Revisit the stories behind 7 heritage Batangas churches this Holy Week
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
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 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
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 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
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 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.
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 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.
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
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.
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.
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 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.
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 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
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.
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.
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.