Historical memory and appreciation are rare traits in a fast-changing, outward-looking world.
In the case of Spain, today’s generation, like those from countries with a colonial past, has less knowledge and verve about the people their countries had subjugated. Former colonials, including Filipinos, are not exempt from knowing less about their own relationship to Spain.
To mount a major exhibition in Madrid titled “The Lasting Links with Spain, The Churches of the Philippines,” is a challenge in this dimming of Philippine-Spanish historical relations.
Set in a large gallery at Casa de Americas, a grand palace and now a cultural center just a block away from Prado Museum, the exhibit will present a contemporary re-evaluation of the Spanish presence, from proselytization, construction of stone churches, to encouraging the cherishing of age-old churches which are emblematic of the links between the two countries.
With churches as the focus, the exhibit will present dimensions in Philippine-Spanish relations not previously known, to interest and engage the Spanish people to savor and reflect on our history.
It starts with the 16th-century rivalry between Portugal and Spain for securing valuable spices in the Indies, and Magellan’s almost foolhardy but persuasive proposal to the young King Charles of knowing a way to the Indies by going westward, finding a passage in the Americas to the larger Pacific Ocean and reaching the Spice Islands.
The clincher would be Magellan’s tantalizing promise that the new route would reap riches for the crown, a thousand times more than that the explorer Vasco de Gama made for the Portuguese king.
Despite the commercial primacy of the first voyage, missionaries accompanied all later trips thereafter with the intent to proselytize the natives. Initial acts of charity and intense zeal for the betterment of the natives would endear the friars to them, and religious conversion in significant numbers began.
In many instances, the friars protected the natives from the depredations of Spanish soldiers and rapacious civilians.
When the friars initiated the building of the churches, first thatched structures, later stone, the Catholic natives from elders to children were pressed to help in the construction. Exemptions in paying tribute were added incentives to the first towering stone structures erected.
The building of churches using colossal virgin trees, mortar, brick and coral stone was a significant undertaking. The hauling of trees alone was often accomplished by a team of over 100 carabaos dragging them at great distances to the building site.
This exhibit has its origin in 1990, after the destruction of several heritage churches by an earthquake. Rafael Ortigas Jr., founder of the Ortigas Foundation, embarked on the documentation of stone churches still standing in the Philippines.
The Ortigas Library Foundation now possesses the most extensive documentation of the remaining churches, which several years ago became the basis for its first published imprint, “La Casa de Dios.” The research and preparation for this exhibit was formidable, but aided considerably by the foundation’s library collection of over 20,000 volumes of books, prints, maps, rare photos.
With early drawings, prints and contemporary photographs, guests may marvel at the less than 400 churches remaining and their peculiar architecture adapted for the tropics, built by an assemblage of friars and artisans that came from Europe, the Americas and China. Unknown native skilled workers managed to insert indigenous architectural details here and there.
Five churches—Miagao in Iloilo; Tumauini in Isabela province; Baclayon in Bohol; Paoay in Ilocos Norte; and the Basilica of the Sto. Niño in Cebu—are visually highlighted as examples of distinctive Filipino church architecture.
Churches in Philippine history
Philippine churches have had significant involvement in Philippine history. Early churches in Bohol with formidable stone watchtowers protected villages from marauding pirates and slave traders.
Aside from the daily devotionals, churches were important gatherings for Holy Week, Christmas and other holy days, giving the colony a recurring pattern of commemorations throughout the year which bound once disparate tribal peoples to a nascent national consciousness.
During the revolution against Spain, some churches were burned and damaged, the object of wrath of Filipinos who identified the friar community and its vast landholdings as the root of their continued oppression and poverty.
In the Philippine Revolution against Spain and, later, the Spanish-American War, churches were used as refuge or, in the case of the Manila Cathedral, a prison for incarcerated Spanish soldiers.
Just two weeks before the outbreak of the Filipino-American War, a group of gentlemen loyal to President Emilio Aguinaldo, met on Jan. 21, 1899, at Malolos Church in Bulacan to discuss and approve the first constitution of the fledgling republic.
The most desperate incident of church use was that of Balangiga Church in Samar during the Philippine-American War. In the morning of Sept. 28, 1901, with pealing church bells as a signal, the townspeople rushed out of the church, surprised and killed 48 US infantry soldiers.
In the close to 350 years since the first stone church building was erected in 1582 by Fr. Antonio Cedeno, SJ, the churches have weathered storms, floods, cataclysmic earthquakes, fires and manmade destruction.
Today the remaining churches in the Philippines, documented and assiduously photographed in a span of 20 years by the Ortigas Foundation Library, are in varying degrees of deterioration. Last year, Supertyphoon “Yolanda” and a major earthquake struck the Visayas, and over a dozen churches suffered significant damage, including Baclayon Church, the oldest extant church in the country.
The kernel of the exhibit is to alert those who value heritage preservation that these churches are the remaining structural links to Spain needing protection and support. Photographs before and after the destruction will hopefully instill a public resolution to help rebuild these reminders of our Spanish heritage.
The exhibit ends with notable efforts being done by a small band of conservationists—clerics, private citizens and nonprofit organizations—restoring to their original picturesqueness churches like San Sebastian Church in Manila and Cebu Cathedral.
One of the finest restoration jobs done has been on Manila Cathedral, which re-opened in April this year after two years of extensive work. The cathedral has seen several reconstructions from the ground up since it was built with nipa, wood and bamboo in 1581.
Former Spanish Ambassador to the Philippines Jorge Domecq was instrumental in securing Casa de Americas for this exhibition, which opens to the public on Nov. 28 and runs for two months.
Philippine Ambassador to Spain Carlos Salinas has facilitated the preparations for the exhibit. Pioneer Insurance has underwritten the insurance coverage in mounting the exhibit. St. Joseph’s Foundation of Cebu is a principal sponsor.
Instituto Cervantes will aid in the Spanish translation of the exhibit notes. The Ortigas Foundation Library, with its mission to preserve and educate the public on Philippine heritage, is the major underwriter.
For further information the Foundation can be reached through its website www.ortigasfoundationlibrary.com.ph or at 6311231.