Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Captivated by Cebu's Colonial Churches (Part 6)

One of the time-honored traditions that Filipinos follow during Lent is the visita iglesia, the Spanish phrase for “church visits”. For Catholics, this is the time for remembering Christ’s sacrifices, a time for repentance, redemption and renewal of commitment to follow the Christian ideals. The visits have also become an occasion for Filipino families to gather and go out together in commemorating the passion of Christ. 

Christ carrying the Cross

Done every Holy Thursday, the faithful flock head for seven churches in various locations to say their prayers while following the Stations of the Cross. Breaking tradition, I staged my own visita iglesia for two consecutive days, Good Friday and Black Saturday, to some of the most amazing centuries-old churches in one of the country’s bastions of Christianity: the island province of Cebu.

The church visits to the southern part of the province, which I’ve been doing, not only during the Lenten season, have become a pilgrimage of sorts, enriching me not only spiritually but also enhancing my knowledge of history, culture and the arts. For woven into the facades, walls, towers, ceilings, naves, pilasters, windows and altars of these houses of worship are the historical and socio-cultural heritage of the Filipinos.

St. Therese of Avila Church in Talisay City

This Holy Week, I was able to embark on my visita iglesia to the churches of two cities (Talisay and Naga) and two towns (Naga and San Fernando) along the province’s southeastern heritage trail, in addition to the ones I’ve visited these past few years—the coastal towns of Argao, Dalaguete, Boljoon, Oslob and one of Cebu’s heritage cities, Carcar.  

St. Isidore the Farmer Church in San Fernando

Though I wasn’t able to cover seven churches during my recent sojourn to the province, the visits to the selected houses of prayer have gone a long way in making me feel closer to Christ as I, along with other pilgrims, vicariously accompanied him in his suffering and anguish. Here then is the lowdown on my visita iglesia to some of south Cebu’s wonderful churches:

Talisay City. Founded as a pueblo in 1849, the now bustling city of Talisay was once an estate owned by the Augustinians in the 1640s. Named after the tree species called magtalisay, Talisay has experienced recently an unprecedented boom in real estate development owing to the construction of a six-lane coastal road that fast-tracks the southern towns’ access to the provincial capital, Cebu City. 

I’ve been wanting to explore Talisay mainly because it is home to one of Cebu’s oldest churches—St. Therese of Avila Church. Neatly tucked within a maze of interior roads, I had a hard time finding this church unlike the others which could be easily located as they’re mostly situated along the national highway. With a lot of help from my phone’s tracking app, however, I managed to find it.

St. Therese of Avila Church, one of the few Graeco-Roman churches in the country 


Started in 1836, it took twelve years for this house of worship to be completed. Made of coral stones, the church was originally cruciform in shape with one main nave and short semi-round transepts. Two massive-looking belfries capped with red domes flank the church’s recessed façade.

A foyer with a balustraded portico above it leads to the main entrance. The interiors of the stone church especially the presbytery and the transepts are adorned with carvings painted in gold and blue. There are about five gilded altars, including the main altar, each of them featuring an icon. A large round chandelier hangs in the middle.

One of Talisay Church's side altars

One of the few remaining Graeco-Roman religious structures in the country, the 167-year old house of worship lost much of its heritage features after it was heavily damaged by aerial bombings during World War II. With only its façade and lateral walls intact, it underwent major restoration in 1950.

Efforts are currently ongoing to restore a portion of the church that was severely damaged by the strong quake that hit Central Visayas in 2013.

Naga City. Known as Cebu’s oldest town, Naga (not to be confused with the capital city of Camarines Sur) was founded as a pueblo in 1829. Lying within the Cebu metropolitan area, the city’s name is said to have been derived from narra, the country’s national tree which used to be abundant there.

Naga is the Industrial Capital of South Cebu

In recent years, the city has evolved into south Cebu’s industrial hub brought about by the establishment of several manufacturing and industrial plants, including power generation, cement manufacturing, semi- conductor and crystals processing, shoe-making, wood processing, marble production, to name some.

Entering the poblacion, visitors would surely notice an odd-looking Baroque church found along the highway just across the town hall and plaza—St. Francis of Assisi Church. Built in 1839, the house of worship was named in honor of the city’s patron saint whose huge statue adorns the patio adjacent to the church. 

Two small minaret-like domes stand on each side of the façade. Seeing them, I was reminded of the same structures featured in St. Catherine of Alexandria Church in Carcar City. 

When I first saw the church’s imposing structure a few years ago, I was readily drawn to the striking bas reliefs adorning its facade—cherubs playing musical instruments,  miniature columns, rosettes and floral designs arranged symmetrically at the pediment—a unique fusion of Islamic and Mexican artwork.

Meanwhile, the Naga Church’s stand-alone belfry, which I surmised was added more recently, seemed out-of-character to the church’s Baroque character. I learned later that the original bell tower and portions of the church were damaged during World War II and that the new belfry was constructed only in 1979.

The whitewashed church has a simple interior with a dropped ceiling bearing geometric patterns. The retablo is gilded and so are the cornices adorning the Corinthian pillars and side walls, perhaps to emphasize the details. Like the other churches I visited on Good Friday, the images were veiled in purple cloth.

Sadly, there seems to be little effort, if any, to preserve the church whose white paint is peeling off and bas reliefs chipping off. I think the locals should wage more efforts to preserve such an impressive edifice which speaks much of Naga’s history and its emergence as an industrial hub in that part of Cebu.

Minglanilla. It was in 1858 when the Augustinians created a pueblo out of the settlement named Buat, after the Cebuano word, buad (dried fish), which the parish priest renamed to Minglanilla after his hometown in Spain. From a sleepy fishing community of yore, the town has evolved over the years into one of the thriving residential and commercial hubs in south Cebu.

Immaculate Heart of Mary Church in Minglanilla

Located 15 km away from Cebu City, I first laid eyes on Minglanilla a few years ago while riding a bus as it meandered along the scenic coastal road en route to Dumaguete City. One of the first things that caught my fancy was the Gothic-inspired church with its pink façade and towering spires that called to mind the beautiful Baguio Cathedral.

Seen from the highway, the Immaculate Heart of Mary Church, sitting on top of a hill, looked resplendent that day when I first saw it. I was smitten. I must return and explore this one, I vowed.  For this recent sojourn to Cebu, I made sure that exploring Minglanilla’s church will be part of my itinerary. 

Built by the Augustinians in 1878, the church looked heavily repainted; it could be mistaken for a newly-constructed structure. This, however, hardly diminished its Gothic charm, as manifested in its towering spires and flying buttresses that are complemented by the church’s semi-circular arched doors. 

Approaching the church, I was instantly drawn to the huge image of Christ the King adorning its façade that seemed to beckon visitors to come inside. I’m not sure though if it’s part of the original design or a recent addition. Incidentally, the church was elevated to the status of an archdiocesan shrine in 2007.

For years now, Minglanilla has been attracting a huge number of tourists who flock to the town to witness the celebration of its Sugat-Kabanhawan Festival. Kabanhawan, or “resurrection” in Cebuano commemorates Christ’s rising from the dead following his crucifixion while Sugat, or “meeting” in the vernacular, reenacts the reunion of the Risen Christ and the Blessed Virgin Mary. 

Icon of Christ the King 

Held every Easter Sunday, the celebration features a string of activities that include the highly-anticipated re-enactment of the “meeting” between Christ and his mother, street dancing, an assortment of games and competitions, cultural shows and the like, all of which manifest the town’s joy and happiness.

Unfortunately, I missed this year’s festival which has been drawing the throngs because of the colorful costumes and elaborate stage production, particularly the little girls dressed as angels “flying” in harnesses—a socio-religious extravaganza that has earned for the town the title, “Sugat Capital of the South”. 

St. Isidore the Farmer Church in San Fernando

San Fernando.  Beach and mountain resorts count among the prime attractions of San Fernando, a town located about forty minutes away by car from Cebu City. City slickers running away from the din of the metropolis often head for Pulchra, Singli, Hidden Paradise, among others.

Aside from these resorts, there’s one attraction there that’s definitely worth any traveler’s while—a lovely Gothic church dedicated to St. Isidore the Farmer. It was easy to spot this church which is nestled on a sprawling piece of land right in the heart of the town. It also faces the municipal hall just like many of the houses of worship found along Cebu’s coastal road.

Built in 1870 but completed 16 years later, the unmistakably Gothic-inspired design of St. Isidore the Farmer Church—pointed  spires, recessed arches with sharp tips and flame-like ornaments—never fails to catch attention from passersby, particularly out-of-towners who happened to see it for the first time.

A huge statue of the patron saint guards the entrance to the church premises. Its belfries, incongruous in size and made of cement, are said to have been added much later.  These were believed to have been diminished by a strong typhoon and were never restored to their original design.

Much of the interior of San Fernando’s church, however, bear a contemporary design, the result of renovations carried out several decades ago, perhaps with the exception of two large windows at the end of the nave which have retained their Gothic aura.

As a final note, let it be said that my sojourns to the houses of worship in south Cebu have contributed much to making the Holy Week a more meaningful and enlightening one for me. All told, I ended up captivated, cleansed and consummated as a pilgrim after I’ve taken the road less travelled to these churches.

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