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26 Catholic Churches: National Cultural Treasures - Philippine Cultural Heritage

The Philippine Cultural Heritage includes a sizable number of Catholic Churches.

Among them, four Spanish-era churches in the Philippines has been officially designated as the Baroque Churches of the Philippines when they were inscribed to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1993. The collection is composed of the following: San Agustin Church in Manila, Nuestra Senora de la Asuncion in Santa Maria, Ilocos Sur, San Agustin Church in Paoay, Ilocos Norte Sto. Tomas de Villanueva Church in Miag-ao, Iloilo

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These churches have been at the forefront of Philippine history, not just in furthering Christianity in the archipelago, but in serving as the political backbone of Spanish colonial rule, when Church and State were regarded as one. The unique architecture of the churches reflect the adaptation of Spanish/Latin American architecture to the local environment (including the fusion with Chinese motifs).

Aside from these four churches, another church which is inscribed in the UNESCO World Heritage List is the Vigan Cathedral under the inscription Historic Town of Vigan.

The Philippine National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA) has also designated the conservation and protection of 26 other Spanish-era churches to be of utmost importance. These were registered as National Cultural Treasures. These churches were given priority status not just due to their historical value, but also based on the geographic representation of various regions across the nation:

1. Parish Church of San Agustin (Bacong, Negros Oriental).

The church was built in the second half of the 19th century by the Augustinian Recollects and is the best-preserved church complex in Negros Oriental. It has a late 19th century pipe organ. The finely- cut stonework of the belltower is noteworthy, as well as its material, which is not the usual white coralline type, and stylistic elements (new - Renaissance quoins). There are also painted friezes in the sacristy.

2. Parish Church of the Immaculate Conception (Balayan, Batangas).

The church was built in the early 19th century by the secular clergy, with later touches by the Augustinian Recollects. It must be noted that by the 19th century, the seculars were already largely indio priests, hence, Balayan (along with Tabaco, Tayum, and to a small degree Maragondon, in this list) is one of a few examples of churches built under direction of the indio clergy. The interior has not changed much since the 1870s when a print showing the church interior was made, despite several superficial additions.

3. Parish Church of Santiago Apostol (Betis, Pampanga).

Built in the 18th century by the Augustinians, with ceiling paintings from the early 20th century, the church boasts of the most beautiful retabloin Pampanga that is arguably also the best in Central Luzon. The wooden floor, though not so old, is well-maintained and adds to the ambience. Original wooden furnishings are still in the sacristy and in the convento.

4. Parish Church of Patrocinio de Maria (Boljoon, Cebu).

Built 18th-early 19th century, under the Augustinians, the church and its decoration are related artistically to those of nearby Argao, Dalaguete, and Samboan; however, Boljoon has arguably the most developed and unique style. The pierced woodwork on the choirscreen and pulpit are among the best in the country. The same goes for the gold-leafing and polychromy on the retablos that have amazingly withstood the salty air wafting in from just a few meters away. The complex includes remains of fortified walls, a cemetery, and a blockhouse. The convento roof still retains the original tiles.

5. Parish Church of Saints Peter and Paul (Calasiao, Pangasinan).

Built in the 17th to 19th centuries by the Dominicans, the church is considered as the best-preserved church complex in Pangasinan. The bell tower and some parts of the church have been recently reconstructed, having been damaged by an earthquake: still and all, it is well conserved and the recent work has not deviated from its original appearance. The sprawling convento - the site of the 18th century Synod of Calasiao - has an excellent example of a separate kitchen structure. The retablo mayor is massive and its complex woodwork may be seen at the back.

6. Parish Church of San Vicente de Ferrer (Dupax, Nueva Vizcaya).

The church is the best-preserved church complex in Nueva Vizcaya. It was built during the second half of the 18th century, under the Dominicans. The baptistry and narthex are converted with carved stucco - work possibly unmatched elsewhere in the Philippines. The convento still preserves slits on the outer walls for archers to fire their arrows against raiders.

7. Parish Church of the Immaculate Conception (Guiuan, Eastern Samar).

Built by the Jesuits in the early 18th century and further decorated by the Franciscans in the 19th. The decoration of shells and coral throughout the church and especially in the baptistry is most impressive and the only one of its kind in the country. There are remains of fortifications throughout the complex.

8. Parish Church of the Immaculate Conception (Jasaan, Misamis Oriental).

Built in the late 19th to early 20th century by the Jesuits, the church is a provincial attempt at imitation of an urban design, in this case, San Ignacio in Manila. There are significant portions of the original brick paving, neo-Gothic retablo, and ceiling woodwork (reminiscent of basket weave). The convento is an old wooden structure with huge wooden posts, as in a massive bahay kubo.

9. Parish Church of San Juan Bautista (Jimenez, Misamis Occidental).

The church is the best-preserved church complex in the province, if not in Mindanao and was built during the second half of the 19th century by the Augustinian Recollects in a site originally inhabited by the Subanon. The interior is richly decorated with sculpture, painting and metal work. The ceiling has a painting on canvas done in 1898; underneath is an earlier painting on the original wooden panels. The retablo mayor is in good condition. Its limestone walls are covered with faux marble painting with matching Gothic arches. The upper walls are oftabique pampango, a local variant of the wattle and daub technique (panels of interwoven slats or branches, covered in lime). The original clockwork, as in Tayabas, is still intact.

10. Parish Church of San Isidro Labrador (Lazi, Siquijor).

Built second half of the 19th century under the Augustinian Recollects, the church is grandly conceived and occupies two blocks, in the island province of Siquijor. The magnificent wooden floorwork of the church is among the best in the country, vying with those of Valencia and Duero in Bohol. The convento across the church is also one of the largest in the Visayas. The complex occupies the higher portion of the hilly town and is surrounded by venerable acacias.

11. Parish Church of San Pedro and San Pablo (Loboc, Bohol).

The church was built in the 17th and 18th centuries by the Jesuits, with enlargements in the 18th and 19th centuries by the Augustinian Recollects, and painting added in the early 20th century. The 17th century Jesuit church was later converted into apart of the three-level convento while the present church dates from the 18th century, with 19th century additions such as the belltower, the porticoes, and the funeral chapel. The convento is the only one in the country with three levels. The complex is picturesquely located by the banks of the Loboc River, a popular venue for outings.

12. Parish Church of Santa Catalina de Alejandria (Luna, La Union).

Built in the 18th-19th centuries by the Augustinians. The church houses one of the most important pilgrimage sites during the colonial era--the shrine of Our Lady of Namacpacan. The sprawling convento is now a school. The town itself has many preserved heritage houses.

13. Parish Church of San Carlos Borromeo (Mahatao, Batanes).

The church was built in the 19th century by the Dominicans and characterized by a stone structure in the courtyard used to house the beaterio, a local institution to assist in the work of the church. Elsewhere in the churchyard are stone monuments used perhaps as guiding lights for fishermen. The entire site gives a good idea of the simplicity of missionary life (as a counter-balance to the Ò¢aroqueÒ sensitiveness of more affluent areas).

14. Parish Church of San Guillermo de Aquitania (Magsingal, Ilocos Sur).

Built in the 18th-19th centuries under the Augustinians, the site includes the ruined walls and intact belltower of an earlier church, said to be destroyed by Diego Silang, and the 19th century church and convento. The church is supported by steep buttresses, characteristic of many churches in the Ilocos. The interior still has the well-conserved retablo and pulpit, arguably the most important examples of Baroque-influenced art in the Ilocos region. Originating from the church and linking various streets are fourteen stone shrines for the Via Crucis.

15. Parish Church of San Gregorio Magno (Majayjay, Laguna).

Built in the early 18th century by the Franciscans, the huge church commands a view of the hilly town and Laguna de Bay in the distance. The interior with its retablos and azulejo-tiled floors is fairly well-preserved despite some alterations of the walls. Access to the belltower has been made easier with cement steps that also lead to the langit-langitan or the cat-walk above the ceiling which leads to the crossing over the transept (this architectural feature is not as easily observable in other churches). The convento is one of the earliest surviving examples in the country.

16. Parish Church of the Assumption of Our Lady (Maragondon, Cavite).

The church was built in the early 18th century by the Jesuits, with later additions by the seculars and the Augustinian Recollects. Much of the church and belltower, and the lower portion of the convento is made of irregular river stones, indicative of the early level of technology operating at that time. The intricately-carved retablos, pulpit and church doors (with galleons and floral designs) date from Jesuit times, while the hugely carved beams crossing the nave were installed by the seculars-- one of the beams even carries the name of the indio priest who commissioned them. The unusual horseshoe-shaped communion rail, with a flooring of inlaid wood of various colors, recalls that of San Sebastian Church, Manila, another Recollect construction.

17. Parish Church of San Andres (Masinloc, Zambales).

Built in the 18th-19th centuries by the Augustinian Recollects that was extensively hit by a recent earthquake. The doorway from the choirloft is carved and polychromed and after the facade, is the most unique feature of the church.

18. Parish Church of Santa Monica (Pan-ay, Capiz).

Built in the 18th-19th centuries by the Augustinians characterized by its several retablos and other decorations. A recent report on its current state reveals that the structure's roof is in danger of collapsing. The other church treasures are kept in the adjacent museum, which has suffered at least three burglaries. The largest bell in the Philippines is also found in the Pan-ay belltower.

19. Cathedral of San Jose (Romblon, Romblon).

Built in the 18th-19th centuries by the Augustinian Recollects, the church has several baroque-influenced retablos. There have been some recent alterations though.

20. Parish Church of San Raymundo de Penafort (Rizal, Cagayan).

Formerly known as Malaueg, the site was an important mission to the peoples of what is now Apayao and was built in the 1600s by the Dominicans in the foothills of the Cordillera. The people in the area still speak Malaueg, a language spoken only in this district but is related to Ibanag. Throughout the church grounds one find shards of blue and white porcelain. As in Maragondon, the rough stonework belies the early technology of that time. The retablo is a composite of parts from earlier baroque altarpieces. Though Cagayan province may have bigger churches and other ruins, Malaueg - now Rizal - definitely possesses the most character, and its ruins are the most enigmatic.

21. Parish Church of San Joaquin (San Joaquin, Iloilo).

The church was built in the 19th century by the Augustinians. It has a carved pediment depicting the Spanish victory over the Moors at Tetuan - second only in magnificence to that in nearby Miag-ao. The three retablos are also of carved limestone, and were formerly polychromed. Among the sprawling ruins of the convento are an oval well and a kiln for baking bread. The church complex is magnificently located on a plain overlooking the sea.

22. Parish Church of San Juan Bautista (Tabaco, Albay).

Built in the 19th century by the secular clergy; the belltower features rocaille elements dated from an earlier time. The church has an unusual floor plan, with compartments that are inexplicable as of now. The stones on the walls bear masons marks, rarely seen elsewhere in this country.

23. Parish Church of San Ildefonso (Tanay, Rizal).

Built in the second half of the 18th century by the Franciscans, the church's interior is rich, with five beautiful examples of rococo-influenced retablos. On the walls are the panels of the Via Crucis, celebrated because of the way in which they were indigenized through perspective, proportion, and other details-- one of the characters even wears glasses.

24. Basilica of St. Michael Archangel (Tayabas, Quezon).

Built in the 18th and 19th centuries by the Franciscans, the church's overall interior decoration is a good example of the neo-classic style. Within the town are two other tone chapels and an ancient cemetery with its own chapel. The town is located in the foothills of Banahaw, with a cool temperature.

25. Parish Church of Santa Catalina de Alejandria (Tayum, Abra).

The church was built in the 19th century by the secular clergy among the Christianized Tinguians. The convento, later turned into a house for nuns, and now a school, is across the church. Around the churchyard and continuing into the main streets are fourteen small shrines of the Via Crucis. Important examples of early Tinguian art, such as carved wooden baptismal font, are now in the bishop's house in Bangued. The belltower is structurally unsafe due to earthquakes and the construction of a water reservoir inside the structure. The church is fairly well-maintained but must continue to be conserved to prevent future deterioration.

26. Parish Church of San Matias (Tumauini, Isabela).

The church was built in the 1780s by the Dominicans with its unique cake-like belltower added some years later. The church may be considered the best and most artistic brick structure in the Philippines. In the convento vaulted ceiling may still be seen impressions of the mats used to hold up the plaster. The churchyard is bounded by a brick wall with a unique undulating silhouette.

The Philippines is home to hundreds of centuries-old Spanish colonial churches. Built at the height of Spanish influence in the archipelago, these churches are a fusion of European and Asian architectural motifs. Today, the Philippines’ colonial churches still stand out from the country’s modern cityscapes and continue to play a key role in the spiritual development of the country’s 58 million Catholics.Although these churches have remained largely intact for centuries, the ravages of pollution and urban development have taken their toll on these edifices. 

It is for this reason that the Philippine government, through the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA), has begun restoration work on 26 churches that have been identified as National Cultural Treasures for their cultural significance and distinctive architecture. These are aside from the four Baroque-style churches which are recognized as World Heritage Sites by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).The NCCA is the country’s premiere culture and arts organization tasked with preserving and protecting the Philippines’ cultural heritage. Exhaustive research and documentation have been undertaken in conjunction with exhibits and public awareness campaigns in an effort to preserve the country’s unique and irreplaceable ecclesiastical monuments.

The list was originally from Reinerio A. Alba, a Filipino writer who hails from Gumaca, Quezon. He was a fellow for poetry at the Silliman National Writers Workshop in Dumaguete City in 1993 and Iyas National Writers Workshop in 2002. Visit his blog site

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