The Philippines has about as many Catholic churches as Bali has temples. The arrival of Spanish conquistadores in the 1570s also brought missionaries intent on claiming the Filipino pagans and "Moros" (Muslims) for Christ.
Thus Catholicism came and stayed - today, more than 80% of Filipinos consider themselves to be Catholic, and Catholic ritual permeates Filipino culture deeply. Most of the Philippines' fiestas are devoted to the feast days of town patron saints. The Philippines' brand of folk Catholicism is particularly embodied in these old churches - survivors of war and natural disaster that represent the long continuity of Catholicism in this, the most Catholic country in all of Asia.
More than any other church in the Philippines, San Agustin Church has stood as a witness to history. The first church on this site was built not long after the arrival of the Spanish but was destroyed when the Chinese pirate Limahong attempted to conquer Manila in 1574.
The present structure was completed in 1604, and has survived Manila's frequent earthquakes, the occasional supertyphoon, and even the ravages of World War II: San Agustin was the only building left standing in Intramuros after the war. Fortunate for us: the church's ceiling and dome bear an ornate "trompe l'oeil" painting done by Italian artisans in 1875.
The church had an attached monastery that was later converted into a museum in 1973. Visitors to the church and museum may enter the crypt where the Japanese ruthlessly massacred over a hundred innocent civilians in 1945.
Iglesia de la Immaculada Concepcion (Baclayon Church), Bohol
This limestone and bamboo church on the island of Bohol has stood on the same site for 300 years, serving as a place of worship, safe harbor, watchtower against pirates, and dungeon for heretics. The robust walls and buttresses are made of limestone hauled from the sea by slave labor and mortared together with a cement of limestone, sand, and eggwhite.
The interior is a treasure-house of meaning, which you can unravel if you hire a tour guide to accompany you as you walk around. The gold-painted retablos (reredos) behind the altar are filled with statues of saints, mostly replicas - the originals are kept in the museum upstairs.
- Address: Tagbilaran East Road, Bohol (Google Maps)
- Phone: +63 (0) 38 540 9176
Miag-Ao Church, Iloilo
Like many of the Catholic churches of its time, Miag-Ao Church was both a house of worship and a citadel against invading slave raiders. Built in 1787, the Church was set up at the highest point of the town, and had five-foot-thick walls to better ward off attack.
As the threat of slave raiders receded, the Church’s facade gained more decorative elements, which you can still see today when you visit its site in Iloilo. The front wall bears a stone bas-relief with carvings of Catholic figures like Miag-ao’s patron saint Thomas of Villanueva and Saint Christopher. Trees native to the Philippines are also carved into the facade.
Miag-ao is a thirty-minute drive from Iloilo City; you can visit it at any time, but the best time to go is on St. Thomas’ feast day (September 22).
- Address: Zulueta Avenue, Poblacion, Miag-ao, Iloilo (Google Maps)
Basilica del Santo Niño, Cebu
Cebu City, 355 miles south of Manila, is considered the birthplace of Catholicism in the Philippines; some local nobles were the first converts baptized by the voyage of Miguel Lopez de Legazpi in 1521. A gift made to one of the converts, a statue of the child Jesus (locally known by its Spanish name, "Santo Niño"), was later found in the ashes of a burned-down house by a later Spanish mission in 1565. The "miraculous" discovery prompted the Spanish to erect a church on the site.
The current building dates back to 1739; the old Cebu town grew around the church, and Cebu's other historical sites are just a short walk away from the church - Fort San Pedro, the old Cebu City Hall, and Magellan's Cross, among others. The Santo Niño statue itself is kept in the nearby parish convent and is brought out every year for the Sinulog Festival.
Check out this image gallery of the Basilica del Santo Niño.
- Address: Osmeña Boulevard, Cebu City (Google Maps)
- Phone: +63 (0) 32 255 6697
Quiapo Church, Manila
The district of Quiapo is a crowded, dirty collection of side streets (one of them, Hidalgo, is Manila's go-to place for cheap camera equipment), but the church is Quiapo's main landmark. Formally known as the Minor Basilica of the Black Nazarene, the church got its name from its being the home of the Black Nazarene, making it the focal point of the annual Procession of the Black Nazarene that grips Manila every January.
The present church dates back only to 1984, but a church has always stood on this site since the 1580s. Fire, earthquake, and war destroyed the previous churches standing here. Outside the church, you'll find folk Catholicism in full flower - a number of street vendors near the side doors hawk supplies for occult purposes, from love potions to amulets to mystical candles.
Binondo Church, Manila
Officially known as "The Minor Basilica and National Shrine of San Lorenzo Ruiz", Binondo Church was built to cater to the growing Chinese Catholic community in the Philippines. The Spanish conquistadores distrusted the Chinese and refused to allow them into Intramuros to worship among them. Thus the Dominican friars built the Binondo Church in 1596, on the other side of the Pasig River.
The present church is a reconstruction of a structure that was almost completely destroyed during World War II. The community that grew around the church is now recognized as Manila's Chinatown: a popular (if crowded) stop for tourists seeking delicious Chinese food and cheap souvenirs. Within the church premises, a retablo behind the altar looks like a replica of St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. Outside, the octagonal bell tower recalls the design of Chinese pagodas, a nod to the Church's roots in the Chinese community.
- Address: Plaza Lorenzo Ruiz, Binondo, Manila (Google Maps)
- Phone: +63 (0) 2 242 4850
Paoay Church, Ilocos Norte
The town of Paoay, about 290 miles north of Manila, hosts another robust church: the St. Augustine Church, colloquially known as Paoay Church. This house of worship embodies the architectural style known as "Earthquake Gothic": due to its sturdy construction, the Paoay Church has survived over 300 years of earthquakes. 24 buttresses support the sides of the church, preventing it from collapsing even with the strongest tremors.
The bell tower is also separated from the main church building, to prevent the church from being damaged should the tower fall in an earthquake. The tower served as an observation post for Filipino freedom fighters in 1898 and 1945.
Along with a number of other Baroque-style churches in the Philippines, the Paoay Church was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1993.
- Address: Marcos Avenue, Paoay, Ilocos Norte (Google Maps)