Explore the Philippines’ vast Spanish colonial history for your Holy Week plans.

The Spaniards first introduced Christianity to the Filipinos in the 16th century, and since then, a significant number of churches have been built in different cities and provinces as part of the colonisers' mission to spread the religion to every island of the archipelago. Some of these places of worship still stand to this day, towering over fields of grass, or hiding amongst impressive structures made of steel and glass. In the Philippines particularly, four churches that were built by Spanish religious orders have been declared by the UNESCO as World Heritage Sites, and are thus important markers of Filipino history. In observance of Holy Week, pilgrims may want to explore these Baroque-style churches, and see their magnificence for themselves.


Church of San Agustin in Paoay, Ilocos Norte

In the far north of the country stands a heritage site amidst sprawling green lawn and brick walkways. Started in 1694 and completed in 1710, the Paoay Church is quite a sight to behold, with 24 massive coral-block buttresses flanking the sides and back of the main edifice. The ornate stone finials sitting atop the structure makes up for its plain façade at the bottom, giving it a slightly oriental appearance. A few metres away from the main church stands the three-storey bell tower, which is said to have been used as an observational post by Filipino revolutionaries during the uprising against the Spaniards in 1898, and by the Filipino guerillas who were fighting against Japanese soldiers in World War II. 

La Nuestra Señora de la Asuncion in Sta. Maria, Ilocos Sur

The town of Sta. Maria is situated between the South China Sea and the mountains of Ilocos Sur, bringing in the best of the coastal landscape in the west and the rough terrains in the east. Perched atop a solitary hill is the Nuestra Señora de la Asuncion, a structure reminiscent of a fortress, connected by an 85-step china stairway from the edge of the town. Built in 1765, the main church has an exposed brick façade, with an interior that is open at the nave, and is therefore conducive to natural light. It was also reinforced with buttresses to protect against earthquake. At a short distance is the octagonal pagoda-like bell tower, which was added later in 1810.

San Agustin Church in Intramuros, Manila

The oldest stone church in the Philippines, the San Agustin Church was built in 1587, and is run by the Augustinian Friars. Occupying an entire block in the famed walled city of Intramuros, the whole complex includes the main church, monasteries, cloisters, botanical gardens, and a museum. In front of the church entrance is a small plaza that serves as a welcome sight for weary pilgrims. Inside, both sides are lined with small areas of worship, which is the result of the buttresses being incorporated into the church’s interiors. Hovering above is the painstakingly embellished ceiling that gives off a distinctly foreign appeal to the whole church.

Church of Santo Tomas de Villanueva in Miag-ao, Iloilo

The Miag-ao Church is an exemplary illustration of the Philippine translation of western baroque designs. The church has gone through three particularly destructive experiences since its establishment in 1797, with the first brought about by the revolution, the second one by fire, and lastly by earthquake.

Despite its tumultuous history, the church still stands tall and proud. The strange structure of the church combined with the non-symmetrical bell towers form a box-like structure that served well during the Spanish-Moro wars. The bas-relief carving on the church façade is the unique touch that sets it apart from other structures. It depicts St. Christopher as a farmer with the child Jesus riding on his shoulders amidst native vegetation and wildlife. Inside, the gold-plated retablo glints in the sunlight emanating from the airy windows lining the walls.

Church of San Miguel Arcangel in Argao, Cebu

While St. Michael’s Church in Argao was not declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, it is by no means less impressive. The current church is said to be the second, if not the third version. The Spanish clay-tile roof collapsed in 1876, and was then replaced with galvanised iron to protect against earthquakes. The four pairs of half-columns that divide the church’s façade into three panels, and the two lions on either side of the arched entrance are said to be telltale signs of Chinese or Chinese-mestizo handiwork. Inside, the original Mexican pipe organ and main altar still remain, while the paintings on the ceiling were said to have been shared by Cebuano painter Raymundo Francia who depicted the victory of St. Michael over Lucifer, and fellow church muralist Canuto Avila painted the bibilical manifestations of angels. On the other hand, the five-story belfry built in 1830 was considered one of the best in the Philippines by church historian Pedro Galende.

Cover and photo of San Agustin church in Paoay, Ilocos Norte from www.philippinepicture.com. Photos of the four succeeding churches taken from Ferrante Ferranti's photoexhibit at the National Museum entitled "Encounters".