Visit the Oldest Churches in the Philippines for Holy Week
The oldest churches in the Philippines are a symbol of the country’s colonial past. Their sturdy stone walls and ornate altars talk about centuries of worship, veneration, wars, and deaths.
As a Catholic country, it is not surprising that the country has a number of historic churches. The National Historical Commission of the Philippines has, in fact, declared that all colonial churches and other houses of worship built before 1940 are considered "Classified Historic Structures."
With lack of proper documentation, it's difficult to truly pinpoint the oldest church structures in the Philippines. Many consider the Baclayon Church in Bohol as the second oldest church in the Philippines, but it's the parish that was established in 1596; the church building itself was built in the 18th century.
The process of clarifying this and identifying centuries-old structures is not that simple, explains Stephen Pamorada of the National Commission of the Culture and Arts’ PRECUP team. “We have to dig deeper. It takes archival research to pinpoint which is the oldest church in the Philippines,” he says.
Pamorada admits that they're still continuing to search for church ruins from the 1500s to the early 1600s (leads may be e-mailed to firstname.lastname@example.org), but for now, the registry's documents only list 17th-century structures as the five oldest churches in the Philippines.
1| San Agustin Church (1607)
Parish Church of San Agustin of Intramuros
San Agustin Church is considered the oldest church in the Philippines that's made of stone. Before its stone structure was erected in 1607, its first incarnations, the earliest in 1571, were constructed using bamboo and nipa leaves. Built in the southern wall of Intramuros, these were eventually destroyed because of typhoon and strong winds.
In 1586, a resolution was passed to build a stronger structure using adobe stone, one of the strongest construction materials back then. Huge slabs of adobe were cut from quarries as far as Guadalupe, Meycauayan and San Mateo, Rizal.
Designed by architect Juan Macias, the structure built along the intersection of Calle Real and St. Lucia Street, later became a monastery. Construction started in 1587 and was completed in 1607, under the supervision of Augustinian Fathers Francisco de Bustos, Ildefonso Perez, Diego de Avila, and Brother Alonso de Perea.
It has withstood many earthquakes and man-made disasters from 1645 up to the present. This includes the British occupation in Manila in 1762, when the church and its graves were profaned. The church was also spared during the Spanish–American War in 1898, the Japanese invasion in 1942, and the bloody Battle of Manila.
San Agustin was finally chosen as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1993. It remains the oldest church in the Philippines and the only church dating to the Spanish Colonial Era still in existence within the walled city.
2| Quipayo Church (1616)
Parish Church of Immaculate Concepcion of Quipayo
Calabanga, Camarines Sur
Established as a town in 1578 by Franciscan missionaries, Fr. Pablo de Jesus and Fr. Bartolome Ruiz, not only is Quipayo one of the oldest churches in the Philippines, it's one of the earliest structures built during the Spanish Regime in the region. Until now, the church stands as an enduring symbol of Catholicism in Bicol.
This church services the parishes of Ligmanan (Libmanan), Baigon (Siruma), Calabangan (Calabanga), and Bombon. The patroness of Quipayo is Our Lady of the Immaculate Concepcion. There were also some artifacts excavated at the site of the church, which are now displayed in a museum behind the church altar.
It was declared a National Historical Landmark by Presidential Decree No. 260, dated August 1, 1973, and amended by Presidential Decree No. 1505, dated June 11, 1978.
3| Majayjay Church (1649)
Parish Church of San Gregorio Magno of Majayjay
This structure was originally made with plywood, which didn't last long. The version of the Romanesque church of Majayjay we see today is 200 feet long, 56 feet wide, and 54 feet meters high. One of the most noticeable things about it is the façade—not only does it have three levels, but each level is scaled proportionally. Atop the highest level is a triangular pediment with a circular window.
The church’s central nave consists of the huge wooden door of the main portal, choir loft windows, and a saint's niche. Inside the church is a retablo mayor and four other minor retablos with intricate designs. The floor is tiled with azulejo, a glazed, colored Spanish tile.
The five-storey square belltower with a conical roof and ballustrated windows on each level is connected to a catwalk called the langit-langitan. It is located above the ceiling, which leads to the crossing over the transept. Another interesting feature is the belfry—its arched windows are each decorated with a bell-trimmed with finials and a large antique bell.
As one of the oldest churches in the Philippines, it contains antique images of saints, reliquaries, and century-old liturgical objects.
4| Pililla Church (1673)
Parish Church of Saint Mary Magdalene of Pililla
The first missionary priests arrived in Pililla in 1572. Franciscan priests ordered that a church be made, and the natives managed to build one made from bamboo and cogon in 1583. Another structure of palm trees was used from 1670 to 1673, before the current stone structure was erected in its place. Pililla Church is the fourth oldest church in the Philippines.
The altar and convent were renovated in 1848 and another round of renovations happened from 1962 to 1972. The current structure is made of adobe, which is the same building material used in other churches in the Philippines.
5| Baras Church (1686)
Parish Church of Saint Joseph of Baras
The Franciscans originally built the church in 1595. After Aetas burned down the town as an act of rebellion, the town was transferred to Ibayo in 1636; it returned to its present site in 1682. The Jesuits administered the parish from 1616 to 1679, and the present church was completed in 1686.
Baras Church is designed in the Baroque style, evidenced by its dark and simple layout. Even the facade is quite bare, save for the stream of balustrade, trimming its triangular pediment, and the checkerboard pattern of brick and stone on the pediment’s upper portion.
Inside, you'll see exposed wooden trusses that support the church's roofing, lacking a decorative ceiling, which is common for churches built in the area. Instead, the adobe bricks used to create the church are exposed, giving churchgoers a glimpse of what people centuries ago would have seen.