PH History Bites: Why Cebu’s Most Magnificent Church No Longer Exists

parian cebu history
ILLUSTRATOR mia rodriguez

(SPOT.ph) In the middle of the 19th Century, Cebu was the wealthiest it had ever been, and the district of Parian, populated mostly by Chinese mestizos, was considered its richest area. Its exalted status was evident in the number of well-constructed houses in the area, some of which are still around today, as well as its parish—to be more specific, the parish church.

Built sometime in the 17th Century, the San Juan Bautista Parish Church, also known as the Parian Church, is often mentioned in historical accounts about Cebu because of its beauty and opulence.

parian cebu history map
A map inside Museo Parian sa Sugbo - 1730 Jesuit House shows where the Parian Church used to stand.
PHOTO BY jen chan
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In the book, Casa Gorordo in Cebu, Resil B. Mojares cites Fe Susan Go’s translation of a description of the structure:

"The church was made of stone blocks, plastered together in a mixture of lime and the sap of the lawat tree. The roofs were made of tiles, and the lumber used was molave, balayong, and naga. The paraphernalia used in the mass were made purely of gold, the pews were carved by a sculptor of the parian, the altars were covered with stone slabs with money and gold inlaid, and the church bells were big and loud. The tolling of these bells was so loud it could be heard as far as Hilotungan and the town of Talisay.”

The Parian Church was said to have rivaled even the famous Augustinian Church and the Cebu Cathedral, so why then was such a structure torn down and taken apart towards the end of the century?

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The story behind Parian Church, a Cebu landmark that no longer exists

A closer look at history shows that the answer is not so simple nor can it truly be attributed to one specific event. It was likely a combination of the time period's circumstances as well as the push and pull of opposing interests over the years that led to its downfall. After all, as much as both the Parian and the parish church enjoyed its elevated status, they were not without their share of powerful enemies.

In fact, for much of the 19th Century, both the district and the parish were embroiled in various political and territorial disputes, one of which was the long-drawn-out battle over Hacienda de Banilad, a stretch of property that Miguel Lopez de Legazpi had bequeathed to the Augustinian friars in 1570.

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parian cebu history diorama
A diorama of the Parian Church can be found inside Museo Parian sa Sugbo - 1730 Jesuit House.
PHOTO BY jen chan

Land of Our Fathers

According to Michael Cullinane’s journal article, A Time Between Times: Situating the 1815 Uprising in Cebu, the Augustinians had long contested the increasingly large numbers of settlers making their home on the estate, most of which were enrolled in the secular parish of Parian-Lutaos. Perhaps their greatest grievance, however, was the fact that these people were consistently being enrolled to the tribute registers by Chinese mestizo gobernadorcillos.

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Tribute was considered “a token both to convey submission to the Spanish king as well as means to secure payments in kind or in specie to support the colonial apparatus,” according to Bruce Cruikshank’s journal article, A Puzzle about Padrones Tribute in the Eighteenth-Century Spanish Philippines.

A precursor to the tax system, the collection of tribute helped to cover the costs of administration, defense, and evangelization. At this point, it’s not a stretch to conclude that tributes going to the coffers of the Chinese mestizos could have been going to the hacienda instead.

Interestingly, Legazpi’s original land grant to the Augustinians didn’t actually include the entire hinterland, says Cullinane. Neither did they reportedly do anything worthwhile with their estate. Nevertheless, the Augustinians stood by their claims. For decades, their protests did little to encumber the growing influence of the Chinese mestizos in the Parian. In 1829, however, they found an ally in the newly appointed bishop of Cebu.

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Fray Santos Goméz Marañon, an Augustinian bishop, was just as invested in diminishing the power of the Chinese mestizos. While the significant sway they had over the community had long been regarded as a threat, significant developments in Spain’s affairs of state in recent decades had somehow resulted in a timely confluence of goals, and a concerted effort to re-establish Spanish hegemony in the Philippines was put in motion.

parian church cebu A portrait of Bishop Santos Goméz Marañon hangs in the Convento
A portrait of Bishop Santos Goméz Marañon hangs in the Convento.
PHOTO BY jen chan
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This led to closer collaboration between Spain’s ecclesiastical and government bodies, and by the following year, with the powers vested in him and with the support of Alcalde Mayor Manuel Romero, Bishop Goméz Marañon abolished the Parian parish.

This was temporarily overturned by a decree of the Central Government in 1839, but not too long after, the parish once again found itself suppressed when newly appointed Gobernador Intendentede las Visayas, Manuel de la Canal, along with Bishop Romualdo Jimena, abolished the parish and placed it under the jurisdiction of the Cathedral.

Moreover, the towns of Parian and Lutao were stripped of their independent status as towns. Aspiring politicians in the Parian were reduced to managing smaller gremios instead of entire municipalities.

Despite the struggles of the district and the parish, they were far from downtrodden. Mojares cites that the “Parian remained a prestigious district and its gobernadorcillos or capitanes were among the most prominent residents of the urban area.”

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The Parian Church itself continued to exist and operate for several more decades albeit with diminished power. Perhaps it might have survived longer if it weren’t for a series of events that sealed its fate for good.

Also read: Mango Avenue: The Street Cebuanos Refuse to Call by Its “Real” Name

Famous Last Words

The year was 1875 and the Feast of San Juan Bautista was fast approaching. Newly appointed capitan of the Parian gremio, Dionisio Alo, had just called for a meeting to discuss the logistics of the upcoming fiesta as well as the replacement of their parish priest, Father Anselmo Albaceña, who had passed away the year before.

According to an article published by Max Limpag on MyCebu.ph, the parish priest of the Cathedral, Father Tomas de la Concepcion, had instructed Capitan Dionisio to ask the bishop to appoint a white priest for the post as no Filipino priest was equipped to manage the responsibility.

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This was not a new argument.

While there had been some outstanding archipelago-born secular priests and even bishops through the years, the reputation of native clergymen had been in steady decline since the tail end of the 18th Century due to the lack of an effective seminary as well as well-trained teachers in the field, among other factors. However, it’s important to note that there was also a great deal of resistance from the ecclesiastical clergy to invest in the native clergy. According to Cullinane, such an endeavor would have meant bringing native civil servants further into the fold, “a reality that was already being resisted by ecclesiastical authorities at the start of the 1800s.”

parian cebu history fire station
Today, a fire station stands where the former Parian Church used to be.
PHOTO BY jen chan
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parian cebu history new church
What little is left of the grand church may be found in the San Juan Bautista chapel right next to the fire station.
PHOTO BY jen chan

Capitan Dionisio had no choice but to yield to the Cathedral parish priest. However, instead of keeping his head low, he continued to be vocal about his protests, one of which made it all the way to the Cathedral. Perhaps in a fit of anger or frustration, he was reported to have said, “I would prefer that the church be destroyed rather than have a friar in it.”

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This did not endear him further to the Cathedral parish priest who did not hesitate to report the incident to the current bishop. Shortly after, the bishop forbade the parish priest from saying mass in the Parian church, and a Spanish engineer was called to inspect the church’s architectural integrity.

His findings were damning.

The engineer declared that the materials that had been used in the church’s construction were weak and recommended that it be torn down. Following this report, the governor of Cebu took possession of everything inside the church, although it wasn’t until the years between 1878 to 1879 that the church was actually demolished.

Today, a fire station stands in its place, and what little is left of this magnificent church can allegedly be found in the San Juan Bautista chapel. If it weren’t for the few photos of the church’s facade or those who had taken the initiative to write about the once opulent church, we might have never known what it looked like or that it had even existed at all.

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Also read: This Ancestral House in Cebu Is One of the Oldest in the Philippines

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