Monday, June 23, 2014

Captivated by Cebu’s Colonial Churches (Part 2)

About an hour away from Argao is the quaint town of Boljoon (pronounced “bul-ho-on”), which struck me at first sight as one of Cebu’s picturesque coastal towns often depicted in postcards. Founded in 1598, Boljoon  lies on a coastal plain that's  bordered by lush forests and limestone hills that provide an uninterrupted view of Bohol Strait.

Dubbed by its drumbeaters as the “Heritage Frontier of Cebu”, the idyllic town has several impressive landmarks worth exploring if you have the luxury of time. For me, however, a heritage walk around the awe-inspiring Boljoon Church would suffice.
The Rock of Ili in Boljoon
When I first saw it a few months ago on a bus en route to Negros Oriental, the plain-looking old church with a triangular pediment bedecked with sparse reliefs standing prominently beside the national highway hardly impressed me.

Maybe I should skip this one, I initially thought while finalizing the list of heritage churches that would form part of my impromptu visita iglesia. Good thing, I didn’t. Appearances often are deceiving, so goes the cliché. This, I discovered to be true in the case of the Boljoon Church.   

Named in honor of the town’s patroness, the Church of the Patronage of Our Lady (Nuestra Señora Patrocinio de Maria), I discovered later, is the only one in the whole province that’s been recognized as a National Cultural Treasure by the National Museum of the Philippines in 2000!

A year earlier, the National Historical Institute had also identified the church as a National Historical Landmark. To fully appreciate why the country’s history and culture experts have bestowed such honors to the Patrocinio de Maria Church, you have to explore its vast sacred grounds.

Built by the Augustinians in 1783, the church is one of the oldest surviving coral stone edifices in Cebu. Despite its age, it has managed to survive a slew of Moro raids, typhoons, floods, and earthquakes. The existing structure, however, isn’t the original one; it’s said to have been destroyed by hostile Moro invaders. 

Twin cornice stone moldings divide the church’s façade into three, with the pediment bearing a carved symbol of the Augustinians. The second level is adorned with shallow pilasters with floral motifs and arch windows flanking a niche containing a statue of the town’s patroness. Underneath the icon is the Spanish coat-of-arms.

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At the lowest level are two reliefs flanking the semi-circular portal. On the right is St. John of Sahagun with his right hand carrying a chalice while on the left is St. Nicholas of Tolentine holding a piece of bread and a palm. If I’m not mistaken, these symbolize Christ’s flesh and blood.

It was, however, the bas-reliefs of a pelican feeding her own flesh to her young, which I saw at the bases of the pilasters on my way to the church’s interior that really caught my fancy as they bear profound symbolisms of the Christian faith.
An early Christian legend has it that in times of famine or drought, the mother pelican would peck her own breast and feed her young with her flesh and blood to keep them alive—even if such a selfless act would actually mean her own death!

Looking at those reliefs carved on the church’s walls, anyone can easily see why it has been used as a decorative motif in the Boljoon Church and in many other houses of worship, I guess. In those images, the pelican which sacrificed itself is a metaphor for Christ who gave his own life for humanity’s sake.

Inside the church, a treasure-trove of delightful architectural surprises await visitors: a long nave whose grandness is matched by a painted ceiling with artwork stretching along its entire length; an exquisite wooden pulpit with carvings and three Rococo-Baroque niched retablos housing icons of venerated saints.  

Interior of the Boljoon Church

Stretching from the choir loft all the way to the main retablo, the beautiful paintings on the ceiling stunned me. Said to have been done by one of the town’s local artists, Miguel Villareal (not Canuto Avila nor Ray Francia as I had earlier thought), the paintings reminded me of the ones I saw in the churches of Argao, Carcar and Dalaguete.

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The main and two side retablos appeared to have been restored with a sprinkling of gold dust. Some portions of the structures, however, have not been covered by the dusting. Despite this, the old world charms of the church’s interior haven’t diminished a bit since the technique was painstakingly done with consistency.

Viewing the church from the sanctuary, I noticed the choir loft with intricately carved traceries on the railings. A pipe organ that’s said to be second oldest in the country hangs on one corner of the church near the choir loft.  

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Facing Bohol Strait, the massive church stands proudly like a sentinel on the lookout for intruders. It may be a house of worship but it was built for defense—a fortress designed to protect the people against the persistent Moro invasions of yore.  

Structured like the quintessential “fortress Baroque” church, Patrocinio de Maria was so designed for a purpose—to help quell the spate of pernicious Moro slave raids that plagued many of Cebu’s coastal towns, including Boljoon, during the 1820s. One just has to look at the archway leading to the church to get an idea that it’s ever ready to wage a war to protect itself and its parishioners. No less than a sculptor of the warrior angel himself—St. Michael the Archangel—guards its entrance archway! 

Annoyed by the frequent invasions, Fray Julian Bermejo, better known as "El Capitan Parroco", the intrepid warrior priest of Boljoon, successfully convinced his fellow priests and the parishioners to build a chain of fortifications that included bulwarks, fences and watchtowers, in the coastal towns of the province.

Icon of St. Michael
Known as baluarte in Spanish, the bulwarks had watchtowers (lantawan to the locals) doubling as belfries equipped not only with bells but also canons and tall poles on which flags where hoisted to serve as early warning to the townspeople of any forthcoming Moro attack, as in the case of Boljoon. 
Boljoon also has a rectory that’s probably the oldest and biggest remaining residential building from Spanish colonial times. Located beside the church, the two-story structure, which was completed in 1847, used to accommodate the top members of the clergy who regularly came to town  in those days. 

Original marble tiles on the floor
Formerly a bodega, the rectory's ground floor has been converted into a museum showcasing the town's ecclesiastical and liturgical treasures. Leading up to the second floor is a grand staircase with ornately carved posts. The second floor currently houses the town’s parish priest and his aides.

The rectory's grand staircase
Recently, the rectory survived the killer quake last October 2013 that struck Bohol, Cebu and other nearby places, destroying many old structures. I noticed, however, that huge orange tarpaulins have been placed on its roof, which is made of clay roof tiles. Maybe they’re covering the damaged parts of the roof, I surmised.

Indeed, paying a visit to the Boljoon Church will make any true-blue Pinoy proud of his heritage. And it won’t come as a surprise to me if the Patrocinio de Maria Church would be among those that will make it to the next batch of the country’s Baroque churches to be included in the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

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