By Rene Calalang
February 13, 2017
Many of us, seniors and retirees, now spend lots of time travelling. After all, we are now in a position to do the things we cannot do before because of our previous obligations.
We cruise the Mediterranean and the Baltic Sea and on its Ports of Call, most likely, because of our religion, we would join tours because it includes visits to centuries old Christian churches, cathedrals and basilicas, most of which were built during the Spanish and Roman Empires, which in Europe are aplenty.
We take pride in going on Pilgrimage in Israel - most specific in Jerusalem, Bethlehem and in those areas around the Sea of Galilee, because it was here, according to the Bible, Jesus Christ, The Son of God was born, and would spend his entire life, and through Him Christianity would emanate. With the evolution of Christianity, many churches, cathedral and basilicas would be built in many parts of the world to honor Him.
And in our mother country, the Philippines, being a former colony of Spain, a Catholic Country, dozens of Catholic churches, cathedrals and basilicas were built (some says to spread Christianity, while others claims for the subjugation of the Filipinos) comparable in beauty, architecture and history to others, in many parts of the world.
But we seem to ignore them, maybe because of our colonial mentality - that is believing that those in foreign land are more beautiful and more historical.
But I don’t think so.
The reality is four of them, which are classified as Spanish Baroque Churches of the Philippines, were declared as World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1993. They are San Agustin Church in Manila, The Nuestra Senora de la Azuncion in Ilocos Sur, The San Agustin Church in Ilocos Norte and the Sto Tomas Villanueva Church in Iloilo.
And one of them, The San Agustin Church and Museum in Manila, I had the pleasure of visiting not too long ago, and from my visit, and supplemented by some reading, I learned a bit of its history.
SAN AGUSTIN CHURCH, the oldest Catholic Church in the Philippines and considered the most beautiful, was the first Catholic Church built by the Spaniards when they moved the seat of government from Cebu to Manila.
It is one of the many places to visit inside Intramuros, the Walled City during the Spanish time.
THE PRESENT CHURCH was the third one to be built on the present site. The first one was built in 1571 by The Augustinians Friars, originally named Iglesia Y Convento de San Pablo or Church of St. Paul, using bamboo and nipa, which during that time, were the common building materials.
In 1574, a Chinese pirate named Limahong invaded Manila, which led to the burning of the city, including San Agustin Church.
Another church was built using wood, but in a fire that started when a candle set ablaze the drapes during the internment of the then governor general Gonzalo Ronquillo de Penaloza, destroyed the church.
The Augustinian Friars, making sure the new one could withstood fires better, decided to use adobe stones for its reconstruction. Construction of the third one started in 1586.
Architect Juan Macias led the design and reconstruction (through an administrative order based on a plan approved by the Royal Audiencia of Mexico and by a Royal Cedula) starting in 1586 using adobe stones quarried from Meycauayan, Binangonan and San Mateo. Unfortunately Juan Macias, who was acknowledged as the builder of the church, would not see the completion of his masterpiece as he would die before its completion.
The monastery was completed in 1604, while the church was officially declared complete in 1607, and was named Iglesia San Pablo de Manila (St. Paul de Manila).
In 1762, during the Seven Years War between Great Britain and Spain, the British looted the church.
In 1854, the church was renovated with Architect Luciano Oliver in charge.
The design was similar to the many churches built by Augustinian Friars in Mexico with a symmetrical façade of High Renaissance design with a touch of Baroque Architecture. Two Tuscan columns flank the main door, with two Corinthians columns lining up with the Tuscan columns on the second level.
Inside, on each side of the nave are seven chapels.
The interior was painted by two Italians, Alberoni and Dibella, who were commissioned in 1875, and were successful in creating a trompe l’oeil art (according to Wikipedia,- trompe l’oeil is an art technique that uses realistic imagery to create the optical illusion that the depicted objects exist in three dimensions. Forced perspective is a comparable illusion in architecture) on walls and ceilings.
Besides the altar is a chapel dedicated to the Founder of Manila, Governor General Miguel Lopez de Legazpi, whose remains were reburied by the Augustinians together with many other Conquistadores like Juan de Salcedo and Martin de Goite, in a common grave.
In the choir loft, which I accessed at the second floor of the museum, choir seats carved in molave with ivory inlays could be found. Looking down and forward from the loft, I could see the panoramic view of the interior: the magnificent sixteen 19th century chandeliers imported from Paris, the grand pipe organ, the 16th century crucifix…etc.
The church, whose foundation is believed to be of “inverted vault type” making it an earthquake proof building. Thus, it was the reason, experts believed, why it survived many earthquakes, including the one that hit Manila the hardest, that of the earthquake on June 3, 1863.
DURING the Second World War, the Japanese Imperial Army used the church as a concentration camp for POW. In the Battle of Manila in 1945, which lasted three weeks, the Japanese Army held hostage many Manila residents and members of the clergy in San Agustin Church, many of which would be killed.
During the bombing of Intramuros by the American and Filipino Forces, where all churches inside the walled city were destroyed except San Agustin Church, with only the roof getting damaged. However, the monastery was completely destroyed, and was rebuilt in 1970’s as a museum under the guidance of Architect Angel Nakpil.
Also in 1945, because of the damage to Manila Cathedral, the Archbishop of Manila transferred the seat of the Immaculate Conception from Manila Cathedral to San Agustin Church.
When the war was over, San Agustin Church was chosen as the venue for the first Philippine Plenary Council.
IN 1976, the church, because of its history, was formally declared as a National Historical Landmark.
TODAY, the church is one of the main attractions in Intramuros, and rightfully so. It is also, together with the Paco Cemetery, a favourite wedding venue among Filipinos, especially those romantic and nationalistic couples.
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