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. 😉 🙂