BOOK REVIEW: A Tourist Guide to Notable Philippine Churches

by Rose Churma

It is time to visit the Philippines! If you do, don’t forget to see its churches that are located from as far north as Batanes to Misamis Oriental in Mindanao.

The Philippines is known as a predominantly Roman Catholic country in Asia due to its colonization by Spain. These churches are known for their historic significance and their aesthetic value, and was built by Spanish friars to provide a permanent structure for worship, as well as impress the non-believers into converting into the Christian faith.

Interestingly, not all the churches featured here belong to the Roman Catholic faith. The church from Sagada in Benguet is of the Episcopalian denomination which reflects its history as an American-influenced town.

Another church which defies classification is the flying-saucer shaped church located within the University of the Philippines campus in Diliman, Quezon City. An example of modern religious architecture, it was designed by the late National Artist (1990) Leandro Locsin where he experimented with the use of a thin concrete shell for its roof.

Most of the churches featured have significant historic value. The church in Dipolog City in the province of Zamboanga Del Norte, which was built in 1895 boasts of an altar designed by Dr. Jose Rizal, the Philippines’ national hero. Another church located 15 kilometers from Dipolog is the Church of St. James in Dapitan. A marker identifies the spot where Rizal stood when he heard Mass every Sunday during his exile from 1892 to 1896.

The book identifies significant churches in all regions of the country. Shown on the book’s cover is the famous Paoay Church in Ilocos Norte. Named the Church of St. Agustine, this is the town’s most notable landmark, with its Aztec-like structure that is situated near the banks of the Wawa River.

The church is an example of “Philippine Earthquake Baroque” architecture and has been declared a National Cultural Treasure and is included in the UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 1994. Its thick coral block walls (1.67 meters thick) were covered with bricks and sealed with a hard lime mortar mixed with sugar cane juice.

In Central Luzon, the Barasoain Church in Malolos, Bulacan, was the site of the Revolutionary Congress and the venue for the inauguration of the short-lived First Philippine Republic, as well as the short-lived term of Joseph Estrada.

Metro Manila boasts of a few historic churches, some of which were rebuilt after the war or after a major earthquake like the Minor Basilica of San Sebastian located at Plaza Del Carmen at the end of C.M. Recto Avenue in Quiapo.

The structure was declared a historical landmark in 1973 and was listed as “endangered” by the World Monuments Watch, a global program of the World Monuments Fund.

It is the only all-steel church in Asia and second to the Eiffel Tower in the world. It is also the first pre-fabricated building in the world. Located on a 704 square-meter site, its central nave is 12 meters from the floor and its dome reaching up to 32 meters to the tip of the spires.

The most interesting part of the book was its “Introduction” where the author provides a historical context to the churches: how these were built, influences to its architectural style, and the impact of the local climate (and regularity of earthquakes and typhoons).

The author describes how the church hierarchy in Spain during that time systematized the process of evangelization: they divided the Philippines into zones of influence and assigned these to five different religious orders.

The Agustinians arrived in 1565 with the conquistadores, followed by the Franciscans in 1578, followed by the Jesuits in 1581. The Dominicans came in 1587 while the Augustinian-Recollects (a reformed and stricter branch of the Agustinians) arrived in 1606.

The Spanish missions created by the orders followed a certain pattern (called Orthodox Mexican Model) and consists of a church, the convent, the bell tower and the atrium. Eventually the atrium evolved into the now familiar town plaza.

Four Philippine churches are on the UNESCO World Heritage List: The Miagao Church in Iloilo, the church in Santa Maria, Ilocos Sur, the San Agustin Church in Intramurous, Manila and the Paoay Church in Ilocos Norte (as shown on the book’s cover).

These churches are recognized as fusions of European Baroque as interpreted by Chinese and Filipino craftsmen. In addition to this four notable structures, the National Museum honored 26 other Spanish-era churches as National Cultural Treasures.

For those doing a road trip in the Philippines, reading up on these notable churches before you plan your itinerary is recommended.

Each town has an edifice dedicated to worship—and most likely it will be a historic structure worth your time to visit and will also be an experience to satisfy your five senses.

ROSE CHURMA established a career in architecture 40 years ago, specializing in judicial facilities planning. As a retired architect, she now has the time to do the things she always wanted to do: read books and write about them, as well as encourage others to write.

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