Last March 18, as part of several activities marking the Quincentennial of the circumnavigation of the globe by the Magellan-Elcano expedition in 1521, the Guiuan church in Eastern Samar was given a historical marker by the National Historical Commission of the Philippines.
Damaged severely by super typhoon “Yolanda/Haiyan” in 2013 but rehabilitated by the National Museum of the Philippines, with some funding from the U.S. government, the church is significant not only because Guiuan town covers Suluan, the first Philippine island that Magellan sited, and Homonhon, the first island where the Spaniards landed. It is also significant for having passed across the centuries into the hands of three of the five original missionary orders that evangelized the Philippines—the Jesuits, Augustinians, and Franciscans—and for having been built of cut coral stone. European influences meld with native materials and flora-and-fauna design motifs in what should constitute as an architectural, engineering, and artistic inculturation all for the greater glory of God.
The cross-cultural interfacing is described by Regalado Trota José in his highly informative “Simbahán: An Illustrated Guide to 50 of the Philippines’ Must-Visit Catholic Churches” (2020, RPD Publications; available at Solidaridad Book Store, tel. 82541068), with handsome watercolor illustrations by architect-artist Allan Jay Quesada: “From the Jesuit era are the gorgeously carved baroque doors … (as well as the) retablos in the sanctuary and the left transept. The Augustinian presence is attested by the rococo panel fronting the right side of the retablo. The Franciscans introduced a unique decorative scheme: mosaics of 106 species of shells and corals accenting cornices and pilasters, culminating in the baptistry.”
“Simbahán” provides a historico-cultural tour covering 50 churches from Northern Luzon to Bicol, from Visayas to Mindanao. The rich information and the gorgeous illustrations all build up the thesis of José, ecclesiastical historian, cultural heritage studies scholar, and archivist of the University of Santo Tomas, that “(w)hile temples and stupas may be the architectural icons of much of Asia, the church is arguably the Philippines’ most distinctive building.”
Those who attack the Quincentennial celebrations for allegedly memorializing colonialism and a foreign religion should read the book. While evangelization and colonization might have gone hand in hand, Christianity and the Spanish (and European) heritage were formative elements in the making of the Philippine nation. Moreover, Filipinos have naturalized Christianity and the Latin heritage as to make them their own, as underscored by Jose in “Simbahán”: “Through three hundred and fifty years of Spanish rule, the indigenous names for places of worship were retained, instead of the Spanish iglesia. The word for ‘church’ in much of central and southern Philippines, simbahán —accented on the final syllable—was chosen for the book’s title, a conscious move away from the Manila way of naming things (which accents simbáhan on the middle syllable). The word itself developed from samba, to worship.”
A church architecture historian, José provides more than the usual catalogue of architectural styles. His goal is to provide a cultural and historical context for a better-rounded appreciation of such engineering and design marvels. “One of the points of the book,” he tells this writer, “was to give a cultural context to the church and its complex--not just its architecture, but other significant aspects such as other artworks, personalities involved, the religious order that built it, etc.” He also tries likewise to introduce to readers less-known churches. “I also included examples from all over the Philippines, trying to avoid overexposure of Ilocos and Bohol, to include Mindanao and Siquijor, and Southern Leyte, for example; also churches built by the secular priests, who are not given credit for their building activities.”
Not only Spanish colonial churches are featured in “Simbahán,” but those built in the 20th century. “I also brought the churches into a broader historical perspective, not just Spanish colonial, but American period and modern as well, especially those which experimented in indigenizing Christian art, such as Victorias (in Negros Occidental).”
Because Augustinians were the original missionaries in the country, the churches they built are the oldest and in fact, they monopolize the Philippine contributions to the Unesco World Heritage List. But “Simbahán” casts the spotlight as well on little known Augustinian churches, such as the Patrocinio de Maria church in Boljoon, Cebu, whose “façade is based on ratios and triangles, marked by pilasters emblazoned with ribbon-like belts that symbolize the Augustinian Rule given by Our Lady of Consolation”; and the San Juan Nepomuceno church in Anini-y, Antique, which, for Jose, is quite a discovery, for its location by the sea, “in a tranquil setting of verdant trees and shrubs—a welcome sight and happy surprise to any traveller.” Moreover the ornamentation is very tasteful: “The undercutting and distribution of the floral ornamentation on the arches over the main entrance and niches, as well as the cornices and capitals of the pilasters, are of a refinement shared with the churches in San Joaquin and Guimbal (in Iloilo).” But the most pleasant discovery is the coral-stone cupola of the belltower, whose “precisely-cut stonework … is almost never noticed—except by Him who creates artists!”
The Recollects are known for their churches in Bohol, but “Simbahán” casts the spotlight on less-known temples built by the “discalced Augustinians,” such as the St. Augustine of Hippo church in Bacong, Negros Oriental, whose floorboards were made of timber cut in Tanjay, “44 kilometers to the north,” and Bais, “a bit further at about 58 kilometers,” and whose belltower is praised by Jose: “(Its) precise fitting of irregularly angled stone blocks is arguably the best in the country.” Inside is “the only Spanish-period pipe organ in Negros.” Of course there’s also the St. Joseph church in Las Pinas, famous for its bamboo organ made by its first curate, the now famous Recollect friar Diego Cera (1762-1832). It is said the bamboo carefully selected by the friar were buried in the sand for a year “to render them unappetizing to insects.” Also an engineer, Cera himself built the church. “Lime for the masonry was obtained from talaba, the local oysters,” writes Jose.
Meanwhile the Franciscans in the 18th century found the stone St. Gregory the Great church that their brethren had built in the previous century already very decrepit that they built a brick wall around it, the thickness measuring three meters. “It is said that leaves of the puso-puso plant were crushed and mixed with the mortar for added stability,” José writes. The result is a façade that is “severely monumental.”
The Dominicans built the serene-looking but formidable edifices in Batanes, Cagayan Valley, and Pangasinan. The churches by the sons of St. Dominic are known for their sturdiness. “Brick walls of the churches built by the Dominicans throughout Cagayan, even without the lime plaster protection, are more durable that those in Ilocos,” José writes.
The seculars should not be ignored. Built by the diocesan clergy in the early 19th century is the Church of St. Joseph in Matalom, Leyte. Of cut stone, it was eventually attached to the baluarte or bastion that most probably was the town’s defense against the Muslim slave raids. At the apex of the façade are the papal tiara and crossed keys of St. Peter, signifying that the church was administered by the diocesan clergy.
Also built by the secular clergy in the 19th century is St. Joseph church in Barcelona, Sorsogon: “What makes the church stand out is its remarkable façade. One can see from behind that it was built of rubblework, like the rest of the edifice, but later faced with cut stone. Its mass is composed of three vertical planes: the two walls that flank the main entrance are slightly concave, following the neoclassic style … Above the pediment rises the belfry, also made of stone… Gracious balustrades on either side crown the cornice.”
The watercolor illustrations by Quesada add to the romance of old churches and even the few 20th century churches included in the list, such as the San Isidro Labrador in Victorias City, Negros Occidental (the famous altar mural in fiery colors by Alfonso Ossorio of Christ sending the Holy Spirit to the world is illustrated), the Holy Sacrifice at the University of the Philippines in Diliman, and the Mother of Perpetual Help in Baclaran, become endowed with the patina of ancient grace through the skillfull brushwork of the artist.
Quesada is a licensed architect and it is obvious he takes delight in all the technical and design details of the edifices he paints. But more than the design and engineering contours, he provides glimpses of the environment in which the churches thrive, the liturgical space, if you may, around which a house of worship stands, like palms pressed together in prayerful embrace. His resonant renderings in transcendent aquarelle give these temples of the Filipinos’ abiding faith a throbbing and vital spirit.