Romblon Cathedral

Romblon Cathedral
Cathedral of San Jose in Romblon, 2009 (Raymond Low)

Roman Catholic Cathedral of St Joseph, formerly San Jose / Location: Romblon, Romblon / Church and tower built early 18th century; nave raised and transept added 2nd half of 19th century

Since time immemorial, Romblon and its cluster of islands have provided food and shelter to sea-voyagers negotiating the turbulent waters between Luzon and the Visayas. Though the area was known to Spanish explorers from 1572, a Christian settlement was only formally organized in Romblon, on the island of the same name, in 1631. Together with Banton, established earlier in 1622, it was under the spiritual care of the diocesan parish priest of Ajuy, Iloilo. In 1635 Romblong—as it appeared in early documents—with its adjacent islands was turned over by the Bishop of Cebu to the care of the Augustinian Recollects. Though a quasi-parish, it remained a district of the province of Capiz throughout the rest of the Spanish regime.

It turned out that slave-raiders had also set up their lairs in these very islands. In 1644 the Recollect Superior ordered the transfer of Agustin de San Pedro, OAR, from Cagayan de Misamis in Mindanao to Romblon. Born in Portugal in 1599, Fray Agustin had already earned some fame for building palisades and forts in Linao and Cagayan. From 1644 to 1650, he inculcated in the Romblomanon the arts of defense, including fighting on land and sea, surprise attacks, and pursuit of the enemy. He instructed them in constructing forts on Romblon and Banton islands. He died in 1653, and his remains are enshrined at the foot of the Romblon bell tower which used to serve as his own bulwark. These achievements earned him the name el Padre Capitan. The title was soon recorded in chronicles of the era such as the Historia de Mindanao by the Jesuit historian Francisco Combés.

Fray Agustin fortified the semicircular enclave of Romblon facing the sea, with its back shielded by the thickly forested vertical slopes of an extinct volcano. A 9,144-meter masonry wall connected the stone bulwarks at both ends of the enclosure, and closed off any enemy entry into the town. Inside the enclosure a church was built. Its apse or rear was firmly set into the mountain wall for stability and security, a unique undertaking in Philippine architecture. The convento extended from the right side of the facade so that the compound formed an “L”. The houses of the residents radiated from the church. We get an idea of how the fortified town looked like through a plan prepared in 1734 by Gov-Gen Fernando Valdes y Tamon. The forts in Romblon and Banton were built with local labor and under the direction and maintenance of the Augustinian Recollects.

For a hundred years after the coming of el Padre Capitán to Romblon, the district enjoyed a period of relative calm. The bulk of the present church and convent of cut coral-stone must have been erected by the first decades of the 18th century. This is presupposed by the dating of certain furnishings and structures in the complex. Roman numerals for the year “1726” mark the construction of the retablo mayor. The two retablos fronting each other in the transept are of the same baroque style and must have come at around the same time. Roman numerals for the year “1727” provide a date for the lower level of the bell tower. An image of the Santo Niño based on the famous one in Cebu was gifted to the church in 1728. The church and convento of Banton were also built in 1726.

A wave of bloody raids that commenced in 1740 retarded development in the Romblon area for most of the century. The two hills flanking the town of Romblon were crowned with forts in 1760. Natural calamities and famine worsened living conditions as its residents lost their fields and cattle in the adjoining islands of Tablas and Sibuyan. Typhoons in 1780 and 1829 greatly damaged the church and convento.

The decrease of pirate raids in the early 19th century brought in more maritime commerce and local prosperity. To accommodate the growing population, a transept was added to the church in the 1860s and 1870s. At the same time the walls of the nave were raised by a few meters, a cupola was built over the crossing, and the building was roofed with tile. A section of the convento adjoining the church was taken down to give access to the right transept. In the 1890s, the windows were enlarged and enhanced with colored glass panes, a pipe organ was installed, the church was painted, and the tile roof replaced with a lighter one of zinc. The famous marble industry of Romblon seems to have been initiated only in the last years of the 19th century, as there is no mention of it in earlier chronicles. The Recollects assisted the residents in carving holy water fonts and baptismal basins that were distributed all over the country.

Despite all the changes the church has gone through, the early 18th century shell has survived almost intact. It seems unusually tall in relation to its width, due to the additions of the 19th century. The octagonal cupola over the crossing has recently been replaced by an ill-advised dome. Over the central doorway is an image of St Joseph cradling the Christ Child, who affectionately curls his right hand on his earthly father’s nape. Three intricately carved doors give entrance to the church. The year M./DCC./XX/VI (1726) is inscribed on the base of the second level of the central retablo, making it a benchmark for Philippine colonial art history. This altarpiece, along with two others in the transept ends, is exuberantly decorated with twisted columns, graceful scrolls, and flowery finials and flanges. Two other retablos flanking the central one are in the neoclassic style, installed in the 2nd half of the 19th century.

The parish church of St Joseph became a cathedral when it became the seat of the Diocese of Romblon which was erected on 17 April 1975. The National Museum declared the Cathedral of St Joseph a National Cultural Treasure on 31 July 2001.

SOURCE: Manila News-Intellegencer (1991)

Originally posted 2000-11-22 21:34:06.