Ep. 013: The Oldest Church in the Philippines

San Agustin Church, inside Manila's Intramuros

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I met my wife-to-be at Chinese New Year in 2005, and a few months later we headed for a visit to her hometown, Manila. After discharging the usual family responsibilities, we began exploring from our base in Malate, where we strolled past a fine 1864 Baroque-style church facing Manila Bay.

Manila's Intramuros

The gate over Fort Santiago has a wooden panel on which is carved an image of St. James killing Muslims

But as soon as possible, we headed for the jewel in the crown: Intramuros ("within the walls"). In the Spanish era, the district--walled off from other towns and suburbs--was the city of Manila (and the destination of the "Manila galleons" we learned about in grade school). Originally, the northern portion of Intramuros, Fort Santiago, stood on a promontory where the Pasig River debouched into Manila Bay. After land reclamation, it now stands a couple of kilometers from the Bay.

The Fort is named for Santiago Matamoros, "Saint James the Moor-killer," Patron Saint of Spain (and object of the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, which I still hope to do someday, at least in part). The image of James killing Muslims found over the Fort's gate is no coincidence: The site of the Fort had been wrested from the Muslim Rajah Matanda, a vassal to the Sultan of Brunei, in 1570. Intramuros/Manila became the capital of the Spanish East Indies and of the Philippines Islands a year later.

It's peculiar to see Chinese stone lions associated with statues of saints on a church--ahhh, the Philippines, the only Christian (over 80% Catholic) nation in Asia

Three Churches

In that same founding year, 1571, the Spanish had built a church of bamboo and nipa, a kind of palm, inside Intramuros. It was not the first church built in these islands; that honor belongs to the 1525 Minor Basilica del Santo Nino down south in Cebu. That church was founded just four years after Magellan's landing (some would say "invasion") in 1521; a few weeks after his arrival he foolishly took on a local group and took a fatal bamboo spear in the face for his troubles. The "first man to circumnavigate the globe" did so only by proxy.

Anyway, the church built in Manila 50 years after Magellan's landing, dubbed San Pablo, was burned to the ground three years later during an attack by Chinese pirates, in 1574. Rebuilt, from wood this time, it burned again in 1583 when a candle set fire to a Spanish Governor-General's funeral bier.

San Agustin's amazing trompe l'oeil ceiling (yes, that's just painted on!)

No slow learners, they, the Augustinian friars decided this time to build their church of stone, with an adjacent monastery. (I wonder if this was the inspiration for "The Three Little Pigs"?) That church, begun in 1586 and consecrated in 1607, is the one we see today. Unfortunately, the monastery was destroyed by American bombardment in the 1945 "Battle of Manila," along with six of the seven churches in Intramuros. The monastery, rebuilt in 1970, is now a museum with a few mighty creepy displays (and many quite beautiful ones).

The Devastating Battle of Manila (1945)

The Convento (Monastery), rebuilt in 1970 after destruction by the Americans in 1945

Considered one of the fiercest urban battles in the Second World War, the Battle of Manila left the city devastated. This was largely the result of American bombs and shelling used in an effort to dislodge the Imperial Japanese troops, who held hundreds of residents hostage on the church grounds and tens of thousands more throughout the city. Many were killed by the Japanese as part of the "Rape of Manila" during the month-long battle.

I Feel the Earth Move...

The left tower of the Church was removed after the 1880 quake; that's why there's blue(ish) sky next to the tree. (Note Convento/Monastery/Museum on the right.)

But the Second World War was not the first devastation the old church had witnessed. British forces looted the then-Spanish church in 1762, during the Seven Years' War, and desecrated its cemetery. An 1863 earthquake damaged every public building in the city--except San Agustin, which was used as a hospital for those injured during the quake. Another earthquake, in 1880, cracked the east (left) bell tower so badly that eventually its top levels were removed, leaving only the base. These were just two of the many major tremors the church has withstood with greater or lesser success over the years.

Damage to the left (east) tower of San Agustin from the Great Quake of 1880 (Wikimedia Commons)

All's Well... for now

San Agustin today is the oldest stone church in the Philippines, and was named in 1993 with three other sites (Santa Maria Church in Ilocos Sur and Paoay Church in Ilocos Norte, both to the far north; and Miagao Church down south in Iloilo) as the UNESCO World Heritage Site called "Baroque Churches of the Philippines ."

Of special note (to me, at least): the very Chinese-y stone lions in front of the church, and the amazing trompe l'oeil interiors. And of course, the macabre statues in the museum. (I can't get over those!)

Macabre statues in the San Agustin Museum

Well, that's it for this first visit to my adopted country. There will be plenty more for sure; we've just scratched the surface, with hundreds more colonial Spanish churches to visit.

Until next time, then, may you and your loved ones and all sentient beings be well and happy.

Adios, Amigos!

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In the next episode: Meet Hakuin Zenji, one of Japan's great Zen Masters, as I visit the village where he lived, taught, and died during my walk down the 400-year-old Tokaido Highway in 2001. Come on back!