Sunday, June 2, 2013

Bedazzled by Bohol’s Beautiful Churches (Part 1)

Old churches never fail to dazzle me. I’m not what most people would consider  a devout Catholic but I’ve always made it a point to explore a heritage church in the places I’ve been to. Be it Baroque, Byzantine, Gothic, Neo-Gothic, Neoclassical, Romanesque or modern, snapping the sacred gives me an ineffable joy quite unlike any other. Not only do these spectacular sanctums make exquisite photography subjects, they’re also excellent blogging materials. That’s why they count among those closest to the heart of this photography buff and blogger.

In the many sojourns I’ve made through the years, I’ve had the chance to capture in my lens and feature in my posts the most awesome churches in the country—not a few of which happen to be heritage structures—as well as the sacred pieces found inside them. As always, I stand in awe at the plethora of images highlighting each edifice’s aesthetics, just waiting to be snapped and scribbled—facades, altars, naves, floors, doors, ceilings, rose windows, columns, pews, bas-reliefs, icons, paintings, trompe l'oeil, frescoes, chandeliers, pilasters, pediments, water stoups, gargoyles, belfries, and what have you.

So far, the most spectacular heritage churches I’ve seen are found in the province of Cebu. But I have yet to see those in Luzon which I know are as splendid as those found in the Visayas. Along with Cebu, Bohol has probably the most number of such awe-inspiring structures among all the provinces in Central Visayas. Both provinces happen to be the first among the many to succumb to the power of the Cross when Spain conquered these islands. 

Scattered in nearly two-thirds of Bohol’s forty-seven towns, many old Spanish churches are worth invading simply because of their remarkable architectural designs and ravishing rarities, objets d’art and other religious treasures found inside them. If only to complete my anthology on these churches, I wouldn’t mind coming back to the island province every now and then whenever my rather limited resources would warrant it.  

As of this post, I’ve visited nearly a dozen of Bohol’s majestic houses of prayer, particularly those found in the towns of Alburquerque, Baclayon, Balilihan, Bilar, Dauis, Loay, Loboc, Maribojoc, Panglao and, of course, Tagbilaran City. I’ve also explored the church in Tubigon during a previous visit but I’ll reserve my travel tale on that for my sequel to this two-part post on Bohol’s heritage churches focusing on those found in the northern and eastern parts of the island province. For now, this is the first installment. Read on...

St. Monica Church in Alburquerque

Alburquerque Church. One house of prayer that’s worth visiting when you’re in Bohol is St. Monica’s Church in the town of Alburquerque, fondly called Albur by the locals. Rising prominently over a sprawling terrain just beside the coastal road going to Carmen (where some of the Chocolate Hills are found), this stone church was built in 1885 in honor of St. Monica of Hippo. What drew me to this picturesque edifice is its Mexican-inspired architecture which, I guess, is quite uncommon among the other churches I’ve seen in Bohol and elsewhere.

Built between the mid-1880s up to the 1920s, the Alburquerque Church has at least two distinct features that make it stand out as a one-of-a-kind edifice in all of Bohol: one, its belfry, which stands in the middle of its façade, and two, its convent, which is located at some distance from the main building, with an arcade connecting it to the main building. I’ve first seen the church during a Lenten holiday way back in 2006. It was a rather quick peek so I promised myself to go back there whenever I’m in Bohol. And return I did.

To my dismay, the edifice was closed, just like the first time I was there. Too bad, I wasn’t able to explore the numerous treasures found inside it, particularly the trompe l'oeil adorning its ceiling which were done by Ray Francia, probably the most prolific Visayan church painter of his time. I’ve read somewhere that the church’s interior has undergone massive renovations over the years. Whew, it was really one of the letdowns of my recent tour. 

Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception Church

Baclayon Church. Topping my list of the most beautiful and breathtaking at the same time is none other than Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception Church in the town of Baclayon, one of the oldest stone churches in the country. Whenever I’m in Bohol, I make it a point to hie off to this church located along the coastal road, just a few kilometers away from downtown Tagbilaran. If I’m not mistaken, I’ve been there three or four times already. Still, I find myself in awe of its beauty each time I pay the church a visit.

One of the best preserved edifices built by the Jesuit missionaries (and later improved by the Augustinian Recollects who took over the reins after their predecessors left), the church traces its roots to a visita which the friars founded sometime in the mid-1590s. Baclayon was then considered the seat of the Jesuit missionaries in Bohol but the threat of raids by Moro pirates compelled them to move their headquarters into the interior town of Loboc. 

It wasn’t until 1717, however, that the Jesuits decided to construct a church in Baclayon that is made of sturdy and longer-lasting material: coral stones. From what I’ve gathered, some 200 native laborers were forced to work on the massive structure, hauling the stones from the sea, cutting them into square blocks, relying on bamboo to move the stones into position and piling them like bricks.

About a million egg whites were reportedly used to hold together the coral stones that make up the church. It took the people of Baclayon about a decade to bring to completion what is now known as the Church of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception. Seeing Baclayon’s huge edifice reminded me so much of Iloilo’s impressive heritage church in the town of Miag-ao, which also made use of egg whites to keep the bricks together. Whew, such awesome feats!

Baroque in style, the fortress-looking Baclayon Church boasts of a façade with an arched portico whose main function, I supposed, is to provide shade and shelter to churchgoers during hot and rainy days. It has a plain upper storey and triangular pediment, with arched windows adorning the two levels. Since it doubles as a fort against Moro pirates, the church has immense one-meter thick coral stone walls replete with buttresses for additional support.  

Retablo and altar of the Baclayon Church
If its exterior dazzles, wait till you see the interior of this cruciform church. The pièce de résistance is an exquisite three-tiered, gilded retablo featuring the icons of saints placed inside seven elegantly-lit niches. Vintage frescoes depicting the Holy Trinity, the Holy Family and the Last Supper adorn the ceiling atop this retablo. With all the architectural details found in this stunning work of art, it is evident that the Jesuits wanted to make a statement about the wealth and power of the Church.

Adjacent to Baclayon Church is an old convent which has a small museum laden with centuries-old ivory statues, golden vests, and other precious religious relics and antiquities, mostly dating back to the 16th century. It is said that the amount of liturgical treasures preserved there is so remarkable. For security reasons, however, the Baclayon Museum is locked most of the time and permission from the parish to enter it must be secured.

Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Church

Balilihan Church. Next on my list is an edifice which I had a faint idea about at first. Much to my delight, Balilihan, one of Bohol’s interior towns found in the northeastern side of Tagbilaran City, has a mix-styled, turn-of-the-century church that’s a brilliant gem on its own. From the city, it would take about half an hour to get to this sleepy town. Going there wasn’t part of my itinerary but at the insistence of my tour guide who hailed from Balilihan, I gave in. Good thing, I acceded.

Named in honor of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel, the Balilihan Church has one of the most well-preserved frescoes as well as replicas of famous artworks I’ve ever seen in Bohol. Made of concrete, the church was designed in vintage 20th century architectural style, reminding me of Davao’s old San Pedro Church which I saw in pictures. Balilihan’s cruciform structure features a façade with a portico, which was popular among churches during the 1920s to 1930s. 

The church’s original building was said to have been erected somewhere between the 1880s to 1890s but it was reportedly razed to the ground by invading U.S. troops during the Philippine-American War. 
What stands now is believed to have been completed in the 1920s. Like many churches in Bohol, its interiors are adorned with Francia’s trompe l'oeil, which have added grandeur to its ceiling. Meanwhile, the church’s elaborate retablo and altar features an eclectic mix of Corinthian columns, Neo- Gothic spires and crockets and Baroque volutes.

St. Isidore the Farmer Church in Bilar

Bilar Church. Known for its man-made forest of mahogany trees, the sleepy town of Bilar has another attraction worth exploring: St. Isidore the Farmer Church. Built in 1831, this house of prayer was named in honor of its patron saint.  After visiting the man-made forest, my guide and I stopped by this church, which is located near the highway, before proceeding to the Chocolate Hills in Carmen.   
Upon seeing the ornate gateway leading to the main structure and the church’s imposing Neoclassical façade, I was instantly swept away. I was grinning from ear to ear with excitement.  Overwhelmed, I ran towards the church, leaving my tour guide behind. Now, here’s one edifice that’s surely a treasure-trove of ancient icons, artifacts and other precious pieces from a bygone era, I thought.
Inside the church, I was dumbfounded with what I saw—no  trompe l'oeil on the ceiling, no elaborate retablo, no ancient pipe organ. Nada, naught, nil, nothing, none. Instead, my eyes were assaulted by the sight of the usual trappings of a modern-day structure that’s still largely a work in progress: newly installed steel trusses, bamboo scaffoldings, freshly painted concrete walls, unfinished marble flooring, incomplete stained glass windows. Then it hit me. The interior of the Bilar Church was undergoing renovation! 

Woe is me! I expected too much. Disappointed, I sank into one of the pews and fiddled with my Nikon. Sitting there, I closed my eyes. Taking a deep breath, I tried to shut myself off from the rest of the universe. Soon, I felt a wave of bliss engulfing me, making my cares seem like half a world away. I awakened from my trance and it felt good again: I was ready once again to move on to the next tourist attraction. Believe me, something about the simplicity and serenity of that church touched the core of my being one late afternoon in Bilar! 

Our Lady of the Assumption Church in Dauis, Panglao

Dauis Church. Two impressive Spanish churches are found in the island of Panglao. One of them is in the town of Dauis: the stunning coral stone church of Our Lady of the Assumption, located near the causeway connecting the tiny island to Bohol. I’ve visited this house of prayer, which traces its roots to the one established by the Jesuits in 1697, on three separate occasions and I must say that I relished all those times I’ve been there. 

Built by the Recollects between 1863 to 1879, the present-day structure is a unique fusion of Byzantine, Romanesque, Gothic and Neoclassical elements. The modest facade features an arcaded portico shading the entire width of the entrance. Above the portico is the second level facade, built in an ornamental Neoclassical style. This extension encloses the choir loft, a common feature in older churches in the Philippines. 

At the altar, the image of the town’s patroness, Our Lady of the Assumption, greets visitors. What makes the altar unique is the way it was built, which is in the form of a temple, and not a wall-like retablo. And unlike other Bohol churches whose ceilings are painted with trompe l'oeil, the one inside the Dauis Church, particularly the nave and the aisles, bears no such paintings. Instead of biblical scenes, it is embellished with artwork that seems to create the illusion of the Renaissance artesonado, or coffered ceiling. 
Perhaps the most distinguishing feature of this house of worship is the legendary source of water found at the altar’s foot, fondly called Mary’s Well. Legend has it that when Dauis was once invaded by pirates, the townspeople holed themselves up inside the church. Soon, they run out of provisions, including water. After praying for help from their patroness, a well soon miraculously appeared at the foot of the altar! 

To this day, this well has been a source of water for people living close to the church. The water from the well is fresh considering that it’s just a few meters away from the sea. Given that, the folks of Dauis claim it has miraculous healing powers. I supposed the best scientific explanation for that is this: saltwater hasn’t intruded yet into that part of the earth where groundwater is found. Nonetheless, if you have a thing for miracles, bring along a bottle and take some of the “miraculous” water the next time you visit this church. :D

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