An old Roman Catholic custom exported to the Philippines during the Spanish colonial period, the Visita Iglesia goes back to the Middle Ages when pilgrims visited the seven basilicas of Rome on Holy Thursday as a form of penance for their sins. Manila was then still a medieval city within the walls (intra-muros), and there were enough churches within to make the required seven. Surely there is a significance to the number because some people try to outdo others by visiting more than seven churches, in multiples of seven, to get a fast pass to heaven by visiting 14, or even 21, churches!
After the Mass of the Last Supper, Filipinos file out of church and walk or ride to six more, where they spend some time before the temporary “Altar of Repose,” or they do the Stations of the Cross. There are 14 stations so the practical do two stations in each of the seven churches to make 14, while the devout do more. I must admit that my Visita Iglesia these days has more to do with history and aesthetics than devotion because it is guided by the history behind each church.
Of the many churches in Intramuros, only San Agustin was left standing after the Battle for Manila in 1945, so it remains at the top of my list. If we are to believe the bronze historical marker installed on a wall in 1934, it is the “oldest church in the Philippines”—a fact that has been challenged recently. Its cornerstone was laid in 1599, and the church was completed in 1599. The church is worth a visit at any time, and it has an adjoining museum, too. Miguel Lopez de Legazpi is buried here; his tomb lies to the left of the main altar. But the tomb is said to be empty because the British sacked the church in 1762 and scattered the remains of the founder of Spanish Manila to the winds. In the crypt you will find the remains of the great 19th-century Filipino painter Juan Luna, and of the 20th-century nationalist historian Teodoro A. Agoncillo.
The nearby Manila Cathedral is also worth a visit but because it was rebuilt after the war, it is not on my visita list.
The second church worth visiting is Binondo Church, having been established as a Dominican mission for the Chinese in 1587 and having become a parish in 1596. Of course, much of the original church was lost through the centuries and postwar renovations, but it is significant for its connection with Lorenzo Ruiz, one of the martyrs of Nagasaki and the first Filipino saint.
The third church on my list is San Sebastian, off Quiapo. It was completely built of steel after the earlier church was destroyed by earthquakes in 1859 and 1880. The Recollect fathers chose steel that could withstand not only earthquakes but also typhoons, floods and fire. This is one of the most beautiful churches in Manila and should be better known if only for its connection with Gustave Eiffel.
Fourth on my list is close to San Sebastian and is another little known beauty: the Abbey Church of Our Lady of Montserrat, better known as the San Beda College Chapel. It is relatively new compared to all the other churches on my list, having been consecrated in 1926. Its nave, walls and ceilings were painted by two Spanish Benedictines, Lesmes Lopez and Salvador Alberich. The Santo Niño de Praga is venerated here, but if you want a bit of history, St. Maximilian Kolbe said Mass in this church in 1931 during a stopover in Manila en route to Japan from Europe. Years later he was martyred by the Nazis.
Fifth and sixth on my list are two little-known churches in Makati. It is unfortunate that the glitzy city for which the Binays claim credit often obscures its older, more historic center known as the Poblacion de Makati—Old Makati, the “navel” (pusod) of the city that has two ancient churches: San Pedro Macati and Guadalupe.
Historians should tell us how a Franciscan mission begun in 1578 was later turned over to the Jesuits who built the church in 1620 and administered it till the order was expelled in 1768. It is nestled in urban sprawl, and so one might miss the fact that the church and the adjoining Jesuit novitiate were built on a hill that once commanded a nice view of the nearby Pasig River, hence its original name “Buenavista.” San Pedro Macati used to boast of an image of the Virgin of the Rose that was venerated just like the Virgin of Antipolo. This wooden image was said to contain a crystal reliquary (now missing) that conserved a strand of the Blessed Virgin Mary’s hair!
Guadalupe is best known by three landmarks: a decrepit shopping mall, a seminary, and a funeral parlor that all obscure an Augustinian church and convent established in 1601 and placed under the patroness of the Philippines Nuesta Señora de Guadalupe. The interior of this church is new, but the outside was painted by Fernando Amorsolo and appears in many Filipino films.
Seventh on my list is the church of San Francisco del Monte in Quezon City that goes all the way back to a simple wooden structure in 1590. This church is associated with San Pedro Bautista, one of the martyrs of Nagasaki. It is modern inside but the adjoining convent still maintains its ancient vibe.
These are my recommended churches for Visita Iglesia 2016. They are little-known churches that provide a dash of history to supplement a religious observance.
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