Saturday, August 19, 2006


Beyond its haunting loveliness, Philippine colonial churches for me stands as monuments to a town’s story. Before the Spanish missionaries implemented reducciones (i.e. formation of communities to facilitate christianization and Hispanization), communities are scattered and determined by bloodlines (i.e. the clans or tribes). When the friars came, they established ecclesiastical missions as bases for their evangelization. Through the policy of reducciones, people were brought to live together in the missions to be bajo la campana or within hearing distance of the church bell. These missions later evolved into pueblos or towns and parroquias or parishes.

With the exception of the Franciscans, the missionaries who came to the Philippines and the representatives of the Spanish colonial government were awarded with encomiendas. This is a system where a certain area is entrusted to a group (in the case of the missionaries) or a person (in the case of soldiers and representatives of the colonial government). The encomienda include the people living within the designated area who are obliged to pay tribute (i.e. tax or rent for staying in the encomienda) to the encomiendero and the colonial government. This is the beginning of the hacienda system and the roots of the Philippines’ perennial agrarian unrest. Soon, people working in the encomienda/hacienda began to cluster together to form small communities. Because of their great distance from the pueblo, these communities have difficulty in attending church. So what the missionaries did was to conduct visitas in these small communities. Today, a visita means little chapels. It became the core in the foundation of future barrios.

Pueblos or towns that were established during the Spanish colonial era have a uniform lay out: a plaza as the town center with the church and the municipio fronting each other or standing side by side. This arrangement has been decreed by the Laws of Indies that was proclaimed by King Philip II in 1573. Among other things, it prescribed that plazas should be the starting point in the town building where the 4 principal streets shall diverge. After the plaza was the building of the church and other parochial buildings, then the government structures (i.e. Royal and Town Council House, the Custom House, and the Arsenal). The church and the government houses were built close to each other so they can protect each other in times of necessity. The remaining lots along and near the plaza were then allocated for shops and the merchants’ houses (where the ilustrados and principalias later emerged).

Thus is the beginning of most Philippine towns and Philippine history during the Spanish colonial times. The concept of the church or simbahan, however, is not new. Before the god of the Spanish was introduced, early Filipinos already have their own deities or anitos. It does not really matter what the anitos looks like; what is important is the concept and belief in a supreme being. As such, the “natives” have no problems moving from one god to another. When Legazpi came to Cebu, he was surprised to find an image of the Holy Child being worshiped by the “natives”. This became the Sto. Nino de Cebu that the “natives” continued to venerate even after being transformed as a Spanish god. Simbahan in the Filipino context means “a place of adoration”. The word and what it represents has remained intact through hundreds of years (the Spanish term for church is iglesia). Today, we see the fusion of the past and the present in the damaras that are built during festivals and wakes, and the abong-abongs for the pabasas during Lent. These are also the sambahans (i.e. a temporary house of worship) of the mag-aanitos.

CREDITS: Pictures on this posting are taken from Regalado Trota Jose's "Simbahan: Church Art in Colonial Philippines (1565-1898)".

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