For Christians, Holy week is supposed to be a time to reconnect with God by reflecting on the life and sacrifice that Jesus made for humanity. Unfortunately in the Philippines, Holy Week had become synonymous to a chance to unwind and get away from the hustle and bustle of daily life because of the long holiday. Well, there is nothing wrong with having fun as long as we remember the essence of Holy Week.
There are many ways on how Filipinos observe Holy Week, one of which is through Visita Iglesia, Spanish for “visit church”.
Seven churches are to be visited on Holy Thursday to contemplate on the Passion of Christ. In the Philippines, the practice of visiting 7 churches developed when the seven churches inside the walls of Intramuros, Manila were still standing. Except for San Agustin Church, all 5 churches were destroyed in the Battle of Manila during World War II. Manila Cathedral was heavily damaged but was rebuilt and completed in 1958.
Although seven had been the custom, there are some who just visit one church while others opt to visit 14 churches. The number does not really matter, what’s important is that the faithful prays intently and fervently from the heart.
For those who plan to do Visita Iglesia on Maundy Thursday, why not embark on a unique journey that will reconnect you not only to God but to our nation’s history as well? Here are seven historical churches built during the Spanish colonial era plus other nearby historical sites in the province of Laguna, a short drive south of Metro Manila.
1. San Pablo Cathedral, San Pablo
The newly restored San Pablo Cathedral better known as Saint Paul the First Hermit Cathedral, considered as the “mother church” of Laguna is situated in the city of San Pablo. Built in 1586, the original church, which was constructed under the auspices of the Augustinian friars was made of wood. The current structure was built in 1714 with a neo-classical façade. Since then, a porch was added, a new altar was installed, a dome was built and the ceiling was reconstructed.
2. St. Bartholomew Church, Nagcarlan
The Baroque-style St. Bartholomew Church in Nagcarlan is one of the oldest churches in the country. Originally built in 1593 using light materials, what makes it different from other old churches is the embellishment of alternating adobe stones and red bricks on its façade and the Muslim inspired crenellations on its bell.
Near the church is a National Historical Landmark, the Nagcarlan Underground Cemetery. It is an underground graveyard 15 feet below the church. Elite Catholic families from Laguna had the privileged of being buried there. The oldest tomb is dated 1886. Its underground crypt was used as a secret meeting place by the Katipuneros and by Filipino patriots during the Filipino-American War. It also became a safehouse for Filipino guerillas during World War II.
3. Saint John The Baptist Parish, Liliw
The church in Liliw, the Tsinelas capital of the Philippines, is famous for its red brick. It is more than 400 years old but it is beautifully preserved and maintained. Residents of Liliw are dedicated and united in their desire to restore the church to its former glory.
4. St. Gregory the Great Parish, Majayjay
The St. Gregory church better known as the Majayjay Catholic Church is reputedly one of the oldest churches in the Philippines built in 1575 using forced labor. Antique relief statues of saints, which were brought by the Spaniards, are preserved in this church. Its belfry houses four small bells and one big bell – which are said to be the oldest bells in the country.
5. Santa Maria Magdalena Parish, Magdalena
Magdalena, Laguna is Home of the St. Mary Magdalene Church, which was constructed in 1851-1871 using forced labor. It is made of stones and bricks and has a sandstone facade. The place is beautiful, clean and very peaceful. Emilio Jacinto, the Brains of the Katipunan sought refuge in this church when he was mortally wounded after an encounter with Spanish forces at the Maimpis River on February 1898.
6. Immaculate Conception Parish, Sta. Cruz
The church of Santa Cruz is dedicated to Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception. It was built by the Franciscan Friars in 1608. Unfortunately, the original church was destroyed by fire during the liberation in 1945. What stood now is the Post war reconstructed version of the church.
7. San Antonio de Padua church, Pila
The church of San Antonio de Padua in Pila was established in 1581 on the 350th anniversary of the glorious death of Saint Anthony, “the miracle worker”. The church standing now is the repainted version of the original stone church. Reconstructed areas were supposedly done with the old design in mind.
Surrounding the church in Pila are heritage houses collectively known as La Noble Villa de Pila. The center of the town was declared a National Historical Landmark by the National Historical Institute in 2000. It is one out of the eight towns in the country which was elevated to villa status during the Spanish colonial period. A villa is the name given to the rich and culturally avant-garde communities. Among the Philippine Villas, only Pila and Vigan had been preserved to this day.
The center of Pila is very typical of most Spanish colonial towns. The town plaza is surrounded by a collection of colonial period structures. The church is on one side while the Municipal Hall is at the opposite side.
The Pila today still looks the same as how it looked like in the 19th century. All thanks to their very own heritage conservation group, the Pila Historical Society Foundation, Inc., which is responsible for the preservation of their town. Descendants of principalia of the town of Pila knew the importance of why there is a need to conserve and together they made it possible for us to see Pila as it was seen more than 200 years ago.