When Lina and Rey Ople were planning to get married in Manila in 1997, there was no question where the wedding would take place – in the historic San Agustin Church.

“When we first visited San Agustin Church in Manila … I knew we had to get married in the historical church,” said Lina, who with her husband is now a parishioner at St. Bernadette’s in Surrey.

Celebrating the wedding in Manila’s oldest church was so important that the couple was willing to wait a year for the opportunity.

“We both felt the sacredness of the church, knowing its history,” said Rey. “When you enter the church, you are drawn to bow your head in prayer, as the icons surrounding you are doing it at the same time as you. The whole church is in adoration of the Creator, and that was a very special feeling for us.”

San Agustin’s impressive features contribute to making it a popular venue for weddings throughout the year. Its altars are in the design of high Baroque style and buttresses separate crypto-collateral chapels on both sides of the nave. Its interior ceiling paintings are done in the tromp l’oeil style, and the complex features a monastery complete with cloisters, arcades, and gardens.

San Agustin was the first church built in the Philippines, on the island of Luzon. It is officially known as the Church of the Immaculate Conception of San Agustin. With the Augustinians evangelizing the islands through the efforts of Father Alfonso Jimenez, construction on the church started in 1571 and was only completed in 1607. It is 413 years old and the oldest church in the Philippines.

The Philippines’ numerous historic churches are a reminder of God’s blessings, says Cynthia Aldaba Yambao, a parishioner at St. Mary’s in Vancouver.

Yambao recalls visiting San Agustin Church in Paoay, Ilocos Norte. Calling it one of her most memorable moments in the Philippines, she said “Unexplainable feelings enveloped me upon entering the church. It was very quiet and solemn, and inspired me to talk to God with all my heart.”

San Augustine Church in Paoay. (Cynthia Yambao photo)

The San Agustin Church in Paoay, Ilocos Norte, was built in portions throughout a century, beginning in 1604 to the laying of the cornerstone in 1704, then the construction of the convent in 1707, and finally the addition of the bell tower in 1793. Like its cousin church Santa Maria in Ilocos Sur, the 24 heavy buttresses on the church’s sides and back serve as a foundation against earthquakes, along with its thick walls made from bricks and local coral stones.

Durability is one of three characteristics of good architecture – firmatis, utilitas, venusitatis, or durability, utility, and beauty – defined by Roman architect Marcus Vitruvius Pollio in his treatise De Architectura more than 2,000 years ago. But the purpose of good architecture, according to Vitruvius, should not only be its aesthetics, strength, and fortification, but to encourage delight and good spirits in people.

The historical churches of the Philippines have done just that for its 81 million faithful over the last 500 years. The country has a rich collection of Baroque-style churches UNESCO considers part of its World Heritage list.

When Augustinian friars, the founders and first apostles of the Catholic faith in the Philippines, arrived on the islands, they established the first Catholic missionary settlements and started to build bamboo chapels to hold Masses and religious services. The missionaries were led by navigator and Augustinian friar Andres de Urdaneta when King Philip of Spain sent a Spanish fleet to the Philippines, together with five other Augustinian friars from Mexico. The islands were divided by the Spanish government among the different religious orders in 1594 to better facilitate its evangelization, and the Augustinians eventually settled in three areas in Luzon and one in the Visayas, where the first Baroque churches were built.

Built in the late 1600s, these four churches are the San Agustin Church in Manila; the San Agustin Church in Santa Maria, Paoay, Ilocos Norte; Nuestra Señora de la Asunción in Santa Maria in Ilocos Sur; and the Miag-ao Church in Iloilo. The reinterpretation of European Baroque in church-building by the Augustinian friars, architects, and Chinese and Philippine artisans and the use of local stones were used extensively to construct not only the churches, but the homes and streets that led to these majestic architectural wonders.

Common among these churches are their monumental shapes and enormous appearance that would make them impervious to earthquakes and the usual typhoons on the islands. They usually mimicked a fort that would offer protection from invaders and the tuff or coralline limestone, usually combined and reinforced with lime, made it look formidable. The contrafuertes (buttresses) reminiscent of the Baroque churches of Spain and France added to their majesty.

Another common feature of these churches were bell towers, such as pagoda-shaped bell towers built separately from the church to avoid their collapsing on the church during an earthquake.

While the exteriors may look European, the interiors are a combination of Western style and indigenous artistry, as well as some Chinese motifs. Artists used local materials and decorations to depict the life of Christ with the use of mostly coconut and palm by-products. They enthroned the saints on mini-altars or retablos and on various iconography, usually depicting them dressed in local garb, such as St. Christopher in the Miag-ao Church in Iloilo, Philippines.

All four of the Baroque churches are sisters or cousins to each other, and St. Augustine is prominently displayed in all of them.

Nuestra Señora de la Asunción, built in the style dubbed “earthquake Baroque.” (Wikimedia Commons)

The Nuestra Señora de la Asunción in Santa Maria in Ilocos Sur was built on top of a hill, and was home to friars and soldiers stationed in the Ilocos province during the Spanish colonial era. Built in 1618, the original church suffered a history of demolitions, and construction was finally completed in 1714.

It is known as the Church of Our Lady of Assumption, and can be reached by climbing an 85-stair granite rock staircase. Dubbed as the church built in the style of “earthquake Baroque,” the San Agustin Church was built by Father Antonio Estavillo, a friar and architect. He incorporated many Baroque features in the design of the church, but he also made sure it was earthquake-proof.

Santo Tomas de Villanueva Church, known as a “fortress church.” (Wikimedia Commons)

The Santo Tomas de Villanueva Church or Miag-ao Church in Miag-ao, Iloilo, in the central island of the Visayas was built in 1786. It was called a “fortress church” as it was meant to serve as such against the invading Muslims from the south. Features include a façade that features St. Christopher holding onto a coconut tree and carrying the Infant Jesus. The tree plays into some folklore about a mother who prayed for a tree to sustain her and her young children and is considered the “tree of life” in Philippine culture, the place where the coconut tree appeared, becoming the site of the church.

That combination of faith and culture is important. “Our Catholic faith is our culture. It is who we are, not what we practise,” said Yambao.

“We show our love by practising our faith through intimate conversations with God in prayers, novenas, Masses, and adoration, and we put them together with our cultural celebrations; that is how Catholicism has become part of the lives of the people.”

In addition to the Baroque churches, many other notable churches were built by the Franciscans, Dominicans, Jesuits, and other missionaries who arrived on the islands prior to the revolution in 1898 that dissolved the Spanish colonial regime in the Philippines.

The judicious site planning and assignment of missionaries enacted by Philip II in the 1600s, following the Ley de las Indias (Laws of the Indies), not only captured the essence of the evangelizing efforts of these congregations, but also the openhearted response and acceptance of the Filipino converts of their new-found faith.

A sketch of Miag-ao Church in Iloilo by Raymund Correa, a member of St. Bernadette’s and Immaculate Conception (Delta) parishes and former architect. (Courtesy of Raymund Correa)

These Baroque churches are a testament to this faith, and for as long as these churches withstand the elements, time, and historical upheavals, the 500-year faith of the Filipino Catholic is a symbol of a people’s piety and docility to God and his Church.

Rosette Correa is a member of the archdiocese’s Filipino Ministry and a teacher at Immaculate Conception school.

To mark the 500th anniversary of Christianity in the Philippines, The B.C. Catholic is partnering with the Archdiocese of Vancouver’s Filipino Ministry to tell stories and personal reflections on Filipino Catholic life and service throughout the year.