At one point being a lakwatsero I’ve been obsessed in rounding up all the UNESCO World Heritage Sites here in the Philippines. According from Wikipedia, a UNESCO World Heritage Site is a place (such as a forest, mountain, lake, island, desert, monument, building, complex, or city) that is listed by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) as of special cultural or physical significance.
Currently, we have 6 that made on the list, one of them is collectively composed of 4 Baroque Churches built during the Spanish occupation of the Philippines. These churches have been at the forefront of not just the Philippine colonial history, but also in propagating Catholicism in the islands, and deceptively serving as the political backbone of Spanish rule, during those times when Church and State are regarded as one. The unique architecture and aesthetics of these churches reflect the amalgamation of various influences creating a distinct look, very much our own. Influences from Spanish/Latin American architecture to the local environment like fusion of Chinese motifs in San Agustin (it is near to the oldest Chinatown in the world) and a depiction of a papaya, coconut and palm tree in the façade of Miag-ao church, are very much apparent.
These churches had been subject to numerous attacks by local revolts and rebellions, hence, most had the appearance of a fortress, rather than just serving as mere place of worship. In the case of Santa Maria Church, located on top of a hill, serving as a citadel during those turbulent times. Miag-ao Church also withstood the occasional attacks of Muslims from the south that tried to invade the Visayas.
Furthermore, the location of the Philippines along the Pacific Ring of Fire called for the emphasis on a specific type of building construction technique. The classic example is the Paoay church in Ilocos Norte, for example, it has thick buttresses and foundation, with thick solid bases with strong butresses from its both sides and back resulting to a unique hybrid of architecture- the Earthquake Baroque, that can only be found in the Philippines and Guatemala two highly earthquake-prone region in the world.
Three of the them can be found in mainland Luzon and one is in the Visayan region, these national cultural treasures are highly regarded heritage sites not just from its religious value but also from its historical, cultural, architectural and aesthetic standpoint. Go see and check it for yourself!
1. Immaculate Conception Parish Church of San Agustin
Location: Intramuros, Manila
How to get there: take a cab to Intramuros and look for San Agustin Church. It is just few blocks away from Manila Cathedral
Located within the historic walled city of Intramuros, the church holds the distinction of being the oldest stone church in the Philippines founded in 1571 and built in 1589. It is a administered and run by the Order of Saint Agustine (Augustinian Friars)
With regards of the venue, the church is also dubbed as “the wedding capital of the Philippines“, because of the sheer volume of couples who book the church for their wedding year round. Aside for the church, there is a museum open to the public for a fee.
2. Church of Our Lady of the Assumption or the Sta. Maria Church
Location: Sta. Maria Ilocos Sur
How to get there: From Cubao in EDSA, board on a buses that goes to Vigan or Laoag and alight at Sta. Maria Ilocos Sur, 40km before before reaching Vigan town proper. Travel time approximately 5-6 hrs via Mc Arthur Hi-Way going to Ilocos Sur.
if you are on your way to the heritage town of Vigan or Laoag by land, one of the town that you will pass by is Sta. Maria in Ilocos Sur. Passing their town plaza, when you follow the sharp curve of the road to your left you will not fail to see an imposing brick church that sits on a narrow hill connected by a flight of granite steps. That, is the Sta. Maria Church or the Asunta Parish church to the Ilocanos.
Founded in 1765, it is a national landmark that was used as a fortress during the 1896 Revolution. It is located in Ilocos Sur. The church sits on a hill that can be reached by an 85-step wide stairway made entirely of granite. On the church façade you will find an elevated walkway that connects the convent in front and the church itself. At the back of the church is a vast expanse of land
Common of most earthquake proof churches, the pagoda shaped bell tower is separated from the church to prevent it from collapsing on the church itself during strong tectonic movements. The octagonal, 4-storey bell tower is tapered, each level narrows as it reached the last floor, very typical of earthquake Baroque designs. A dome can be found on the top floor that is capped by a cupola. a clock is strategically facing the granite stairway for all church goers to see.
3. San Agustin Church of Paoay
Location: Paoay Ilocos Norte
How to get there:
By Bus- From Cubao in EDSA take buses going to Laoag (travel time 7-8 hrs) Then from Laoag, its another 30 mins land travel to go to Paoay.
By plane- PAL and all domestic carriers fly to Laoag once a day. Travel time is approximately one hour. Then from Laoag, its another 30 mins travel by land travel to go to Paoay.
If you happen to be in Vigan, head on up north to reach Laoag, on the way, you will pass by the town of Paoay (pronounced as pa-way). Formerly called as Bombay, it is where you will find the best example of localized Baroque architecture in the form of a church. San Agustin Church, or simply Paoay Church began its construction in 1604 and finally completed in 1710. Its aesthetics and architecture is an interesting mix of Gothic, Baroque and Javanese designs.
Flanking on its sides and the back you will find its 24 buttresses made of entirely coral blocks and stucco-plastered bricks erected to help the church withstand the strongest of earthquakes and other natural disasters. The stair-like feature (also called step buttresses) is used to have an access of the roof which during the Spanish times, made up of lighter materials such as straw and dried cogon.
Like the the Sta. Maria church, its bell tower is also separated from the main church structure. Standing on its right side, the three-storey coral belltower constructed separately from the church building on the right side resembling a pagoda. It stands at some distance from the church as a protection against earthquake, in case it collapse. It served as observational post for Filipino revolutionaries against the Spaniards in 1898 and by guerillas against Japanese soldiers during World War II.
4. Santo Tomas de Villanueva Parish Church or Miag-ao Church
Location: Miag-ao Ilo-ilo
How to get there:
By Ro-Ro- From Manila travel to Batangas Pier and take a ferry bound to Iloilo (travel time 17 hrs)
By plane- PAL and all domestic carriers fly to Iloilo once a day. From Iloilo airport going to Miag-ao is approximately 1hr 30mins by land travel.
Separated by islands and seas from the three other churches, the Miag-ao Church is a sight to behold. The uniqueness of the structure made it called the “Miag-ao Fortress Church” because of its castle-like appearance. It served its purpose when it became the defensive stronghold of the town during the Muslim raids during the Spanish-Moro wars of the 1700s. Constructed from 1787 to 1789 through forced labor.
The church’s most prominent feature is the gold plated retablo. The altar being used today is the original altar that dates back to the late 1700s that was believed to be lost during the fire of 1910 and was discovered during the excavations that had made on the church in 1982. The retablo contains three niches. On the middle is the crucifix and on both sides are the statues of its patron saint, St. Thomas of Villanova and St. Joseph. The tabernacle below the crucifix is finished in 98% pure gold and silver. On both sides of the sanctuary are images of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Immaculate Heart of Mary which dates back in 1780.
Another feature of the church that distinguishes itself from the rest is its unique façade. A hallmark of conglomeration of Catholic, Muslim, Chinese and Ilonggo influences, the façade is an ornately and intricately designed bas-relief in the middle of two huge watchtower belfries on each side. In it shows the tree of life being held by St. Christopher with a child Jesus on his back. The rest depicted the daily life of the natives including its fauna and flora.
It took me more than two years, two trains, a plane, and four bus rides to round up the four churches but it was an awesome experience. You will learn a lot of things that are not of your history books by checking out these heritage sites. I suggest you visit all of them and find for yourself why these structures are something we should be really proud of.
Want to read and see more? Follow me here: