10 Things You Didn't Know About Famous Philippine Churches

Fascinating facts and little-known trivia for your Visita Iglesia

(SPOT.ph) Perhaps one can say that the Philippines’ rich history can be seen in the architecture that evolved over years of colonial rule. With the Spaniards' three-century-long stay on our shores, it’s not surprising to see gorgeous and unique churches dotting the archipelago. But how well do you know the Philippines' famous churches? Having lived through disasters both natural and man-made, old churches come with stories of their own—and they're bound to make your visits a lot more meaningful.

Here are 10 interesting facts about some of the Philippines' most famous churches:

The Manila Cathedral surived seven tragedies

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According to its official site, the Manila Cathedral, canonically known as the Minor Basilica and Metropolitan Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, has been rebuilt several times since it was first put up as a church in 1571. The sixth cathedral, which opened March 1858, was eventually reduced to rubble on the night of June 3, 1863, right when members of the chapel, choir boys, and singers were celebrating the Feast of Corpus Christi. It took three days for workers to retrieve the bodies of victims. An account from a correspondent of the Illustrated News describes the scene in detail:

“One escaped by the door which forms the foreground of my sketch; six others were saved under an arch, and made their way out afterwards; the rest of the Canons and choirmasters were buried under the ruins of the opposite side. Many of them were spoken to and recognized by their answers. Attempts were made to supply them with water by means of the broken organ pipes but without effect, and before the masses of masonry could be removed which covered them, they were dead.”

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The Balangiga Bells were taken by U.S. troops

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In December 2018, the historic Balangiga Bells were finally returned to the San Lorenzo de Martir church in Balangiga, Eastern Samar. They serve as a reminder of the Balangiga Massacre, a term used by both the Philippines and the U.S. to describe two ends of a bloody conflict. For the Americans, it refers to the surprise attack made by the townspeople during a funeral mass on September 28, 1901. Filipino fighters managed to kill 48 out of 78 U.S. soldiers, marking it as one of the U.S. Army's biggest defeats at the time.

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As such, the Americans retaliated, with Brig. Gen. Jacob Smith declaring that the “interior of Samar must be made a howling wilderness.” Under Smith’s command, Maj. Littleton W. T. Waller led U.S. troops in razing the town, following orders to “kill and burn.” The bells were then taken as war trophies.

Forced labor built the St. Jerome Parish Church

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According to the Morong municipal government’s website, the St. Jerome Parish Church, also known as Morong Church, was constructed not only by men, but also women and children under forced labor. They had to dig stones from a hill they called Kay Ngaya; lime from the stones of a mountain called Kay Maputi; and sand and gravel from the Morong River. The timber that was used to construct the church was also contributed by the townspeople.

The first state university used to be in Barasoain Church

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Before the University of the Philippines was established, there was the Universidad Cientifico-Literaria de Filipinas, which was established by Emilio Aguinaldo by virtue of a presidential decree issued in 1898. The university was first located in Navotas and Tambobong before it was relocated to Malolos, specifically the Barasoain Church convent. The church is popularly known for being the “Cradle of Democracy” as it was where the first Philippine Republic was established.

The UP Chapel is home to works of four National Artists

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The Parish of Holy Sacrifice, commonly referred to as the UP Chapel, was constructed in the 1950s. According to a post published on the university's website, it's the only structure in the country to feature works of four National Artists. The dome-shaped chapel was planned and designed by Leandro Locsin (named National Artist for Architecture in 1990). Fifteen murals depicting the stations of the cross were painted by Vicente Manansala (named National Artist for Visual Arts in 1981) on the church's circular walls while the cross—which depicts both suffering and a risen Christ—and the marble altar are the handiworks of Napoleon Abueva (named National Artist for Visual Arts in 1976). The floor’s tilework was designed by Arturo R. Luz (named National Artist for Visual Arts in 1997).

Paoay Church's bell tower was an observation post

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Commonly recognized for its “Earthquake Baroque” architecture (which is designed to withstand earthquakes), the Paoay Church also plays a significant role in Philippine history. According to a marker found on its wall, the bell tower, which was built a distance away from the church building (another safety precaution against earthquakes), was used by Filipino fighters from different eras of the country's colonial past.

Bacarra Church has mysterious underground tunnels

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A brick stairway leading to three tunnels can be found at the back of Bacarra Church's old convent building, which has been repurposed into a museum. Old Spanish records reportedly say the tunnels lead to the Bacarra River, the church altar, and the bell tower—which is popular for being a domeless belfry that, similar to the Leaning Tower of Pisa, leans to one side at a slight angle.

The Malate Church was once destroyed on purpose

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Canonically known as Our Lady of Remedies Parish in Malate, Manila (hence, the moniker Malate Church), it was first built as an Augustinian friar building in 1588. The church was rebuilt after an earthquake in 1645, but it was soon torn down in 1667. It was ordered demolished by the governor-general for fear of an impending attack by a Chinese warlord, perhaps because they couldn’t risk him getting hold of the stone church and turning it into a fortress. It was rebuilt when the threats subsided. Interestingly enough, invaders took hold of the church during the British invasion in 1762, operating from the tower and contributing to the success of the siege.

Two human skeletons were found at Miagao Church

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The St. Thomas de Villanueva Parish Church, also known as Miagao Church, was first built in 1734. Conflicts and natural disasters led to the destruction and rebuilding of the church, and the building that stands today is the third one, which was completed in 1797. It has undergone several restorations over the years.

Monsignor Claudio Sale oversaw the restoration that culminated to the church’s designation as a UNESCO Heritage Site in 1993. In an interview, he revealed that two human skeletons were unearthed at each side of the entrance to the church. No markers to identify them were found, but Sale noted that they “may be priests, cabezas, or town captains from a long time ago” due to their graves' proximity to the church.

Ermita Church is home to the oldest known Marian image in the Philippines

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The Archdiocesan Shrine of Our Lady of Guidance in Ermita houses the wooden image of Nuestra Señora de Guia. Due to its dark appearance, the statue is also known as the Black Madonna. There are different theories explaining its origins. According to a summary translation of Anales Eclesiasticos de Filipinas cited in a study on Marian images in the Philippines, legends say that a soldier of Miguel Lopez de Legazpi found it on a pandan tree in Ermita in 1571. The legend also purports that the locals have been paying their respects to the statue even before the Spaniards arrived to spread Christianity in the Philippines.

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