The Aftermath of the Recent Disasters in Philippines

By: Fergus JM Ducharme

A month and more has passed since we, in Philippines, were subjected to the wrath of nature in the forms of the Bohol Earthquake and the Super Typhoon Haiyan. The novelty has worn off and many if not most and sadly people have sadly moved on to other things of greater interest to them. 

This is in no way meant to minimize the personal and human suffering of those millions of people affected by these crushing disasters. I am particularly sympathetic to the people in both areas who have suffered immeasurably as a result of both disasters.

I have been wondering what has happened and what will happen to the old and historic Churches of the Philippines, which have been of particular interest to me since we settled here, in retirement, three years ago.

I hasten to add, that as of today, a month since Haiyan and almost two months since the Bohol Earthquake, I haven’t yet had the opportunity to travel extensively in the disaster zones but the reports that I have read and seen are truly saddening. I base my writings and observations on the work of others who have “been there and seen it”…

I decided to investigate just one of the churches we have already reported on to see what effects it had been subjected to. One of the first churches, visited when we first started our adventure of exploring the old, historic churches of our region on Panay Island was the Church of St William in Passi City, Iloilo Province. 

The present Church was built by Friar Apolinario Villanueva, an Augustinian Friar, who was the town’s ‘Parish Priest’ between 1821and 1837. My exploration team and I have made a sort of game of trying to find proof that the church was in fact built by the Augustinians. They always made sure to place their Augustinian ‘crest’ somewhere on the lintels of the church. This one in Passi City was difficult to find, but find it we did.

This Church is one of the many “fortress churches” built in our region to protect the village residents in the event of a raid by Moro (Muslim) raiders and slave traders from the south especially from the areas of Sulu and Mindanao.

In addition, as with all churches built of that era, it was built using forced labour or ‘folio’ whereby locals  were  effectively forced to  be the unpaid labourers for the ‘priests’ in the construction of the churches in the region. The priests were actually quite severe and unforgiving if residents shirked their duties and responsibilities. They would physically abuse, humiliate and in some cases torture workers who failed to meet their imposed quotas.

Although, this specific site is not in Passi City; an example  from nearby Cabatuan, shows graphically what could happen to the errant few and the punishment that the ruthless priests would impose.

The Tree of Bondage in Cabatuan, mere steps away from the Church,  is where punishment was meeted out. An errant worker would be tied to the tree for a week or more at a time as punishment for not meeting his quotas or trying to evade the work imposed by the priests. The work they had to perform could mean hauling large stones for use in construction for 10 to 15 kilometers from the quarries to the actual construction site. Remember there were few tools and draft animals available, most everything was done using: "humans" as draft animals.

St William’s Church in Passi City is a classic example of a fortress church and this can be confirmed by the huge buttresses on each side of this massive building. 

The Church has been a virtual state of renovations since it was originally consecrated in 1837. The first church was reported to have been built in 1612 and was no more than a bamboo and grass hut. It was razed by fire shortly after consecration and most of the other iterations, over the years, were reduced to piles of rubble by fires or earthquakes.

The present church is actually the work of Friar Pedro Ceberio, who undertook to repair and refurbish Friar Apolinario Villanueva’s work of art that had fallen into serious disrepair since it had originally opened in 1837, some 20 years previously. Ceberio’s church is in fact pretty well what we see today. As we mentioned earlier, there has been almost constant renovations taking place in and about the church since 1857 and in fact it was re-consecrated in late 2010 once work had been fully completed.

As a result of the recent Super Typhoon, there was some fairly serious damage about the property and within the church itself. We’ve been able to establish through various reports that the ceiling in the sanctuary area of the church was seriously damage and fell into the Apse. This would indicate some serious damage to the roof. A site inspection is definitely called for.

The damage to St William’s is clearly not as serious as that suffered in other communities throughout the region where literally hundreds of the historical, old churches suffered irreparable damage. Restoring many of these ‘relics’ of a glorious past will obviously not be possible. In some rare cases such as with St William’s restoration is possible and will be accomplished within the next few years or so.

As we speak, Heritage ‘experts’ from Government, Academia and UNESCO are meeting to discuss and plan the possible restoration of these cultural icons.  But it is sad to say that many will never be returned to their former glory. It is especially sad when you remember that many of these icons are from 350 to 400 years old and are completely lost to future generations.

But a hero has emerged from all of this. The man is the Executive Secretary of the Philippines Government, Paquito Ochoa,  who is an amateur photography enthusiast. 

Julie Yap Daza a reporter for the Manila Bulletin, reported in a December 1, 2013 story “When a magnitude -7.2 earthquake left some of the country’s oldest churches in ruins in Tagbilaran, Bohol, last October, it also wiped out centuries of religious art. Felipe de Leon Jr., Chairman of the National Commission for Culture and the Arts, grimly noted that “no amount of restoration” of the province of Bohol will bring back those relics, mostly paintings, and mostly ceiling paintings.

The good news is that in 2008 a photography enthusiast by the name of Paquito Ochoa took an interest in those colonial-era paintings. Using a Nikon camera with a wide lens, he photographed the churches, their interiors and their precious paintings, and put up an exhibit in partnership with Filipino Heritage Festival Inc. and the diocese of Tagbilaran. 

Five years later, the subjects of his exhibit were destroyed by the earthquake of 2013, but the memory of those churches, specifically their painted ceilings, has been saved to live on in Executive Secretary Ochoa’s pictures. “Kisame: Visions of Heaven on Earth” was thus restaged for three days last month by the Ayala group of companies at Greenbelt, to share and keep alive the memory of those “heavenly” ceilings (kisame)  and raise funds to restore the heritage churches.

Against the glittering Christmas lights of Makati’s business center, guests toasted the photographer for his “sixth sense” in shooting those pictures when he did, thereby preserving a piece of church art and a piece of colonial history that can never be restored, not ever again”.

We are fortunate indeed to have many others such as Paquito Ochoa who have had a long standing interest in and love for these historical and cultural icons of the Philippines, since without him and those many others these timeless and priceless relics would have been completely lost for coming generations. 

Many of our regular readers will rightly wonder what churches are the ones that we should be concerned with...the ones that are lost and the ones that may be next when, not if, something like this series of disasters ever happens again?

Here is my "bucket list" of those churches that I must see and report on as soon as humanly possible:

- The Church of Santo Tomas de Villanueva in Miagao, Iloilo which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and on which we have previously reported.

- The Basilica Minore of Santo Nino in Cebu, which is reputed to be one of the first if not the first Church to be built in the Philippines and the 'resting place' of the Statue of Santo Nino which dates back to the early 1500's. It is also where we find Madgellan's Cross - the cross planted by Ferdinand Madgelan when he claimed the Islands for Spain also in the early 1500s. It was partialy destroyed in the 2013 Earthquake.

- The Metropolitan Cathedral of Our Lady of Candles in Iloilo. A magnificent Church dating back to the 1600s and a true masterpiece. No reported damage from both the 2013 Earthquake or Typhoon Haiyan. A Must see!

- The Church of San Jose in downtown Iloilo, another Agustinian Church dating back to 1617. A remarkably beautiful Church on Plaza Libertad in downtown Iloilo.

- The Church of Saint John the Baptist in Dingle, Iloilo. Built in the late 1880s to replace various Chaples that has served area for over 300 years. A truly beautiful example of Agustinian design and construction. Recent interior renovations specifically the ceilings and stained glass windows have only added to it magnificence. There has no apparent damage due to our two recent disasters.

- The Church of Santa Monica in Pa-nay, Capiz. This is a superbly beautiful massive fortress church. It is said to be the first Church built on Panay Island in or about 1569. It is also know as the 'home of the largest church bell in Asia'. Some damage has been reported as a result of Typhoon Haiyan, but details are very sketchy. The Typhoon scored a direct hit in this area of Panay Island and the destruction and havoc it caused were monumental. An on site inspection and visit are definitely called for. We have already reported on this Church, but it is one of our favourites and we'll be headed that way to do a follow up in the not too distant future.

- The Church of San Sebatien, The Metropolitan Cathedral of Bacolod which was built in 1876 and 1882. Another jewel and a must see. Damaged in the Typhoon, but not detailed information available. A site inspection/visit required.

- The Baclayon Church in Bohol. The Church was establsihed in the area by the Jesuits in the mid-1500s and this chrch was built in the early 1700s. The Church and its historic Bell Tower were both seriously damaged by the Earthquake of 2013.

- There are 60 other historic churches in Bohol that deserve to be visited and reported on, most if not all were levelled in the  October 2013 Earthquake - although plans for their possible restorations are presently underway, it is highly doubtfull that will all rise from the 'ashes'. A lenghty field trip is called for here, to explore the area, the epicentre of the destruction of these magnificent monuments. And not to forget,

- St William's Church in Passi City, Iloilo. One of my favourites which sustained some damage in the Typhoon, but it wasn't the catastrophic damage seen in other areas closer to the storms path.

It's important not to forget that on Panay Island, where we live, there are over 400 old, historic Churches that should be included in reporting of this nature. When I started this project 2 years ago I calculated that at the rate of 25 to 30 churches a year (which is not sutainable for an 'old guy' like me) I would have at least between 12 and 16 years of work to keep me going.

About the author

Expat Blog ListingFergus JM Ducharme is a Canadian expat living in Philippines. Blog description: We provide story of the Old and Historic Churches of Panay Island, Philippines in words and pictures. The descriptions outline the history and make up of the Churches backed up by lots of great pictures.
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