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Bohol Churches

Formal Christianization of Bohol began with the arrival of two Jesuits in Báclayon in November 1596, assigned there upon the request of the Spanish encomenderos of the island. The colonizers had already built a chapel for their own devotions, and here the Jesuits established their first mission. They then proceeded east to Lóboc and eventually to Talibón on the northern side of the island.

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Differing from other religious orders whose mission assignments lasted for 3 years or more, the Jesuits lived together in a centrally located residence, from where they sallied out in rotation. For the southern part of Bohol, the Jesuits chose Lóboc over Báclayon because of its more strategic position. In the 18th century this residence was relocated to Dauis on the island of Panglao, where it was more accessible to the burgeoning missions along the southern coast of Bohol. The northern towns of Inabanga and Talibón pertained to the Jesuit residence in the opposite island of Cebu, since communication was easier this way. 

It was in this northern area that a major, drawn-out revolt erupted. Francisco Dagohoy, irate over the refusal of the cura parroco of Inabanga to give Christian burial to his brother (he was killed chasing an outlaw in Talibon, upon orders of the priest himself) took to the hills with his followers in 1744. In general terms, the Dagohoy rebels lived in independence for decades in the northern half and interior of Bohol. Thus missionary and church-building activity was limited to the southern half.

In 1768 the Jesuits were expelled from all their missions in the Philippines, in compliance with an order given by the Spanish king a year before3 . Upon their expulsion, the Bohol Jesuits left missions in Báclayon, Tagbilaran, Lóboc, Loon, Malabojoc (now Maribojoc), Jagná, Inabanga, Talibón, Dauis, Malabago (now Cortes), Loay, and Dimíao4 .

The Jesuit territories in Bohol were turned over to the Augustinian Recollects  in 1768. For a while, Báclayon was made headquarters of the new missionaries, who were carefully chosen for their experience in parishes.

The Recollects’ spiritual charges multiplied upon the end of the Dagohoy Revolt in 1829, when many new towns were founded as resettlement areas for the rebels.

As a result of the Philippine Revolution against Spain, the Recollects left their parishes, which had grown to 336, in 1898. Early in the 20th century, acting on the request of some Bohol towns, the Bishop of Cebu sent Recollect missionaries back to Bohol; thus Anda, Candijay, Clarin, Duero, Guindulman and the new town of Mabini were under Recollect administration until 1937.

In 1898, upon the departure of the Recollects, all parishes and missions were entrusted to the secular clergy. The secular priests were under the charge of the bishop, hence were also called diocesan . By the 19th century, those in the Diocese of Cebu, to which Bohol pertained, were mostly home-grown, native Visayans or mestizos (offspring of a Filipino mother and a Chinese or Spanish father). The seculars had the daunting task of not only completing the many churches whose construction was interrupted by the Revolution, but rebuilding the many more churches burned by American troops during the Filipino-American War (1900-1902). Today, all parishes in Bohol are now under the clergy of its two dioceses, Tagbilaran and Talibon.

The church complex

As the missions grew, many eventually matured into parishes with their own parish priests or curas párrocos. Though chapels (kapilya) developed into churches (simbahán), both structures followed a common plan: a longitudinal space, the nave, for the congregation; at one end, the narthex or vestibule, a preparatory space where worshippers crossed themselves with holy water; and on the opposite end, the sanctuary or presbitery, where the priest said mass.

Adjoining the church was the parish house or rectory, called convento (nowadays kumbento) in the Philippines. Another component of the church complex was the graveyard or cemetery. In the early days only the elite (and even babies, it seems) could be buried inside the church; the rest were buried in a site adjacent to the church. In the 19th century graveyards near churches were closed for health reasons, and new cemeteries were established towards the outskirts of town. During this time, many churches constructed a chapel for funeral wakes (ermita de difuntos) within the complex but separate from the church building.

Key settlements some distance from the parish were established as visitas,  visited by the priest or his assistant on certain occasions such as feastdays to administer the sacraments. Eventually, many a visita became an independent parish, separate from its mother parish or matriz.

The church complex was doubtless the most dominant part of the town’s landscape. However it formed part of the central part of town or poblacion. The life of the poblacion focused on the quadrangular field in its center—the plaza—and the buildings surrounding it. The rules for laying out such a plaza complex had already been established in the Laws of the Indies decreed in Spain, based largely on the rationalism of the Renaissance and confirmed with great success in the  colonies of New Spain. One end of the plaza was dominated by the church and its convento. On another end stood the seat of local administration, called tribunal and later municipio. On other ends were schools for boys and girls, the escuelas de niños y niñas. The poblacion was crisscrossed by streets laid out in right angles to each other, like a grid or chessboard—a system inspired by Roman city planning. The town’s founding families built their houses around the square and in the blocks created by the streets. Beyond the poblacion but still within the jurisdiction of the town were settlements called barrios.

Jesuit-built churches (1590s to 1768) 

The first churches of Bohol were built of locally available materials such as wood and thatch. Chirino wrote in the 1590s that wooden churches were erected in anticipation of the first Jesuits’ arrival. There was much expertise in erecting sturdy structures of hardwood on the water, as evidenced by the remains of huge posts along both sides of the channel between Panglao and Bohol.8  These structures were razed by Ternatans in a raid two or three years prior to Legazpi’s 1565 landing in Bohol.

There were continuous setbacks to church-building such as the raid on Báclayon in 1600, the Diwata Revolt in the 1620s and constant pirate raids. Furthermore, the Jesuits had to contend with other unforeseen threats as well such as fires, earthquakes, storms and the rainy season, and termites. How and when construction in stone was adopted is not clear, but it must have been as a response to all these conditions.

Possibly the earliest surviving stone church is in Lóboc, which according to Javellana, may date from about 1670. This edifice is not the church as it exists today, but rather the core of the present three-storey convento. Next in line in antiquity are the churches of Báclayon and Lóboc (the present-day structure, standing perpendicular to the 1670 walls); scholars assign the years 1727 and 1734 to these, respectively. Judging from the unfinished state of the decorative carving on the exterior walls of both these structures, the dates may actually refer to commencement of building activities. Differences in the sizes of stone blocks and wooden boards suggest that sections of Jesuit conventos were assimilated into later ones, such as in Lóboc, Báclayon, and Dauis. The Jesuits also left behind fortifications in Báclayon and the foundations of the church in Tagbilaran. The first Recollect in Loon described the Jesuit-built church as a shed of wooden posts with a roof of nipa, in bad condition; the convento was no better. Apparently, all other churches of the Jesuits were of similar materials and in similar situations; they were to be replaced later in stone by the Recollects.

Recollect-built churches (1768-1898)

The earliest documented Recollect structures are defensive in nature. Stone belfries doubling as watchtowers rose in Lóboc (after 1768), Dauis (1774), Báclayon (1777), and Punta Cruz, Maribojóc (1796).  By the end of the 18th century, Loon and Dimiao were encircled by walls of stone. Watchtowers were needed way into the 19th century, such as in Balilihan (1844), and Panglao (1851). The unusual location of the tower in Balilihan, an interior town, may suggest that apart from monitoring the Abatan River it also served to maintain vigilance over pockets of malcontents in the area (Balilihan had the second largest number of settlers from Dagohoy’s camps in 1829).

The most imposing stone churches were built throughout the 19th century, especially in the first half: Dimíao (c.1800-1815),  Tagbilaran (c.1800- c.1850), Jagna (1810-1867),  Loon (façade from the earlier church begun c.1812, rest of the church 1855-1864), Loay (1822), Inabanga (1830s), Maribojoc (1852-1872), Talibón (1850s-late 1860s), and Cortes (late 1880s-1892). Some were only finished in the early 20th century, upon the initiative of the seculars: Dauis (1863-1923), Alburquerque (1885-1920s), Guindulman (1880s-1930s and later), and Panglao (c.1894-1924).

The second half of the 19th century was marked by the introduction of the portico-façade. Choirlofts were extended over the main entrances to provide shade for church-goers; they rested on porticos, and were ‘faced’ with an imposing frontage. Early examples are Loboc (c.1860s), Báclayon (1875), and Loay (1889). All three churches had perfectly valid stone facades, but these were literally relegated to the shade when a new portico-façade was fitted over them. The fad lasted until way into the 20th century, as in Calape (1933-1954).

Large, elongated or L-shaped conventos were built of stone throughout the 19th century, almost all in the southern part of the island: Loay (1838), Báclayon (1872), Tagbilaran (1872), Alburquerque (1876 and after), and Jagna (1878). Towers were still going up by the latter half of this century, but this time the bells tolled the rituals of peace: Loay (1865), Talibón (1870s-1880s), and Tagbilaran (1886-1891).

Harigues and tabiques

An interesting technology seen in many churches here is the introduction of tree-trunk posts (harigues or haligues) as replacements for pillars of stone in the basic structural framework. This represents a cross between local and Western building methods not easily noticed by the ordinary viewer; the harigue tradition has among its antecedents the houses on wooden posts burned by the Ternatans in 1563. Many church accounts tell about the difficulty in procuring these harigues: they had to be chopped down in the forest, hauled to the seashore, formed into rafts and floated, and hauled again to the construction site. They were cleaned of branches and bark, smoothened, and then the end that was to be inserted into the foundation was sharpened and singed.The massive posts were fixed into a cota, a low wall of rubblework and mortar.

The walls between the posts were constructed in one of two ways: 1) by layers of stone or gravel  cemented by a mixture of lime, sand, and water; 2) by panels of woven bamboo or wooden strips finished with a coating of mortar. In the first type, the sinuous forms of the harigues were sandwiched by the stone walls as exemplified by the ruin of the earlier church in Guindulman, and by the unfinished walls of the apse in Tubigon.  

The second type is known in European architectural parlance as ‘wattle and daub’; it was thin but practical, and must have been popular in places where there was not enough stone, manpower or financing. The technique was known all over the Philippines as tabique pampango, from the Spanish word for thin wall, and a modifier implying that perhaps the form was first introduced in Pampanga. In Bohol, surviving tabique pampango walls can still be seen in the upper sections of the crossings at Baclayon and Dimiao churches, and in the second floor rooms of conventos in Dauis, Loboc and Alburquerque. In some structures such as the ground floor of Dauis convento, rough pieces of lumber were used instead of woven strips. Some walls were called de doble tabique because they were further protected with a covering of wooden planks.

Through all this time the art of building in wood was not lost, however. Duero church (1864-1874) is almost pure wood, from its floorbeams (batangas) to the boards (tablas) to its rafters (salagunting). It is a magnificent example of how the early wooden churches must have been built. Many others like it were constructed throughout the 19th and early 20th century, but almost all have been rebuilt in stone or concrete. 

The 20th century

The first years of the 20th century were marked by much destruction: invading American forces burned several communities and churches during the Filipino-American War (1900-1902). The towns of Batuanan (now Alicia), Sierra Bullones and Sevilla were almost erased from the map and had to be re-established on different sites. After conditions normalized, construction resumed on churches left unfinished at the end of the Spanish regime. Poured concrete, though introduced in the last decades of the 19th century, became the material of choice. Facades of concrete were built for the churches of Dauis (1923), Panglao (1924),Inabanga (1931) and Tubigon (1930s); the church in the new town of Mabini still relied on stout harigues, but it ended up with walls of concrete instead of tabiques.

The Neo-Gothic style became the vogue towards the second quarter of the 20th century, as best exemplified by Calape church (1933-1954); decorative elements from this style are also seen in Clarin (c.1930) and Candijay. The portico-façade continued in popularity as seen in Jetafe (1926), Clarin (c.1930), Inabanga (1931), Balilihan (1930s), Calape (1933-1954), and even the barrio chapel of Busao, Maribojoc.

Many conventos were turned into private schools. During the Japanese Occupation, a number of these were used as garrisons by the enemy troops.

The second half of the 20th century saw a resurgence in church building. Many new churches still retained traditional lines, such as the portico-façade in Batuan (c.1950) and Catigbian, or the squat outline (San Isidro). However, instead of monumentality many opted for smaller sizes coupled with more transparent walls (to cite a few, Danao, Trinidad, Sagbayan). Burgeoning congregations brought about the demolition of old walls to facilitate expansion, such as at Tagbilaran Cathedral. A few have dared to be modern, as in Bien Unido, Ubay, and Lourdes Church in Tagbilaran.

Today there are moves to reconcile the conservation of what is still left with the realities of contemporary worship. Corollary to this, small museums have opened in a handful of conventos. Religious concerts were recently held in Baclayon, Loay, Loboc, and Tagbilaran. Old church music is being studied, even revived.

When visiting churches in Bohol, do not forget to appreciate how splendidly located many of them are. The churches of Panglao, Loon, Jagna and Dimiao preside serenely over expansive plazas. There is so much balance in the proportions of the complex around the church plaza in Loay. The ruin in Guindulman has much visual and educational potential if cleared of vegetation and debris, and given the proper presentation it deserves. Báclayon’s façade reflects on the gentle waves lapping its shore. But Dauis by the sea has the most enviable location; it is beautiful from any angle.

 A Visita Iglesia in Bohol is so much more than the sum of its parts. Like all precious things, they inspire; but they must also be cared for.

The article is the introduction to Mr. Regalado Trota Jose's book titled Visita Iglesia Bohol: A Guide to Historical Churches. Jose specializes in research and writing on historic Philippine church art. Apart from studying Anthropology and Philippine studies at the University of the Philippines, he also learned about about churches and culture while concertizing for 9 years with the UP Madrigal Singers. For his work on art history, Jose was named one of the 100 Centennial Artists by the Cultural Center of the Philippines in 1999.

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