Revisit the stories behind 7 heritage Batangas churches this Holy Week

March 7, 2018



Sibyl Layag, Miguel R. Llona, and Judith Torres

Taal’s fury and human vanity reverberate in Batangas’ churches in every city and municipality that was highly influenced by the Spanish, especially of Catholicism. In the tradition of Visita Iglesia, we revisit seven of these ancient churches in Batangas that stood the test of natural disasters and peoples’ interventions through the centuries.

The tradition of Visita Iglesia, of visiting seven or fourteen churches to say prayers at each for a special intention, is usually observed during Holy Week in the Philippines. While saying an invocation is the primary and most important reason to visit the church, another motivation is to remind ourselves of the history and heritage of these Batangas churches this Holy Week.

1. The Immaculate Conception Parish Church, Balayan

The Immaculate Conception Parish Church in Balayan is the only church in Batangas declared as a National Cultural Treasure.

In its 422-year history, one of the oldest churches in Batangas, standing in the province’s oldest town, has witnessed its fair share of disasters and destruction—both natural and man-made. The Immaculate Conception Parish Church in Balayan was not only intended as a sacred sanctuary, but as a fortress built against Muslim invasion—which occurred almost yearly—the 1754 Taal Volcano eruption, and greedy capitalists’ plans of commercialization.

The nave of the church. Note the Spanish tiles used for the floor; according to Vencio Ramos, the middle tiles are from the original structure, while the black and white tiles on the sides are a more recent addition.
The pulpit of the church. Light streams in form stained glass windows, gridded like bahay na bato capiz windows as opposed to most church windows depicting Christian imagery.

The structures that the now vigilant Balayan community fiercely wanted to protect, which currently house the Immaculate Conception convent and school, used to be Balayan’s Casa Real, or the municipal tribunal, built 1744. The church itself bears a historical marker, installed December 8, 1986, by the National Historical Commission of the Philippines (NHCP). Its status as National Cultural Treasure protects it by law from physical alterations that may violate the authenticity of the church’s historic identity. Such protection extends to the church grounds, and before any new construction may take place, NHCP approval is required.

READ MORE: The Mod-art and Mid-century Leanings of Basilan cathedral

2. The St. Raphael the Archangel Parish Church, Calaca

Film producer Augusto Bernarte sponsored the roof replacement in 1972, while this impressive restoration work on the facade was sponsored by Sem-Calaca Power Corporation and DMCI, Inc., through its chairman Victor Consunji. The construction, carried out in 2010, was supervised by architect Susan Castillo.

St. Raphael is deemed the patron of the sick, especially of the blind or those afflicted with eye illnesses, and of healers, doctors, lovers and travelers.

He is also the patron saint of Calaca, a town in Batangas established May 10, 1835. It was originally part of Balayan. Six years after Calaca was established, Diego Inumerable, the gobernadorcillo or governor of Calaca, deemed that the town was ready for its own parish church. He had the church of St. Raphael the Archangel built, with the help of Calaca’s elite parishioners.

The interior of the church follows the typical cruciform layout of religious buildings.
The domed apse features depictions of the gospel writers Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John in oval trompe l’oeil frames on each corner.

The men and women of Calaca volunteered to gather the materials needed for the church’s construction: sand, stone, wood. These were brought to Balayan through the Pansipit River to the shore of Calaca, which borders the southern part of the town. From the shore, the people hauled the materials to the church. The roof is made of wood and hard stone bricks, while the walls are made of adobe, limestone and sand. It was completed in 1861, marking the official status of Calaca as a parokya (parish).

3. The Basilica de San Martin de Tours, Taal

Taal’s colossal landmark, the Basilica of San Martin de Tours, is as wide as a 15-storey building is tall. Built atop elevated ground, fronting the town plaza and overlooking nearby Balayan Bay, it was designed by Spanish architect Don Luciano Oliver with two belfries, which crashed to the ground in April 1942 during a strong earthquake.

This quaint town in Batangas bears the name of the smallest active volcano in the world, and is home to the largest Catholic church in Asia. For these reasons and others besides, the town has been described as “a town of superlatives.”

READ MORE: A Fitting Retrofit: The Restoration of Manila Cathedral

The original structure of Basilica de San Martin de Tours used to be in what is now the town of San Nicolas. It was built in 1575, but the cataclysmic eruption of Taal Volcano in 1754 completely destroyed it, and the entire town relocated to its current site. The present church was inaugurated in 1865, but was only considered finished in 1878 when Fr. Agapito Aparicio added the Doric style main altar. On December 8, 1954, it was declared a Minor Basilica, and 20 years later a National Shrine, or a National Historical Landmark, by Presidential Decree No. 375. For 148 years, from the time it was inaugurated, the church has weathered major earthquakes and undergone several restoration and rebuilding, as well as (controversial) beautification efforts.

The Jubillee Hall in mid-construction, photographed by BluPrint 31 August 2013. Orlina immediately objected to its proximity to the heritage structure, the protrusion of the arcaded entryway beyond the facade of the Basilica, and the incongruence of architectural styles, among other flaws.

The Basilica used to have two belfries, but both fell due to a 1942 earthquake. Reconstruction began on the left belfry in the early 1990s, but the result caused much uproar among the parishioners and heritage lovers, as the shape was too narrow and the dome looked like a milk bottle’s nipple. Two years later, the new belfry’s walls were thickened and its roof widened to make it look more like the original. The second belfry was not reinstated, probably because the coral stone structure of the Basilica would not be able to support the weight of a second dome made with dense modern cement.

Madlangbayan’s restoration job in progress at the Basilica of San Martin de Tours, photographed by BluPrint in June 2011. Bamboo scaffoldings support the artists executing trompe l’oeil work in the arches and the ceiling.

The interiors of the Basilica were also improved, upon the appointment of Rev. Msgr. Alfredo Madlangbayan as Taal’s parish priest in 2011, with the help of the Church Historical Authentic Restoration Movement (CHARM), and under supervision of Arch. Reynaldo Inovero of the National Historical Commission of the Philippines (NHCP). Later, the construction of Casa San Martin II Jubilee Hall was also conceived.

Madlangbayan’s zeal for instituting improvements, however, became the target of an equally zealous Batangueño, celebrated glass sculptor Ramon Orlina, whose love for his hometown has spurred him to protect its status as a heritage zone.

4. The Basilica Menor de Inmaculada Concepción, Batangas City

The Basilica Menor de Inmaculada Concepción, like its contemporaries in Batangas, was designed with a robust exterior in response to the threat posed by the destructive forces of volcanic eruptions, earthquakes and typhoon winds. Its thick walls and the minimum of glass-clad openings keep the church cool even at noon with all the doors closed. The octagonal belfry tower holds the baptistery on the ground level.
The photogenic nave of the basilica, the windows of its dome peeking just above the triumphal arc. The bands of paintwork on the walls and on the pilasters, which are at eye-level, cannot stand up to scrutiny, but the trompe l’oeil on the ceilings, cornices, and over the arched windows succeed in imparting a vision of grandeur.

The Basilica Menor de Inmaculada Concepción is 156 years old, but the first church that stood on its site was erected 432 years ago in 1581 by an Augustinian priest, Padre Diego Mojica. Dedicated to Inmaculada Concepción de Nuestra Señora, the first structure was made of wood. Then, a large and fortified church complex was built on the site over the course of four decades, from 1682-1721, with a high watchtower and artileriya added to the convento in 1693, to espy and repel sea bandits.

READ MORE: Sculpted illusions at the Basilica Minor of Immaculate Conception in Batangas

According to several sources, including the marker outside the basilica, the second church was torn down, and a third church began construction in the mid-1800s. No reasons are given for why the second church had to be demolished, but it is likely that it had been severely compromised by two destructive earthquakes that happened in 1852, on September 16 and December 24.

To the right of the staircase spiraling up to the choir loft is the doorway leading to the baptistery. Baptisteries were traditionally located near the entrance/narthex, to symbolize the entry of the newly baptized member into the church.
The baptistery is located inside the belfry tower, adjacent and attached to the church by a short passageway. In the center of the room is a round baptismal font of marble. Within the surrounding walls are shallow niches containing the remains of departed parishioners.

The third church, the present one, is a picture of solidity and stability, its walls a meter and a half thick, supported by three massive buttresses on each side. It was consecrated on February 2, 1857, and on February 13, 1948, by a decree of the Pope Pious XII, was elevated to the status of “Basilica Minor,” the first church in the Philippines and East Asia to be so honored.

5. The Church of St. James the Greater, Ibaan

The façade of St. James the Greater Church remains faithful to the original design, with the pediment and ionic columns still in place. Parts of the cement face executed during a 1980s restoration effort, however, weren’t evenly applied. A breach in the cement finish would make the soft and absorbent stone inside vulnerable to water seepage from above in addition to from below ground. The moisture, trapped inside the hard cement shell, erodes the old stones within at a much faster rate than if they had been left exposed.

A frequent casualty of natural disasters is the Church of St. James the Greater in Ibaan, Batangas. The first chapel and a convent that the town had, according to records, were engulfed by a storm that brought “fire and sulfur” in the early 1800s.

It wasn’t until 1832 that plans for a larger church for the town of Ibaan were brought up by the Order of St. Augustine, which had established its foothold in the province as early as the 1570s. An architect named Luciano Oliver drew a cruciform layout for the church, with a transept near the retablo housing two more altars. The church was made of adobe stone, with a triangular pediment, ionic columns and two bell towers flanking both sides of the façade. The adobe stones were taken from a quarry along the Ibaan River.

Records state that the very first time the interiors were painted was in 1878, supervised by Fr. Vicente Maril, while the machuca floor tiles were introduced by Fr. Guido Coletti sometime in the 1940s. The interiors were repainted in 1998-2001 under Fr. Deodoro Dawis. Today, the interiors are adorned with faux ribs across the ceiling, classical moldings and pilasters, and purely ornamental cornices and corbels; the side entrances inexplicably framed by hollow block and mortar faces.

Natural disasters followed in the coming years, in the form of two earthquakes, the first one in 1890 and the second at the height of World War II.  The earthquakes destroyed the church, causing for rebuild and replacement of the east tower.

The retablo is a new addition to the church as well.

Today, the façade of the church has been covered with cement, purportedly to make up for the deterioration of the stones. While the new cement finish succeeds in replicating Luciano Oliver’s design of the façade, the use of modern cement instead of traditional lime mortar on the ancient stones was ill-advised. Lime mortar is much more porous than cement mortar, allowing dampness within the stones to evaporate, unlike modern cement, which traps moisture inside and hastens the deterioration of the antique structure.

READ MORE: Shelter dialogue recap: Building architecture, disaster-resilience, and AI

Still, the fact that the church remains standing despite suffering at the hands of two earthquakes is a feat, interventions and all. It seems like St. James the Greater, seen by the people of Ibaan as the church’s “Defender of Faith and Freedom,” has done his job in defending it from destruction, whether from natural disasters or human hands.

6. The Archdiocesan Shrine of St. Joseph, San Jose

The church length and width is 60 x 14 meters, 840 square meters in area. One wonders if the original façade possessed some details or carvings that were covered over with cement.

The Batangas town of San Jose, named after Joseph the father of Jesus and husband of Mary, is home to the Archdiocesan Shrine of St. Joseph. The church was established as the base of the Oblates of St. Joseph Mission and its Minor Seminary, the first Italian congregation that sent missionaries to the Philippines.

The attention to detail inside the church is remarkable, a triumph of artisanal skill. Everything from the ceilings, columns, cornices and walls are meticulously painted to fool the eye. Notice how even the cracks in the cornices and walls are actually painted on.

Augustinian friars put up the first church in the town in 1788, built with bamboo and a cogon roof. A fortified structure made of adobe, the church that still stands today, was constructed in the early 1800s under the watch of Fr. Manuel Blanco. Records are inconclusive about damages that the church may have suffered in its more than 200 years of existence, though the façade has been stripped of its palitada and coated with cement. According to a parish official, the cement was applied to protect the church’s façade from rain, as the stones already had cracks due to old age. They have no records of when this was done, though, and whether the right kind of cement was used.

The Archdiocesan Shrine of St. Joseph is notable for its impressive altar, with six columns encircling the retablo containing an image of St. Joseph. Floral details on the columns, cornices and “frames” of the paintings attest to the Baroque style of the church.
The church has a large open space out back that serves as a prayer garden, where visitors can pray at a grotto of the Virgin Mary.

The church is rife with Baroque influences, as evidenced in the curved cornices of its façade and the intricate, floral details of its interior. As with most churches constructed during the early Spanish period, the cruciform layout is observed. In contrast with the bland cement façade, the church interiors are striking for the well-preserved state of the trompe l’oeil paintings and details for the ceilings, arches and columns. Several scenes from the Bible are painted on the sidewalls, the painted shadows and frames giving them a 3D sense of depth and relief.

The church’s Baroque ornamentation and well-preserved state have made it a popular pilgrimage site, particularly for women who come to St. Joseph and pray for their spouses. With the Oblates of St. Joseph still using it as their base for spreading the Good News, the Archdiocesan Shrine of St. Joseph will continue to stand as a father figure for the town of San Jose for more years to come. 

READ MORE: The Xavier Nuvali oratory echoes rock imagery in Christian tradition

7. St. John the Evangelist Church, Tanauan

The great wooden portal of the church is recessed, its jambs comprised of a series of shafts topped by Corinthian-style capitals and molded arches typical of Romanesque church architecture that dominated Europe from the 10th to 12th centuries, but which remained popular in Philippines many centuries later.

Established on May 5, 1584, records place Tanauan’s earliest church structure—a wooden one—as having been completed before the year 1690. Forty years after building its church of made of wood, Tanauan had become prosperous enough to complete in 1732 an edifice made of stone. However, the cataclysmic eruption of Taal Volcano in 1754 demolished it completely, along all of the town’s houses, as well as those of all the other population centers along the lake—Taal, Balayan, Bauan, Lipa and Sala.

The almost 200-year old structure was heavily damaged during WWII. and when rebuilt in 1948, acquired a modern interior characterized by sharp lines, in contrast to the exterior’s arches and flowery moldings.
The simple rectangular moldings on the ceiling installed in the late 1940s, although somewhat dense, still feel contemporary today.

According to some accounts, the Tanauan townsfolk fled at the first to a nearby town called Bañadero before relocating some eight to ten kilometers inland, towards the east, to Tanauan’s present location.

In the center of their new town, the Tanaueños built for St. John the Evangelist a stone church with a tile roof. Subsequently, the church underwent expansion twice, in 1861 and 1881.

Running along the left perimeter wall of the church grounds, 14 larger than life Stations of the Cross dot a mossy and meandering stone path shaded by a canopy of tall leafy trees.

Much of St. John’s was flattened in 1944 during World War II, when the Americans carpet-bombed Batangas, which was crawling with Japanese. After the war, the church was rebuilt, and it was this last major reconstruction effort that created the marked disparity between the church’s traditional, somewhat florid façade, and its sharp, modern interiors.

St. John’s was declared a heritage site by the National Historical Commission in 1991.

Original articles first appeared in BluPrint Vol 1 2014. Edits were made for
1. Written by Sibyl Layag. Photographed by John Daryl Ocampo of Studio 100. 
2. Written by Sibyl Layag. Photographed by Ed Simon of Studio 100. 
3. Written by Sibyl Layag and Judith Torres. Photographed by Ed Simon and John Daryl Ocampo of Studio 100.
4, 5 and 6. Written by Miguel R. Llona. Photographed by Ed Simon of Studio 100.
7. Written by Judith Torres. Photographed by John Daryl Ocampo of Studio 100.

Download this month's BLUPRINT magazine digital copy from:
Subscribe via [email protected]