Southern Iloilo Colonial Churches
The almost four centuries of Spanish occupation in the Philippines will never be forgotten. The stories during the colonial era are immortalized in history books. But the narratives about this period are not only found in the pages of written accounts. A lot are woven into the local culture while some are etched in the stone walls and pillars of old-world structures. No other piece of architecture makes us recount the memories of colonization more vividly than the quintessential Catholic church. And while you can find one in almost every corner of this country, one particular place stands out for being host to many grandiose churches - the province of Iloilo, notably its southern towns. A walk (or drive) in these towns and a sight of any Hispanic church will evoke both joyful and wistful feelings.
Here now are some of the churches and religious structures in Southern Iloilo that make up the prestigious roll. Whether you're on visita iglesia, religious pilgrimage, or plain sightseeing, these places are worth a visit. Also provided are directions on how to get to each of these places.
San Joaquin Church and Cemetery
While most churches prominently feature religious icons and symbols in their respective facades, San Joaquin Church breaks the mold by highlighting something far less churchly - a war. Truly attention-grabbing is its large pediment which depicts in bas-relief the Battle of Tetuan, a war won by Spanish army against the Moors (Moroccans) in 1860. Completed in 1869, the church was built out of limestone quarried from the nearby town of Igbaras and white corals gathered from the shores of San Joaquin. Like most of the churches built in the olden days, the church of San Joaquin was completed out of polo y servicio or forced labor.
San Joaquin Church was declared a National Historical Site in 1974 and elevated into a National Cultural Treasure in 2003 by the National Historical Commission of the Philippines (NHCP). Its facade has recently been restored by NHCP giving it a much cleaner feel and a sharper look of the intricate sculptures.
San Joaquin Church
Less than a kilometer away from the church is the Roman Catholic Cemetery of San Joaquin, located just along the main highway. This necropolis was built in 1892. Standing on the center is its iconic landmark, Camposanto de San Joaquin, a Baroque-style mortuary chapel. While the sight of tombs normally brings about fear, this picturesque cemetery elicits nothing but admiration.
Campo Santo de San Joaquin
Just recently (December 2015), this cemetery has been added to the list of National Cultural Treasures by the NHCP being an integral part of the Church complex of San Joaquin.
How to get there: San Joaquin is the southernmost town of Iloilo. To get there, you may ride a San Joaquin-bound jeepney at the Mohon Terminal or Terminal Market near Robinsons Place Mall in Iloilo City. Alternatively, you may hop on an Antique-bound bus. Whichever you take, tell the driver to drop you off at San Joaquin's "patyo" or old cemetery. One-way fare ranges between Php 50 and Php 70 and travel time is more than an hour. From here, you can just walk or ride a tricycle to get to the church of San Joaquin.
Perhaps the most eye-catching of all Iloilo churches is the Church of Sto.Tomas de Villanueva, or more popularly Miagao Church. Even the finicky eyes of UNESCO were not spared from its charm. In 1993, the said UN body declared it as a World Heritage Site together with three other Baroque Spanish-era churches in the Philippines.
Although its architecture is Baroque-Romanesque in style, the church is distinctively Filipino. Several native elements were incorporated in the elaborate carvings in its facade, notably an image of St. Christopher dressed in traditional clothing carrying the child Jesus while holding on to a coconut tree. His image is surrounded by trees like papaya and guava and other local plants. At the center of the facade is an alcove housing the statue of the town's patron saint, St. Thomas of Villanueva. The two other images on both sides of the wooden door are that of St. Henry of Bavaria and Pope Pius VI. Another noteworthy feature of the church is its ochre color, a result of the combination of adobe, egg, coral, and limestone. Once inside the church, all attention will be drawn towards the altar where the gold-plated retablo and tabernacle can be found.
Completed in 1797, Miagao Church was also built through forced labor. The construction took ten years and spanned the terms of two different parish priests - the reason why the church's two bell towers have different heights and designs. Nonetheless, the two served the same purpose. Acting as watchtowers, the belfries formed strategic parts of the church which served as a fortress and defended the town of Miagao from Muslim invaders.
Today, Miagao Church still stands beautifully after withstanding several unfortunate events namely the Spanish revolution in 1898, a fire in 1910, the second World War and an earthquake in 1948. Restoration efforts in 1960 brought back the church to its former glory.
How to get there: Miagao Church is located in a town of the same name, just a few kilometers away from San Joaquin. From San Joaquin, ride an Iloilo City-bound jeepney and get off at the Miagao Town Plaza. The church is just across the street. Fare is Php 15 and travel time is around 20 minutes. If coming from Iloilo city, you can ride a jeep bound for Miagao or any town further south. You will be dropped off right beside the church grounds. The trip may take up to 45 minutes and the fare is around Php 40.
Going back to the city from a visit to the churches of San Joaquin and Miagao (or vice versa), one will surely pass by the town of Guimbal, home to the yellow sandstone Church of San Nicolas de Tolentino. Its peculiar color, similar to the churches in Miagao and neighboring towns, is attributed to the yellow limestone blocks and coral stones that make up the walls of the church. Finished in 1774, Guimbal Church is to date one of the oldest churches in the Philippines.
Unlike the first two churches featured in this post, Guimbal Church does not have ornate carvings in its facade, but that doesn't make it any less impressive. The huge bell tower attached to it is a stunner. Like some of Iloilo churches in seaside towns, the church's belfry also acted as a watchtower to look out for and defend against Muslim pirates who used to raid the area during the colonial era.
The church was badly damaged during World War II and the 1948 earthquake that struck Iloilo and nearby provinces. It underwent reconstruction twice.
How to get there: If coming from San Joaquin or Miagao, ride an Iloilo City-bound jeepney and get off at Guimbal Plaza. From Iloilo City, just board a jeep that plies the southern Iloilo route. You should be at the plaza in 30 minutes. Fare is around Php 30.
Where to next?
Visita Iglesia will not be complete with only three churches. So if you're on such mission, also visit the church at Tigbauan and the churches within Iloilo City. If you've had enough of spiritual retreat, why not go island hopping in the island province of Guimaras or in Islas de Gigantes? Read my Iloilo Travel Guide with Estimated Budget and Suggested Itinerary for more information. For other related places and/or content, jump to the Related section below.
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