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How the First Filipino Church Was Born: The Iglesia Filipina Independiente

It was the culmination of decades of secularization and nationalism.
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The struggle for national democracy and independence is a long and continuous road, encompassing all aspects of society—political, economic, and cultural. In August 1902, members of the country’s first labor federation, the Union Obrero Democratica (UOD) proclaimed a break from the Roman Catholic Church, a symbol of colonial oppression. Thus, the Iglesia Filipina Independiente (IFI) was born.

From secularization to schism 

The IFI was not an isolated incident. The decision for a truly Filipino church stemmed from the growing secularization movement during the 19th century. A sense of Filipino nationalism was seen in the fight by Filipino priests to wrest control of the Church from the insular Spanish colonials. Priests like the famous Gomburza—Mariano GomezJose Burgos, and Jacinto Zamora—became martyrs of the secularization movement.

In 1896, the fires of the Philippine Revolution engulfed the nation as the Katipunan waged an anti-colonial and anti-feudal struggle against the Spanish status quo. Revolutionary fervor intensified nascent ideas of secularization and intensified the push for a Church led and headed by Filipino priests.

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Two factions began to emerge: a nationalist group that demanded a schism and a more moderate faction who was content with staying with the Roman Catholic Church. Gregorio Aglipay, whose name would forever be associated with the IFI, was initially against a schism.

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Gregorio Aglipay, military vicar of the revolution

Aglipay wasn’t like the usual priest. Before the revolution, Aglipay was sympathetic to the revolutionary cause, even becoming a Freemason. 

His closeness to the Katipuneros proved useful to the colonial government. Archbishop Bernardo Nozaleda asked Aglipay to talk to Andres Bonifacio and other revolutionary leaders to negotiate a settlement—increased autonomy in exchange for ending the revolution. Emilio Aguinaldo countered by sending Colonel Luciano San Miguel to talk with Aglipay to get him to join the revolution.

Aglipay was at first hesitant to join either side. But the turning point came during the Second Phase of the Revolution in 1898 when Aglipay served as military vicar of the Revolutionary Government. In October 1898, he gathered Filipino priests from all over the nation to lay down the organizational foundation of a Filipino Church—though he was still against a formal break from the Pope in Rome.

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Isabelo de los Reyes, founder of the first labor federation

Enter Don Belong. An ilustrado and former classmate of Aglipay, Isabelo de los Reyes became involved in talks for the Filipino Church. He was, at the time, exiled in Spain, and was writing for the publication Filipinas Ante Europa.

In January 1899, de los Reyes began talks with the Papal Nuncio, Guiseppe Francia-Nava de Bontfe to request from the Holy See to look into the conditions of the Philippines. The talks, however, did not bear fruit. De los Reyes would write:

“Enough of Rome! Let us now form without vacillation our own congregation, a Filipino Church, conserving all that is good in the Roman Church and eliminating all the deceptions which the diabolical astuteness of the cunning Romanists had introduced to corrupt the moral purity and sacredness of the doctrines of Christ...”

De los Reyes’ animosity with the Catholic Church only grew since the incident with Francia-Nava. He carried these feelings on his return to the Philippines in 1901. By then, the country had changed from Spanish hands to American ones.

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Don Belong had changed, as well. He had grown to understand and accept socialist thought, reading works by Marx, Malatesta, and Bakunin, and endeavored to put them into practice. He founded the first labor federation, the UOD, to assert workers’ rights, which he saw was being assailed by U.S. imperialism.

This nationalism informed his views on religion, as well. He set to work to fight for national democracy in another way: by rallying for a schism and forming an independent Filipino Church.

Founding a new church

Thus the impetus for a new Church flared up. De los Reyes urged nationalism in the Church. The fact that Protestant missionaries tried to supplant the Roman Catholic Churches did nothing to assuage the feeling that most Filipinos had—that the core of Filipino society was under attack.

Don Belong was ultimately successful in his endeavor. In August 1902, he had managed to rally enough people to create an independent church. With the help of the UOD and Pascual H. Poblete, an early labor leader, he had everything needed to form a new church but one: a bishop to head it.

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His first choice was the enigmatic military vicar and his former classmate, Gregorio Aglipay. But Aglipay would have none of it; he was a devout Catholic and would not budge.

However, not even Aglipay could stop the tide of nationalism. His talks with the Jesuits and the Protestants to prevent a schism didn’t help—both were dismissive and wouldn’t allow Filipino priests in the Church. Aglipay saw the writing on the wall. There would be no Church for the Filipino except for a Filipino church.

And so, in September 1902, Aglipay went back to de los Reyes to accept his offer of being the Obispo Maximo of the new independent Church. A month later, at a UOD rally, thousands gathered to witness the official proclamation of the Iglesia Filipina Independiente, and with it, a new dimension of the Filipino struggle was born.

The continuing struggle

Today, the IFI still exists and is as strong as ever. It boasts anywhere from six to eight million adherents all over the country. Its priests are engaged in the wider struggle of the workers, peasants, and the poor. And it still carries the flame of nationalist struggle, rejecting Catholic doctrine to create an independent form of Christianity built on serving the people. 

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Sources:

Agoncillo, Teodoro (1990). History of the Filipino people (8th ed.). Quezon City [Philippines]: Garotech Pub.

Mojares, Resil (2006). Brains of the nation : Pedro Paterno, T.H. Pardo de Tavera, Isabelo de los Reyes, and the production of modern knowledge. Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University Press.

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About The Author
Justin Umali
Justin is left-handed, left-leaning, and best left in a cool, damp place. He listens to Vampire Weekend when he's down and Car Seat Headrest when he's not. He usually writes about Philippine history and politics, and believes that you cannot change the world without understanding it first.
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