the biggest Catholic church in Asia. But am not practiced in church history-telling, as the children selling candles are, that I will point you to the guy I borrowed the picture from. We went to this historical site upon the invitation of my nephew, who is studying to be a priest. He has finished college in the seminary and is now on his third year studying Theology (I suppose, it’s the equivalent of a Master’s degree in priesthood). So, he was our driver and tour guide for the trip, ahaha.
When we got inside the very old and really huge church, it dawned on me that I had already been there as a child. The altar and the vestry somehow looked familiar. I have been to the place before… Yes, our late mother, who was a cathechist, took me about 30 years ago – in one of her church visits or local pilgrimage.
Attached to the church is the parish priest’s residence – as the case usually is – an orphanage, and a school… The priest’s abode, of course, looked dark, foreboding and I was just waiting for the hunchback bell-ringer or the stiff-collared assistant, to appear anytime. The novels typically have them – faithful servants in custody of the key set and the institution’s secrets. To my dismay, no such interesting characters showed up… There was a well, though, at the back of the cathedral, where probably a lot of intrigues had been hatched, haha, and a parking area for the horse-drawn cab of the high priest. The latter is a photographer’s favorite, I imagine. You know – unattended corner, almost forgotten and with just enough light to lend the subject mysterious? 😉
By the way, the Catholic school right next to the old church looks like it has been built more recently – maybe, just a hundred years ago. Or, at least, it has been rebuilt… You see, within the town and close by, is the world’s smallest volcano. Taal Volcano is actually a cute mountain sitting within a lake and (yes) it also has a lake of its own – inside its crater… This artistry of nature is quite small, but terrible – it has erupted about thirty-three times in 450 years and has managed to destroy a couple of communities, churches and schools, ahaha. Thus, rebuilding is needed, every so often.
Anyway, the dear nephew was quick to point out, that particular school was where a local telenovela, One True Love, conducted its shooting. The lead character in the tv melodrama, Elize, supposedly studied in the school adjacent to Asia’s biggest cathedral. 😉
Outside the church, were the typical suntanned women, selling especially-designed candles, prayer books, devotion leaflets and abanicos (a fan made from palm leaves) to every churchgoer. There was also an old man selling brooms. My companions and I bought all three the man had and drove off to the next, smaller church. It was almost eleven o’clock, in the month of April and the sun was blazing hot.
Our next destination was Caysasay Church nearby… 🙂
Caysasay is situated in the old, rustic village of Labac, still in the town of Taal. This place of worship looks deceptively simple and small from the outside. There are beautiful plants in the yard and I was suddenly reminded – most priests did gardening, during their spare time. Some even studied botany and left scientific contributions in the field. Anyway, one particular plant from the palm family, stood out. I rarely see that variety, for some reason. But in the church yard, several of them grow and look like they have been there – since Spanish era, indeed.
After we have seen the inside of the church and after the children selling candles were through with their recitations of the history of the saints, the icons and the rituals of the devotees – we proceeded to the nearby Sta. Lucia Ruins and its miraculous water. The spot is a 150-meter walk – the ground was scorching and only the company and chatter of the vendor-children kept us about and alive. Meridian, I was melting and I thought – if being a Catholic meant enduring this degree of heat, then being a pagan or a mountain-worshipper, must be a fun alternative. 😉 By the way, each of us had an umbrella but it didn’t feel like we had any…
Anyway, here is the picture of the famed water, our local version of The Sanctuary of Lourdes in France… 🙂
The locally famous ruins is in the nook of a forest (lots of vines, vines) and there are wild profusions of shrubs and typical Philippine-countryside vegetations. It looked like they are being cleared by the local folks, periodically. By the way, the only way to get to the site is by burning, errr, by walking while the sun shoots all of you (ill-timed churchgoers) with all its mid-day fury, haha. 🙂 My older sister, with all the efficiency she has been known for in the family, made all of us drink our mineral water so she could fill them up, instead with water from the miraculous stone cavities. She thinks that even with heaven’s blessings, we should be prompt and try to secure as much as we can, haha.
Then, we recited the shortened version of the rosary, interviewed the man guarding the wells and had our pictures taken with the children candle vendors, doubling as local tourist guides… Going back to our vehicle, we were all feeling touristy, were it not that the sun was still relentless, unforgiving and bent to melt us all senseless. We drove to the town market to buy Taal’s famous suman (steamed sticky rice) and tapang baboy (treated pork meat). Along the way, we passed by so many shops selling burdadong barong made from telang pinyang husi. The product is the town’s pride.
By the way, did I mention that the only features I got from my father’s side of the family are the eyebrows and the facial frame? Otherwise, I am very much like my mother – native-looking, average nose and brown-skinned, through and through. Anyway, after the Taal trip, I was instantly a shade darker. And that, on top of my having traipsed around the Ilocos region (North of Manila, hotter), about three weeks earlier… Why, to revisit old churches, hahaha. 😉
I was then with another sister, who was foolish enough to plan a road trip in the hottest region of the country – just as summer was making known to all and sundry – how powerful a heavenly body the sun is… Here is a pic of one of the churches we visited in March, this year. This is located about 500 kilometers, North of Manila.
I was in the Ilocos region also, two years ago – with the younger sister. But we went to the place by plane then…The idea that we would be travelling by land this year seemed alluring (am a sucker for road trips), at least for a while … Just a few days before we were to leave for that trip, the all-embracing sun made its furious debut. I discouraged my sister against going. Too late, she was all set to go… By the way, Ilocos region is divided into two parts – South or Sur and the North or Norte. Anyway, Paoay Church in the North, as you must have noticed, is baroque in style. See the lateral view below.
The walls that buttress the structure are as thick as the fortresses in Europe, at the height of the medieval period. It isn’t like bullets and even cannons balls, could penetrate walls that thick, no. But there they are, layers upon layers of concrete – built to last till eternity, ahaha. Anyway, this church is a UNESCO Heritage site and is located in Paoay, Ilocos Norte. Paoay is a 16th-century town and is the birthplace of our world-renowned former president, Ferdinand Marcos.
There is an old joke… When the Filipino people were rising up against his rule on the fateful days of February, 1986 (the event is also known as People Power), President Marcos told the pilot to take him and his family to Paoay. The atmosphere in the Malacanang Palace then was very tense and with all the commotions, the pilot misheard him. And, took them instead to Hawaii… There, Marcos spent his days as a sickly and disgraced president – to his dying moments… 😉
Anyway, one thing about the churches that the Spanish friars built in the Philippines, they’re usually on top of the hills. The logic seems obvious and practical – the hills provide grand and picturesque view of the communities surrounding, are generally windy and majestic and when you consider that they’re built on top of and amidst lush, rural villages at times when lorries, cranes and trucks were unheard of – some architectural brilliance and engineering wonders, indeed… 😉
Well, I speak as a member of yester century’s delinquent posterity. But even I have to admit – such settings are great for picture-taking, the church belfry always makes for a dramatic background, close up or afar and yes, in our movies, something always happens inside old churches – folks are threatened and saved there, an adulterous woman confesses to her crime and in some of its unfrequented, solemn corners — lovers pledge undying love…
But there is, of course, that bit of a consideration about rebels, a few centuries back. I mean, throughout the 333 years, every decade or so – some natives would rise up in arms and go around proclaiming: they would behead a bishop or two, or, set fire to the archbishop’s La Residencia… Thus, some precautions were needed. And a little elevation, plus a couple of hundreds of steps, always went a long way – in terms of seeing the coming visitors ahead and such. 😉
Spanish regime here was a marriage of the church and the state. You could say that it was almost theocratic – what with the archbishops and the Spanish Governor-General having churros con chocolate for merienda, almost everyday. And – dinners together, too. It stands to reason, the churches must be strategically located, as well as, conform to European aesthetics.
Now, more than one hundred years after our Spanish forbears have left and the rest of the world care to recognize the Philippines as a country already, no longer the province of the Hispanic Crown nor America’s colony (Philippines was U.S.’s first taste at colonialism), that prudent decision on the part of our Spanish rulers, hmnn, presents a little modern-day problem: for tourists… Especially for the likes of me, whose complexion does not need anymore tanning…
Those churches – several of them declared UNESCO Heritage sites and more are being processed, based on the recommendation of Western tourists enamored by their quaintness and magnificence – require lots of walking and a good amount of climbing — just to get to the front door. Yes, my dear readers… Those gargantuan, artistically-designed, astutely-built, terribly archaic and unarguably historical structures are for the ultra-violet rays-resistant wanderers and well-toned athletes. You heard me… 😉
I mean, come on, 500 steps is your usual, around here… Well, some high priests of yore opted for variety and decided in favor of garden-types – with only 400 feet of cemented footpath (uncovered) and a measly, 150-step stairs: for that dash of medieval grandeur… 😉 So, anyway, let’s take the average – 500 steps… Five hundred steps – with the glaring sun on top of your head, your back bathing from your own sweat and your skin, sticky and shriveling like raisins – to go see the door and lock of the church – up close and personal.
Five hundred steps to admire the wondrous architecture upfront: those sturdy columns, the ornately-designed beams, the paintings on the church ceilings, the diorama on the walls and the stained glass windows – what precision, how cleverly executed, what talent and devotion! Truly, if one had only listened more closely to the glib of that Humanities professor – about lines and curves and the need for beauty and harmony in life… And, instantly and despite the disconcerted self – you reflect on the legacy of the Spaniards, the tenacity of the Filipino people, the durability of our faith, etcetera…
And then, finally, to have your pictures taken, in front of the massive structure – with the blue sky in the background and the belfry some one hundred meters away – testimony to your wandering spirit and your survival skills (walking, climbing and beating the tropical heat in the summer). You – panting, dried-up and awfully devastated – flashing your V-sign oh-so-valiantly, before the camera. You tried to smile, with the afternoon sun shining directly upon your oil-rich, but still pretty/charming/commanding, excuse for a face… 😉
Just so your relatives, friends and classmates from years, years ago, could say, “Ang ganda naman! Saan ‘yan? Ganyan ka na pala kataba?” *
* How beautiful! Where is that? My, you’ve grown fat, I hardly recognized you. 😉 🙂
Wow. I feel like I got to go on a tour with you, except I didn’t have to walk, climb, or endure the tropical heat. 🙂 The churches and views are wonderful, but I think you are what makes the tour fun and special!
hello, sir RK. enjoyed Phil landscapes? Taal Volcano is so much nicer up close. also, Mayon Volcano when viewed from the wharf… it’s nice to stand at the church patio of Taal when the sun has gone down, hehe. thanks, so much. 😉
Wow ! The Philippines have beautiful churches too ! ! * Except I think I’m now a bit church weary, so let me take a rest for a while. ha ha ha. After my travelogue, I plan to showcase the Philippines so I’m looking for great pics, but I want more of the unusual, not churches.
yes, Ren… hmn, you could say that the Spaniards didn’t just propagate the faith, they also built majestic churches and institutionalized Catholic rituals… but yes, i understand you saw a good number of cathedrals in Europe. you could stand not seeing them again for a coupla more years, haha. regards. 😉
This post brought back so many memories of attending weddings in different churches across the Philippines, being a bridesmaid thrice (and I even caught the bouquet once although I didn’t get married until six years later, so much for the superstition), and playing ninang to 20 babies!
Churches in the Philippines are truly beautiful. I haven’t been to the one where you had to climb 500 steps. With my current intolerance to heat (due to age, of course), I’d die on the 20th steps.
Lovely post, ‘San. Thoroughly enjoyed reading this, specially the humorous side of you 😉
hello, Nadia… hala, lagi ka pala sa Catholic churches, ang dami mong inaanak, hehe and mahilig kang um-attend ng weddings, hala… aling church pala ang napuntahan mong nagandahan ka talaga? 😉
ahaha, di naman sila continuous na 500 step-stairs. di ba ang usual, may 50 tapos lakad konti, tapos 50 steps uli, parang gano’n… there are a few na may 200 to 300 step-stair na continuous, pero mas uso ang may break, platform bago uli mag-hagdan. basta… 😉 OA ka, 20 steps lang? you may, sa 27th, ganyan, hehe.
hala, salamat. lumabas ang mga panlalait ko, haha. epekto siguro ng init. 😉 hope you are well, dear. hi to Masood… 😉
I always get amazed with the architectural magnificence of Old Catholic Churches. If only they don’t remind me of some of the ills besetting our society then they would be perfect for my appreciative eyes. Never the less, a church visit is almost always a part of our itinerary every time we go on a trip. We would never fall short of them in the country, would we? They are however worth a visit specially for someone like me who like watching structures with historical and artistic value. If I’m going to visit one anytime soon, I’m not sure but then again, a trip is never complete for us without a church visit.
I like how your witty side-comments neutralized the supposed to be solemnity of your subjects. Thanks for bringing us on a virtual trip Ate San, you know naman I don’t like getting dominated by father sun. 🙂
hello…. ahaha, magnificent nga ang churches, awe-inspiring, sinabi mo pa. ills besetting our society? ayon, i wrote about that sa dpsa serye on rural development, two parts – about our colonial past (bandang pahuli na)…
pero, yun nga. parating may church visits sa lakad ng pamilya, ahihi. ang mga Pinoy raw, when they go on European tours, una at kasama parati ang trip to Vatican and basta pwede, magbe-bless sa Pope, ahaha. kainaman na… 😉
but you’re right, aesthetics-wise and usapang artistry, winner ang old churches dito sa atin. i guess, yun yon, e. hindi lang naman dito sa atin, maski sa ibang bansa – forced labor ang ipinagtayo ng magnificent architectures. they were built by conquerors with visions and big egos, ahaha. they wanted to leave their marks… and they did, for the next generations to appreciate…
maybe, hindi lang ang lines and curves ang maalala natin when we look at them, but also the whips that landed on the backs of the unnamed and unrecorded people who toiled through decades and centuries to have those structures built. para may ma-picture-an tayo, ahaha. ^^
salamat for going on a virtual trip with me… mahirap magkwento ng solemn, ahihi. mas maganda ang maraming pasaway na hirit. 😉 hay, naku, the sun isn’t called Haring Araw for nothing, alam mo yan, June… 😉 regards and take care.
Quite an extensive tour with accompanying historical review of old churches you got here. Nice.
ahaha, quite a long trip i imposed upon the unfortunate readers. thanks for going through the ordeal, glad you like it. 🙂 hello, doc. regards to you & yours… ^^
At lot can be said about the Spaniards and their former colonization of a lot of place like abundantly in Latin-America, but they knew how to build churches. I am not sure if that could be said to be mediating circumstances… Thanks for the tour.
hello, sir Otto… yes, they did build good and sturdy churches, ahaha. as for the colonization, ah, they did what they had to do? lol… 😉 am sure glad you read through the article. many thanks and regards, sir. 🙂
Is this the new project you spoke about? It is so worth the wait. Again you enrich my world with wonder.
hello, sir Bernard… hmn, what project… i’ve so many plans i barely have time to work on any of them, haha. i wonder which of those i told you about, ahaha. thanks very much for putting up with the rather long article. i hope it gave you some idea of my country and people. warm regards… 🙂
What a lovely post dear!! Loved reading (and looking at) every bit of it!
More such accounts please!
hello, PC! so glad you liked the write-up… thank you, very much. 🙂 oh, our country and people are interesting, ahaha. 😉
okay, when i’ve more time, i’ll do tourism bits about the Philippines, hehe. thanks for reading and for the visit. hope you are well… 🙂
that would be great!! I am very little familiar with your country. Some posts about the politics and culture there would be interesting too!
Cheers and Warm Regards!
ahaha… if Indians have the British, we have the Spaniards and the Americans, come to think of it… how would I put it? many Filipinos behave like the Spanish conquerors (esp the rich folks here, haha) and lots of Pinoys (Filipinos) want to be Americans, hehe…
btw, in the meantime, do read the posts Belt Ahoy! Singing and the Filipinos and Kinder and Gentler:Conclusion. these posts discussed about our culture and politics – as a people many times defeated (haha) and struggling I hope (hehe)…
i hope i could steal time to do write-ups about my travels. kind regards to you. keep on loving… 😉
thanks a lot…I will surely read these lovely things I might have missed!!
hello, PC… i see you just did. thanks and warm regards. 🙂
what an amusing and vivid text so full of humor!!! 😀 as you mentioned the rosary, for us tourists our “rosary” is complaining about the hot weather and long panting ways being our indulgence just for being what we are: anteing tourists! 😉 so maybe it’s the architectures revenge against us grinning into the camera’s eye with the fist exhaustedly half-lifted in V-sign. or maybe it’s the tourists’s way of taking revenge for bringing up money for so many inconveniences – and now behaving so misplaced. 😀 (though I have to tell you that it was a native – a sportive old man in his grey hair – behaving most misplaced as far as I have seen. in the Baroque garden of palace Belvedere in Vienna he was jogging in neon yellow shorts cut in 80ies style (ending right with his bottom cheek *uärrrks*).)
I have to admit, I really like the inner architecture of Taal Basilika. it’s amazingly great! it creates the mood those dark cathedrals in Europe have, although – unlike them – it’s so light. 🙂
thanks for your travel report. I enjoyed the imaginative trip to your country. 🙂
ahaha, thank you, very much. happy that you appreciated the write-up. 🙂 haha, being a tourist, always full of complaints… ^^ actually, am not talkative or difficult during trips. i usually observe and bear and grin all the inconveniences. i just savor the scenery, the food and the sights… after the trip, with my pen or the keyboard, that is another matter, ahaha. 😉 so funny that you still remember the man at Belvedere, he must have been a sight, hehe. ^^
thank you. Taal Basilica is huge, somber and formal up close. i think the church people must have had it repainted about two decades back to make it lighter to the eyes, ahaha. in many ways, it is still very similar to the dark and foreboding Catholic churces in Europe, hehe. it is quite beautiful outside – very windy, flowery and archaic…
glad you enjoyed it. am hoping to do another similar feature. don’t know when i will find the time. hope things are doing well on your end. miss you, J.A. 🙂
Wow, some beautiful architecture!
thanks, glad you liked them, ms. lilly 🙂
Hahaha, the part about your older sister urging you to drink up your mineral water so she could filled them up with Holy Water got me rolling in laughter. It is so us. So Pinoy.
hihi, that seems to be a classic Pinoy nanay act. what to do, eh?
o, when do i get to read your blog, dear? am serious. you know i used to queue at the theater backstage to wait for you and ogle at your performance, ahaha. please do write – in blog, Che. now na. ^_^
Phew! I felt hot and sticky just reading that and I’m in England in the winter still! The buildings are fabulous, I particularly like Paoay – those buttresses too with their green cladding. I’m always amazed by how huge cathedrals are when they were built with no big engines or cranes just little human beings. Thanks for pointing me to this, I really enjoyed it. My dad wrote a little book on castles (Discovering Castles) and one on houses (yes, Discovering Houses) that were used in schools (he was a teacher) many years ago and we went to so many that now when I’m asked – have you been to so-and-so castle/house/church – I usually say, probably. Like you and the church you visited with your mother, sometimes when I visit the memory of the visit comes back to me with a wave of other memories. A little unlooked for treat. Bye for now, waving 🙂
ahaha, summer has just begun here, Mary. welcome to the three-month purgatory and visita iglesias tradition in the Philippines. ah, that Church, San Agustin is interesting, true – very thick walls. oh, the architects and the engineers then must really be geniuses, haha, and they used forced labor, of course. some of the churches here took 50, 70, 100 or more years to build… and yes, some of them are like castles and palaces. but i think, the castles in Europe are more interesting and more elaborately constructed. yes, childhood memories, you never know when they’ll show up… here’s to outback living for you. take care… 🙂