Ep. 031: The Buried Churches of Bacolor

A visit to two truly "underground" churches

Something about San Guillermo Church in Bacolor is a little off.

As you pull into the parking lot at Bacolor's San Guillermo Parish Church--dedicated to St. William the Hermit of Maleval (died 1157)--you can't help but notice that something is a little... off. The church looks stumpy, truncated somehow. No soaring bell tower, as at so many stone churches in the Philippines--even the windows aren't all that high. And speaking of windows: there's none to the choir loft as one would expect. Once inside, you discover that's because there's no choir loft! The door of the church was the window to the choir loft, until September 3, 1995.

The rear view of the Bacolor Church confirms suspicions.

Tales of Devastation

The newly-formed caldera at Mount Pinatubo contains a lake--now.

I didn't really know what lahar was until I moved to the Philippines, to Angeles City, Pampanga, at the end of July of 2015. I started hearing the word pretty quickly, as one soon hears of "the storm" when visiting New Orleans post-Katrina. But in June of 2016, the city held the 25th anniversary commemoration of the June 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo. We attended the opening of the new museum dedicated to that cataclysmic event at Holy Angel University here in Angeles, and heard speeches by journalists and others who lived through the experience. That's when I really started to get my head around the enormity of what had happened.

Part of "Lumud" (Drown), an artwork by local artist Arnel Garcia "In memory of the hundreds who perished in the lahars of 1991-1995, and in tribute to the hundreds of thousands who lost their property and livelihood and still survived." At the opening of the Mount Pinatubo Museum at Holy Angel University, Angels City, Pampanga, June 14, 2016.

Lahar is defined by Wikipedia as "a violent type of mudflow or debris flow composed of a slurry of pyroclastic material, rocky debris and water." After the 1912 creation of a new volcano in Alaska, coined "Novarupta," Pinatubo's eruption was the second-largest of the 20th century. What happened after the blow was like insult to injury: a typhoon arrived simultaneously, which created a "perfect storm" for lahar, actually washing down ash deposits from previous eruptions as well. (And the eruption may have resulted from a 7.7 magnitude earthquake that devastated northern Luzon Island a year earlier. This connection is not and cannot be proven; nevertheless, a major earthquake, a volcanic eruption [with many more quakes], and a typhoon in a year? Terror trifecta.)

Aetas, the indigenous peoples who live around Mount Pinatubo, perform at the 25th anniversary commemoration of the eruption. Their lives and livelihoods were destroyed in a twinkling in June of 1991.

The flow of lahar is inexorable. I heard tell that the then-mayor of our city mobilized the citizens to place sandbags in the bed of our river to stop the flow. The next day the sandbags were nowhere to be seen. (Shades of "King Canute and the tide.") The flow that engulfed the bottom portion of San Guillermo took over four years to reach it--just 22 miles away as the pumice flies.

And apparently pumice did fly! A friend in Angeles told me he was wandering around aimlessly during the ashfall when a piece of pumice the size of his fist hit him on the head and staggered him. He started to cry, and, turning to the people around him for succor, discovered that they were all crying, too!

Surprisingly, lahar can move much faster than you'd think. Containing 40% or more debris, it can still flow faster than a fresh-water stream. An article by the USGS describes what happened at Pinatubo:

When the largest and fastest lahars reach the lowlands surrounding Pinatubo, they have speeds of more than 20 miles (32 kilometers) per hour, are as much as 30 feet (10 meters) thick and 300 feet (100 meters) wide, and can transport more than 35,000 cubic feet (1,000 cubic meters) of debris and mud per second.

The Bacolor Church

Interior of the Bacolor Church

It's common practice here to just call a church by its location, so San Guillermo is more commonly known as the "Bacolor Church." It's the church for a town of 40,000 located less than an hour's drive south of where I live now. (The friend who got hit on the head by pumice says the place where my house now stands was also covered in lahar, but flowing down a different riverbed from the one that buried Bacolor.)

The town was founded in 1576 by a landlord named Guillermo Manabat, whose house occupied the place where the church now stands (hence its dedication to "Guillermo"). It was the first capital of the province of Pampanga, holding that honor from 1698 to 1904, when the capital moved to its current seat in San Fernando. It was also capital of the entire Spanish government-in-exile of the Philippines during the brief period when Great Britain occupied Manila (1762-1764).

The church’s excavated retablo had to be placed under the dome, else it wouldn’t fit.

Although the parish was established the same year as the town--1576--the current edifice dates to 1886 after the previous building was destroyed by an 1880 earthquake. (Yes, we're on the Ring of Fire!) It's gorgeous inside and out, with a bell tower standing on the left--well, half a bell tower, anyway--and an ornate retablo inside. The statues were saved before the lahar flowed in, burying the church about halfway up, but the retablo itself had to be excavated after the disaster struck. It had to be placed under the dome, away from the usual wall, as the ceiling was too low (or the floor too high) at its previous position. The people of the community are justly proud of their efforts in restoring the place in this unique fashion.

Bats. In the belfry.

At the other end of the church, one can enter the bell tower, with bats down so low they can be touched (but not eaten).

The little arched doorways in the convento were once big arched doorways.

And the side areas of the building, the former convento, contain a museum with odd little arched doorways that were once (one presumes) grand high doorways. Passage had to be excavated under those arches or we'd have to belly-crawl to get through. The last time we visited the museum was hosting a creepy display of images of the "Santo Nino," the Holy Child Jesus, collected from all over the world.

I hope the pious will forgive me for finding this gathering of Santo Ninos a little… creepy.

The Sunken Shrine

A fifteen-minute walk to the south of San Guillermo brings us to the Archdiocesan Shrine of Our Lady of Lourdes, commonly known--with good reason--as the Sunken Shrine. (It's also called the Cabetican Shrine for its location in Bacolor's Barangay Cabetican; a barangay is something like a ward or a district, the smallest government division in the Philippines.)

The back wall of the Sunken Shrine. The small opening to the right of the statue's base is part of the current "back door." That's a replica of the statue of Our Lady of Lourdes, kept inside the new chapel on the grounds except for the February 11th Feast Day.

Although it was once a soaring structure of some 60 feet, the same 1995 lahar flow that raised San Guillermo's floor also brought this site down to roughly 42 feet at its apex. With its length pushing 200 feet, it is visibly broader than it is high. A gaping mouth in the 120-foot back end serves as a "back door," and the building narrows to 35 feet at the altar end. Built in the aptly-named "Brutalist" style, it looks like nothing so much as a dropped wedge of concrete.

Ten years later, in 2005, the inside was excavated in such a way that you can stand up in the cavernous space (though you have to duck-walk to get in--or, if devout, perhaps crawl on your knees). The adjective "cavernous" is well chosen: the unfinished interior feels more like something crafted by nature than the product of architects and contractors. When the interior space was gouged out of the lahar, the natural-rock-looking altar was left at one end, with a crucifix high on the wall above it (covered when we visited).

The altar inside the Sunken Shrine will be "greened up" on the Feast Day, and the precious statue placed in the niche at right center.

From what I can gather, on February 11 of each year--the day that St. Bernadette saw the apparition at Lourdes in 1858--the church's statue of Our Lady of Lourdes (more than a century old, and for which the "ruin" was built in 1985) is placed in a niche in that altar, which imitates the site of the apparition. The rock wall is then decorated with greenery and floral arrangements, as well as smaller statues of Bernadette and her companions in adoring poses. On that Feast Day, a massive mass is held with the congregation seated on plastic chairs in a space that, if squared up, would hold well over three basket-ball courts.

The rest of the time, the locally-carved statue resides in the smaller, more conventional-looking church that was built after the 1995 arrival of the lahar. And during the rainy parts of the year, the "ruin" is flooded to varying degrees. (We visited in January, and found pollywogs living in a receding pool behind the altar!)

A number of not-too-amazing "miracles"--healings and whatnot--have been attributed to the image. In one account, some men from the province of Nueva Ecija--perhaps a long day's travel northward on foot--saw a beautiful young lady and followed her--until she disappeared. But realizing by this time that they were near the Shrine (this would be an older structure than the one built in 1985), they continued on to the church--where they saw that the statue of the Lady of Lourdes was the same woman they had been following! They venerated the statue by kissing its feet after the mass.


Churches are tall. One can only imagine what else lies below the roughly 20 feet of solidified volcanic debris that in 1995 blanketed the center of the historic town of Bacolor.

Thanks for reading these "notes from the underground." Now, until next time, may you and your loved ones and all sentient beings be well and happy.

Adios, Amigos!

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In the next episode: Join me as I explore Japan's sacred Mount Koyasan, spiritual home to the esoteric Shingon sect of Buddhism.