Wednesday, July 15, 2015


Guiuan's Church of the Immaculate Conception has always been on my bucket list, then among the last four [with Jimenez in Misamis Occidental, Lazi in Siquijor, Mahatao in Batanes] of the 26 baroque churches initially listed by the National Commission on Cultural and Arts as National Heritage Sites that I vowed to visit in my lifetime.

But Guiuan is the tip of the Easter Visayan finger pointing to Minadanao and is too far. Going there will cost me and the chances of a "subsidized" trip is remote. So finally setting foot in Guiuan is a lingering itch scratched, but under circumstances less desired. Almost two years ago, Super Typhoon Haiyan made landfall in Guiuan and blew the town off the face of the earth, including the church.

I was finally in Guiuan, after a sleepless early morning flight from Manila, a two-hour logistical black hole in Tacloban, and almost 3-hours of a speed-regulated bumpy ride. The church is just a walk away from the office I was told, which I could have easily taken, if not for the circumstance, because everything else usually has to wait until I shoot my churches. Instead, I went to bed early to catch on sleep and soothe a lingering cold, and woke up the next day to a tranquil seascape from my hotel window. It was that and the overnight recovery from a feverish sleepless journey that made me decide to cancel a field visit. I am going to church... 

I took a tricycle to the office, walked to the church from there, and stumbled into an open-air morning mass. It was a bit past 6 am, the golden hour of photography, but I would not want prancing around and distracting the unfolding religious solemnity, so I took a pew seat in the rear, camera in ready in case something comes up. The homily was in Waray, more traditional, with stampitas worn like necklaces and veils covering the heads of most of the women. There was a Latin hymn and a stirring Waray closing song about "Reina senora" as the priest bade goodbye to the altar and walked back to the convent signaling the end of the mass. Then I started shooting.    

Guiuan was founded by the Jesuits in 1595 who built the first wooden church. A more permanent structure was started to be built in 1630 and again in 1718 which was probably continued by the Augustinians when they took over in 1768. The Franciscans came in 1804 and renovated the church in 1844, adding the bell tower in 1854. The church was renovated in 1935 and again in 1987. Guiuan's church was listed by the National Museum as a National Cultural Treasure in 2001, and nominated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site until it was destroyed Typhoon Haiyan in 2013.

I was finally in Guiuan but the church is not there anymore. What remained is a rubble of an empty shell, the intricately carved main door extant but smashed, the painted ceiling blown away. The sakristan came to watch me. No he said, the National Museum forbids anyone from entering the ruins. But I just want to take a look at the seashell ornamented baptistery, I said. It was destroyed he said, but a portion remained. Can I see it, I persisted. No, he said, unless I have permission from the National Museum. He did allowed me to climb up the base of the bell tower where I got a peek of what used to be a richly decorated interior. Pieces of the wooden roof trusses were stacked and strewn around a forlorn statue. I can feel his agony, and I'm sure he felt mine.    

I said goodbye to the sakristran and went to the plaza to take one last panoramic shot of the ruined church, including the rebuilt convent beside it and the temporary church in front. I can't get myself to agree with the paint color of the new structures but support the priest's decision not to demolish the old church. I hope the National Museum will be able to restore the church, or turn it into a park if restoration is no longer possible. I was mightily drained and I miss my bike, so I took a pedicab ride back to the office.

I breakfasted on fried danggit and eggs on my last day in Guiuan. Leyte Gulf was as calm as a mirror. Nearby, a pig was being butchered by three men. It will be a slow and bumpy ride back to Tacloban... 

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