The Spanish churches in the Philippine islands, unique in their own way, have survived the earthquakes, typhoons, floods, drought, war, and tropical insects to present themselves as a visual heritage of enduring culture and works of man.
The Augustinians, a religious order founded in 1256, arrived in the Philippines in 1565 and many of their church buildings still stand today. In order to build these massive structures, forced labor was used, but there was little of the cruelty and genocide which characterizes the history of Catholicism in South America. It was a more peaceful conversion because the early Filipinos believed in one powerful God, just like the Indios in Peru (the early Filipino was also called an Indio) and other parts of pre-Christian South America. People believed that God was so remote from the affairs of men, that ordinary people could not take their pain and trouble to him. Instead, they took their petitions to lesser deities, the anitos, who were part of the natural order. In those times, the closest equivalent of a temple, or a place of worship were the temporary structures of palm and bamboo erected whenever there was a festival, or mag-aanitos. The early missionaries found a way to incorporate the familiar forms of anito worship with the Catholic images. This technique was later termed by historians as Folk Catholicism. It was a natural and acceptable transition. Thus the concept of the Santo Niño of Cebu was invented which could very well be called the first Catholic anito.
By the 1950’s new materials were being used to build temples of worship. They introduced to the Filipinos the concept of intercession (approaching God and sending their petitions) through carved or handmade images and statues of saints. By 1575, ten years after the first five Augustinian friars arrived in Cebu with Legaspi, they had created 18 towns, each with a church as its focal point. By 1594, Fr. Francisco Ortega sent a report to the Spanish King detailing 44 towns established and by 1760 there were 99.
Two of the towns founded by the Augustinians were Paoay in Ilocos Norte and Santa Maria in Ilocos Sur. The town of Paoay dates back to the 16th century, that of Santa Maria to the 17th century.
The church in Paoay, still standing in massive form to this day, has survived many earthquakes. By now, nature has started to take over; plants and small trees have rooted between the coral blocks and worn bricks, but the 14 earthquake buttresses still stand today, evidence of the accumulating knowledge and construction techniques the Augustinians had acquired by the 18th century.
Santa Maria stands on a significant hill approached by an impressive flight of steps. It was completely restored in 1895, and this time they built a new façade of brick, moulded and rounded into shapes, that reminds one of the ancient brick buildings of Rome.
After many years of experimentation and experience, the missionary priests wrote construction and building technique guides – how to cut blocks of stone, how to make mortar, how to form and bake bricks, which building shapes were the most stable in the face of earthquake, typhoon, monsoon rains, floods, which woods were resistant to insect pests and rot, how to solder metal, and what to use for roofs. The art of stone masonry arrived as early as 1580. In the late 16th century, bricks were shipped for some years from Mexico, until suitable local clay could be found and kilns built. The designers learned how to make squat buildings, less liable to earthquake damages. Arches were strong, semi-circular, and lighter materials were used in the upper walls. The walls of Paoay and the restored cemetery chapel in Santa Maria are clear examples of all these techniques. In Paoay, brick is used on top of de capaza blocks interspersed with rubble patchwork, mostly river stones held together by a mortar, which in the unique case of Paoay included, among other ingredients, molasses and strips of leather. The bell tower is built of chopped coral stone with bricks. Chinese are carved on the massive back wall of the church and the nave is supported by 14 molave posts, still in place. In Santa Maria, the base of the walls was constructed of adobe blocks, then bricks and rubble.
The story of the mortar used to bind together all these varied materials is fascinating. In some areas, as well as the basic sand, lime and water, they used plant juices, even native sugar. Oral tradition mentions goats’ blood, carabao milk, and eggs. Duck eggs feature in many church records, just as they do in the records of the building of the massive Elizabethan rampants of the sandstone town walls in England.
These churches became and still are the focal points of the town they stand on. All the inhabitants live “bajo la campaña” within sound of the bells. The unique bell-towers of Paoay and Santa Maria still hold the Spanish bells sent by the King to every parish created under his will and decree.