Updated: Jun 10, 2020
"Visita Iglesia" (Visiting Churches) is one of the most practiced traditions among faithful Roman Catholics during the observance of Lent. Some may ask, why is it part of the holy week's rituals? Let me give you a short version of the reason.
Whenever I get the opportunity to visit the Philippines during Lent, the tradition continues. It can be done solo, together with members of the family or friends. I am always delighted to have carried out the "Visita Iglesia" in such a nostalgic, historic and meaningful way.
"Visita Iglesia is a Biblical recount of Jesus Christ's suffering. It was when Jesus was most sorrowful and praying in the garden of Gethsemane. Jesus asked His apostles Peter, James and John to keep him company and perform the vigil, to which they agreed. The apostles fell asleep several times, and Judas Iscariot betrayed his master with a kiss. It is considered the beginning of the Lord's passion.
The essence of Visita Iglesia is the meditation of the mysteries of the Holy Rosary. It is also the "Via Crucis" (Stations of the Cross), on Christ's way to Calvary. The original custom was for the followers to pray two stations per church visited; however, faithful have expanded the number of churches to be attended to fourteen, making one Via Crucis per church.
Visita Iglesia also provides many pilgrims a great opportunity and experience to reconnect more deeply to their spiritual sides. Any rendition or way is personal. Whether the practice is traditional or not, it is always the spiritual discovery and journey that matters.
The spiritual significance, heritage appreciation and cultural enrichment of visiting the many oldest churches in a province or country is always rewarding. On your next visit to your hometown in whatever part of the Philippines it may be, I encourage you to experience "Visita Iglesia." I am confident that you will be amazed by the importance, history and treasures you will discover that will enrich you.
The special edition of this article features the 14 churches I have the privileged in my many visits back to the Philippines. These churches are divided into four categories: World Heritage Sites, National Cultural Treasures, National Historical Landmarks and Important Cultural Properties. It stretches from Northern, Central to Southern parts of Luzon and from Western, Central to Eastern Visayas Regions.
UNESCO World Heritage Sites
San Agustin Church (Intramuros, Manila)
San Agustin Church is located inside the scenic and historic walled city of Intramuros Manila. It was completed in 1607, the oldest stone church and the first religious structure constructed by the Spaniards in Luzon. San Agustin Church is believed to have patterned after some of the magnificent temples built by the Augustinians in Mexico.
There are few burials among the famous personalities in the Philippines, such as Miguel López de Legazpi (the first Governor-General of the Spanish East Indies, including the Philippines and Pacific archipelagos). Also, the second Governor-General, Guido de Lavezaris and Lopez de Legazpi’s nephew Juan de Salcedo and one of the Filipino heroes in the 19th century Juan Luna.
The present structure was initially built in 1587 and completed in 1607 under the name Church of St. Paul of Manila. The church is often damaged, however, withstood from significant earthquakes in 1645, 1699, 1754, 1796, 1825, 1852, 1863 and 1880. San Agustin church served as a hospital for several of those injured during the earthquake in 1863 and a concentration camp during the Japanese occupation of World War II.
In 1993, San Agustin Church was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a National Historical Landmark by the Philippine government in 1976.
2. Paoay Church (Paoay, Ilocos Norte)
Paoay Church is officially named as The Saint Augustine Church. The edifice was completed in 1710. This church is famous for its distinct architecture with 24 massive step buttresses and thick walls on the sides as well as the back of the building. It is believed that this church is a Javanese structural design. The church walls are made of mostly large coral stones and bricks. The mortar used is a combination of sand, lime with sugarcane juice boiled with mango leaves, leather and rice straw.
It was declared as a National Cultural Treasure by the Philippine government in 1973 and a UNESCO World Heritage Site under the collective group of Baroque Churches of the Philippines in 1993.
3. Miag-ao Church (Miag-ao, Iloilo)
Known to locals also Santo Tomás de Villanueva Parish Church. Miag-ao was initially a chapel; 1580 became an independent parish. In 1731. History accounts that Miag-ao was frequently visited by More Invaders in the mid-1700s 1754. The building was constructed through forced labour in 1787 and completed a year after.
Some of the distinct features of Miag-ao Church façade are the ornately decorated bas-relief at the centre, which is a mixed Medieval Spanish, Chinese, Muslim[ and local traditions and elements. Another prominent part of the façade is a coconut tree depicted as the tree of life and St. Christopher, dressed in local and traditional clothing carrying the Child Jesus. There are also native flora and fauna representing the daily life of people.
Miag-ao is another Baroque Romanesque architectural style, with two colossal watchtower belfries on each side with thick walls to serve as protection from invaders. The bister colour is from the mixture of adobe, egg, coral and limestone.
The church was declared as a National Shrine and UNESCO World Heritage Site (1993).
4. Santa Maria Church ( Sta Maria, Ilocos Sur)
Our Lady of Assumption Church was a chapel in 1567 and then became an independent ministry parish in 1769.
Legends have it that the patron saint Virgin Mary frequently disappears from the former location only to be found enthronement on a guava tree where it is the church where the church is presently located. The statue of Apo Baket (Miraculous image of Our Lady of the Assumption is ornately designed from wood with ivory face and hands.
Santa Maria is very visible on top of a hill, with 85 steps made of granite rocks and surrounded by a fortress.
The outer walls of the church are reinforced by thirteen massive rectangular buttresses built to withstand earthquakes, hence the design of the Earthquake Baroque architecture.The octagonal four-story bell tower is freestanding, constructed separate from the church and not parallel to the façade.
National Cultural Treasures
5. Parish Church of Santa Monica (Pan-ay, Capiz)
This church was initially built in 1774 but was damaged by a powerful typhoon in 1875. It was rebuilt again in 1884, where it presently stands. The church walls are 3 metres thick of coral blocks. Santa Monica Church owns the largest bell in the Philippines made of 10 tens of coins donated by the town’s citizens. It was declared as National Historic Landmark in 1997.
6. Parish Church of San Isidro Labrador in (Lazi, Siquijor)
This parish became independent in 1857. A neoclassical style church made of coral stone and wood structure was built in 1884. The bell tower was created in 1885. The massive convent was completed in 1891, which is made of hardwood and coral stones. This church is also was nominated for the UNESCO World Heritage Tentative List since 2006.
7. Santiago Apostol Parish Church (Betis, Guagua, Pampanga)
The church was established in 1607 and declared a National Cultural Treasure in 2001. The initial structure is out of light materials and mainly of wood and concrete that has been destroyed by fire several times. The church was rebuilt using concrete materials in 1770.
The main attraction of the church is the original ceiling mural. The entire church is ornately decorated, from the retablos to the wall painting and up to the ceiling. The extensive and intricate artworks of the interior done in 1939 earned it the title Sistine Chapel of the Philippines.
National Historical Landmarks
8. Baclayon Church of Baclayon (Bohol)
Baclayon Church was initially founded in 1595. A Catholic chapel already existed in159 when the first Jesuits priest visited the town. Baclayon became a parish in 1717. The silver tabernacle was made in 1819 while the pulpit was built in 1870, which uses a Baroque and Neoclassical design.
The prominent features are the retablos, pulpit and the tabernacle. The church was heavily damaged during the 2013 earthquake but restored in 2017.
There are three retablos found in this church. Retablo Mayor (central) Gospel Retablo (left side) and Epistle Retablo (right side). The retablo mayor is in scripted with Jesuit’s motto, a medallion with the anagram of Blessed Virgin Mary together with 18th & 19th-century images of St. Joseph (uppermost level) Holy Trinity (center) angels Saint Michael and Gabriel ( middle level) Immaculate Conception, and Saints Anne & Joachim (lowest level).
9. Barasoain Church (Malolos, Bulacan)
Barasoain Church is better known as the "Cradle of Philippine Democracy:”. It is formally called Our Lady of Mount Carmel Parish Barasoain church, which is significant among Filipinos also considered the most important of all religious structures in the country as it is the site of the First Congress. In 1898, during the Spanish-American War, the first president of the Philippines chose Barasoain Church to hold the Malolos Congress that became the Malolos Constitution. The Constitution was ratified in 1899, which led to the inauguration of the First Philippine Republic. Depicted images of the church were featured in 1- peso bill (1918-1973), 10- peso bill (1903-2002) and 200-peso bill ( 2010-2017).
10. San Sebastian Church (Quiapo, Manila)
San Sebastian Church is also known as Minor Basilica de San Sebastian. It was completed in 1891. It is the only steel made church and is a Gothic Architecture in the country. The interior is distinctively designed with groined vaults to allow plenty of light. The true gothic revival designs are found in the altars, pulpits, confessions and compliments the painted steel columns, walls and ceiling to give marble and jasper illusions.
The Gothic revival parts of the church are3 prominent at the confessionals, pulpit, altars and five retablos while the 6 holy water fonts were made of marbles from Romblon. One of the most outstanding images found in the main altar is the image of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, which originated from Mexico that withstood both fires and earthquakes.
In 1998 & 2010 San Sebastian Church was considered for the 100 Most Endangered Sites by the World Monuments Fund.
11. Church of Saun Luis Obispo De Tolosa Church (Baler, Aurora)
It was built initially from palm and bamboo in 1658. Destroyed by tidal waves in 1703 and rebuilt in 1735. Manuel L. Quezon, the first president of the Philippine Commonwealth, was baptized here in 1878. It was under siege from 1898 until 1899. This church was declared as one of the National Historic Landmarks in 2000.
12. Manila Cathedral (Intramuros, Manila)
Minor Basilica & Metropolitan Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception or famously termed as Manila Cathedral. The Basilica started as a parish in 1571, then as a diocese in 1579. The cathedral was severed and destroyed several times; however, it was rebuilt eight times from the original structure in 1581 until 1958. The outside there is a four-armed cross on the dome, which serves as a reference point of astronomical longitudes of the Archipelago, In the inside are the eight pairs of stained glass windows which give the church interior a dramatic lighting effect. The cathedral received its Basilica designation on April 27, 1981. Manila Cathedral is also merited a papal endorsement by Pope Gregory XII, there another homage to it by other popes such as Pope Paul VI, Pope John Paul II and recently by Pope Francis.
Important Cultural Properties
13. San Agustin Church (Lubao, Pampanga)
San Agustin parish church, better known as Lubao Church, is another 17th-century Neo-classic, stone and brick combination church. Founded in 1572 in the village of Santa Catalina, but was moved after 30 years due to annual floods. The Augustinians and the locals of Lubao, constructed this church in 1614-1630, from brick and sand mixed in egg albumen. It was used as a hospital in 1899 by the American Troops and was destroyed during WWII. It was repaired and restored 1949-1952, In 2013, the church was declared as an Important Cultural Property.
14. Our Lady of Assumption Church ( Bulakan, Bulacan)
Our Lady of Assumption Church was initially built as a sub-parish in 1575 then as a church in 1578. It is one of the most elaborately designed churches incorporating a blend of Baroque,Neo-Byzantine and Muslim influences. Burnt in 1762 and rebuilt in 1812. The Bell Tower was added in 1812 then transformed in 1884.
This church was declared as one of the Historical Structures of the Philippines in 2007.