Vigan Visit, The Awesomely Ancient Bantay's St. Augustine Church
This is a continuation post, part 2 actually, about our short stop in the northern Philippine city of Vigan. Time flies, it’s already been more than two months since we were there.
When our kalesa drivers brings us across the river back to “the National Highway” and pulls into the driveway down the hill from the 421 year old St. Augustine church, at the time, I am under the impression that we are still in Vigan. It is only later, while researching for this series of posts, that I learn that this awesomely ancient cathedral is actually in the similarly historical town of Bantay. If there is a sign announcing we have changed towns I don’t remember seeing it.
Truth be known, this country isn’t all that big on directional signs anyway, so I doubt that there is one. After nine years of living and traveling here, generally speaking, I’ve learned that the navigation of streets and roads is a non-friendly-to-traveler process — Having said that, here’s some advice: If you don’t have local knowledge then prepare to ask for lots of directions; and if you’re STILL not sure if you’re going the right way, NEVER go too far before asking AGAIN. For as often as not, you WILL find yourself doubling back—turning around at one mile in the wrong direction is better than ten.
ON that note, I’m absolutely positive that there were NO street signs in the Vigan area back in the 16th century when Salcedo first invaded it in the name of King Philip II. I don’t think it really mattered to those old-time Spanish conquerors anyway what the locals called things and places. Although a story IS widely found on several of the Vigan info sites as to the history of the name of the town:
The agreed upon story tells of a Spaniard checking out the area for the first time (one site even says it was Salcedo himself). He points generally at the overgrown area along the river asking a local for the name of the area. The Ilocano, not understanding Spanish, thinks the Spaniard is asking for the name of a wild plant growing profusely along the riverbank called locally Bigaa (Each a is pronounced separately and not combined into a single sound). Eventually the B is turned into a V as the Spanish tend to do, the n is added and there you go; the place becomes “Vigan,” named mistakenly after a weed growing on a river bank. It’s a good story, but who knows if it’s true or not? After all, 440 years ago is a LONG time.
After Salcedo pacifies the area that is now the coast of Ilocos Sur in the early 1570s (there was not much native resistance by the way), he and his crew of conquistadors settle on the spot that eventually becomes the Spanish colonial town of Vigan. (Actually he names it Ciudad de Fernandina, or city of little Ferdinand). But the intent here is not to comment so much about Vigan, but about the town of Bantay just across the river. It is in THIS smaller town about two decades after the time of Salcedo that Spanish Augustinian monks begin building a church they name after their patron saint, Saint Augustine, who happens to be one of my favorite holy men of all time. (Augustine was a bishop who lived in Roman North Africa, a theological genius from the 5th Century known even today for his mastery of rhetoric and Christian philosophy.)
I’m not sure how it happened this way, but Bantay’s St. Augustine church goes up a good twenty years ahead of Vigan’s primary cathedral called St. Paul. Let me do a quick check online and see if I can find out why:
Aha! Here’s an answer from wikipilipinas.org regarding the history of Vigan’s St. Paul’s: “The first church was built on this site in 1574 (by Juan de Salcedo) and was damaged in the earthquakes of 1619 and 1627. A second was built here in 1641; and the present baroque-style church was built in the 1800s.”
So there you go; I had it mostly wrong. (Don’t hate!) St. Paul’s in its present form is “only” somewhere over 100 years old. Looking at it from close up, I wondered how they managed to make a building from the early 1600s look so modern. The answer is that St. Pauls, compared to St. Augustine, is a relatively “modern” building, completely rebuilt several times since the first Vigan Cathedral was constructed in the late 1500s.
But enough about Vigan things—back to Bantay’s St. Augustine—according to the historical sign on the façade of St. Augustine’s it began to go up in 1590 but had to be rebuilt after being damaged during WWII. Based on that I began to try to find out what kind of battles took place in the Vigan/Bantay area during the 1941-1945 war with Japan.
So here’s what I find: The Japanese easily land their forces in Vigan in December 1941 totally without resistance and occupy it without much incident until the Americans return to that part of Luzon in early 1945. I can find absolutely nothing anywhere about any battles taking place during WWII in the Vigan area. I wondered then how St. Augustine’s could have been so damaged that it had to be rebuilt after the war. I think I found the answer on a site called pasalyan.net specifically about Bantay and what happened to the church in WWII:
“During World War II, on April 15, 1945, three big incendiary bombs hit the church but none of them exploded; however five other bombs exploded fifty meters away from it that resulted in the collapse of its roofs but later-on was rebuilt after the cessation of the arm(ed) conflict.”
Finally! Great detail on exactly HOW The Church of St. Augustine is so grievously damaged during the war; it is bombed by Americans.
I have no doubt as to why American airmen would attack a church. In a nutshell, they bombed it because Japanese soldiers were in it. Thick walled old Spanish churches throughout the country were generally some of the first structures taken over and garrisoned by the Japanese. At the time they spat on Christianity, having no respect for any religion (or culture for that matter) other than their own, which at the time for most Japanese in uniform was a nationalistic, very marshal form of Shinto revolving around the worship of their emperor.
There’s another, perhaps fanciful tale, as to why the Japanese left the Vigan/Bantay area without trying to defend their positions to the last man, as they did in Manila. Luckily for Vigan, the Japanese Imperial Army did not vindictively destroy the town on their way out of it. Check out this romantic little story:
“Before the Japanese withdrawal, they were tasked to destroy the zones they used. The night before they left, they have strategically placed numerous tanks of gasoline and bombs. Apparently, a Japanese military officer had an affair with an Ilocano woman and (she) bore a child. We all know that Japanese have abused women but (this) military officer chooses to take care of his wife and child in secret. He asked the procurator of Vigan seminary that time to take care of his family. The procurator agreed but asked something in return. He asked the officer to leave the town without burning it. Reason is, the townspeople will seek revenge on his family. Thus, the Japanese retrieved (their bombs) and left no marks of destruction.”
There is another site I found (and since lost) that states that this fabled love struck officer was in fact the commander of the Japanese forces in Vigan. If there is any truth to this story at all I would go with that version, since a lower ranking officer wouldn’t have the leverage to disobey an order of that magnitude.
I don’t know though—the whole thing sounds more like a movie script; or, a farfetched fairytale to me.
Long before I knew of any of that though, I found an outside area of the church that looks to be original to its 1590s beginnings. Undoubtedly, few people bother to explore it. Long ago it may well have been a well kept walled garden, but now it seems to be mostly neglected by the caretakers and ignored by visitors. I presume the walls and buttresses here are the original brick; that which is exposed being now much decayed and weatherworn. Here and there on the brick face is a bare hint of the original protective stucco that was probably last applied hundreds of years ago. This unrestored eastern side, well shaded by mango trees, is where you FEEL and SMELL the extreme age of the massive structure. This spot is far more attractive to me than any other part of the olden church. Here, the walls of weathered bricks are moldered and moss covered; plants and vines grow out of deep chinks and on ledges from top to bottom. I must say, when I “discover” this delightfully hidden side of the church I am conveyed to “historical heaven.”
It takes a few minutes before I notice it for what it is, but I begin to get the feeling that this whole side of the building was once part of a warzone. I recognize an area in the brickwork that almost certainly shows battle damage. There are several small pockmarks less than a foot across in several areas across the walls, but there is a decidedly large section of damage that looks as if a small caliber shell or heavy object smashed with high velocity into the bricks there, causing a deep hole surrounded by a missing outer layer of bricks. After I notice that obvious sample of battle damage I begin to look at the other smaller, less obvious dings and pocks, and it sinks in that this whole side of the structure has evidence of ruination caused by weaponry. I suppose at first I don’t realize what I’m looking at because the peacefulness of the place now belies the evidence of its violent past. It makes me wonder what else has happened within the vicinity of that venerable place.
Talking and thinking now about that 66 year old battle damage, and reexamining the photos of it, reminds me of an even older incident that I know also happened right there on the church grounds. I’m speaking of the 1763 rebellion led by Diego Silang. In fact, several times over the centuries it is the church’s highest point location, along with its massively thick walls, plus the unimpeded 360 degree view provided by the hilltop bell tower that has made Bantay’s imposing St. Augustine an automatic choice as a fortification spot.
I don’t want to spend too much more time on Silang since I pretty much covered every aspect of his life and rebellion period in the previous post, but the very fact that The St. Augustine Church existed all those years ago while Diego was active provided a special moment for me, especially while exploring the church, the extensive church grounds and certainly its bell tower. I say that because I KNOW that he frequented these places and was doing so right up until the moment of his death. Stepping in the footprints of history always deeply affects me like that.
And since previously posting on Diego Silang, I believe I’ve figured out WHERE he was killed. If you read my last post you’ll learn that Silang was assassinated by his friend, Miguel Vicos. Based on some clues from the internet, I’m pretty sure this murderous deed happened only a stone’s throw from the church’s main entrance. It would have been just down the hill, near the town’s municipal building in a spot that used to be the town square and now called Diego Silang Park. I’ve created a Google map that shows the site of the church and the possible site of Silang’s death. See it below:
View Bantay Church and Bell tower, also possible Diego Silang death site marked in a larger map
I'm guessing about the Silang death site. I wish I would have actually walked down the hill to the Bantay town hall and police station, as well as the playground now called Silang Park. I think I've got it correct though, based on what I found on this site specifically about Bantay:
Once I get my first look at the beauty that is St. Augustine’s I become a photo taking berserker. I didn’t know how much time there would be so I go nuts with the camera. The sky is a brilliant blue; the sun high, and the views around me filled with visual promise. Everywhere I turn there is incredible potential to put together some sublime shots and I am determined to get as many of them digitized as possible before having to depart to see “the next thing.” I have since kicked myself for not having my superior Canon G11 instead of my little handy dandy Cybershot—I did take some gorgeous photos but they would have been even better with the more capable G11.
Approaching the façade of St. Augustine’s I examine it closely with great enthusiasm. After reading that it had been built in 1590 I am immediately skeptical, until I read the part on the sign that it has been rebuilt since WWII.
The front side of St. Augustine’s does look nice, but it also looks new which is what threw me. The architecture is a very busy with lots of pointed arches; to me, it seems in the mode of Spanish Romanesque, although the sign calls it neo-gothic mixed with elements of pseudo-Romanesque. It’s clean colorful and well kept, but to a historical purist like me it’s a disappointment. Back in 1950 when they decided to rebuild it I wish they would have stayed true to its original look and done it exactly the way it was when the Augustinians first put it up. But that’s just me. For instance, I was extremely unhappy when Sacred Heart Parish back in the Michigan town where I went to high school pulled down its little decades old American gothic style church and replaced it with a blandly squat monstrously modernistic thing. Now it looks more like a fancy elementary school than a church.
Wondering what Bantay’s St. Augustine might have looked like originally, I found online photos of a couple of old churches built in the Philippines that might provide some clues. Oddly enough, both of them are also called St. Augustine’s.
The two candidate cathedrals I found have mostly surviving façades that probably show features that might be representative of what was once a part of Bantay’s church. First, there is Manila’s St. Augustine Cathedral, built from 1586 to 1607, with a start date four years earlier than Bantay’s much smaller version named after the same saint. The other church that I like to think may resemble what Bantay’s used to look like is another St. Augustine’s located north of Bantay in the town of Paoay in Ilocos Norte.
The problem with Paoay’s church is that it WAS built well into the age of baroque, which is all about overdone decoration and embellishment. In the photos of the church (see it to the right), other than the fancy Javanese looking stone caps rimming the entire perimeter of the roof edge, not much else looks all that baroque to me, that is until I take a closer look. That’s when I notice that there appears to be a lot more ornamentation on the façade than at first meets the eye. It looks as if a lot of the original adornment and color has been lost to weathering and neglect.
I suspect then that Bantay’s St. Augustine probably resembled more the far simpler post Crusade style of Romanesque cathedral built right around the same time (late 1500s) inside Manila’s Intramuros.
(Boy, those Augustinian friars sure weren’t very imaginative; I mean, they seemed to want to name just about every church they built after their own patron saint.)
Check out the two photos of Manila’s St. Augustine. (The photo to the left is a modern view of it with the missing left belfry) There is nothing elaborate about it. Other than the double stacked decorative columns bracketing its front entrance the only other décor is provided by the few symmetrically placed windows.
Bantay’s front exterior, replaced just 61 years ago, looks to have a lot of extra side-by-side arches pasted on its walls (although after a second look perhaps these arches were part of the original since I notice these same arches in evidence on the old eastern side walls); and instead of using simple round columns to frame the façade, the refurbishers of the Bantay church went with decorative projecting box columns that probably add very little if any functionality.
A final clue that Bantay’s St. Augustine’s probably used to look very similar to Manila’s slightly older St. Augustine’s is that basically the two buildings’ façades are extremely alike structurally. Each has, or had in the case of Manila’s church, two belfries on each front corner that bracket a triangular topped façade with a round single window in the middle of the façade peak. (As seen in the right photo it lost its left belfry to a huge earthquake in the late 1800s.)
All the above of course is pure conjecture, at least the part is on what St. Augustine's facade once looked like; I would love to see a photo of the church before it was reconstructed in 1950 to see how much of my guesswork is true. Surely, such a photo exists somewhere?
Spending a few minutes inside, enjoying the dark cool of the church I snapped several photos there as well. Compared to other churches dating back to colonial times Bantay’s has a very simple interior. I enjoyed the mausoleum feel of the deeply inset tunnel-like front alcove where they keep the image of “Our Lady of Charity.”
Last and certainly not least we trek up the long flight of stairs up the hill to the old bell tower. The tower and its bells are amazing. We look out and marvel over the views of city, mountain and country. Over the centuries, undoubtedly thousands of others have done the same thing, including Diego Silang himself, and all the other soldiers and visitors from various countries and times. I’ll let the pictures and captions speak for themselves.
The rest of this post is devoted to the best of the photos I took of this building and of the equally fascinating bell tower situated on a rise above the church, which is itself already located high above its surroundings.
* A side view of the unrepaired eastern side of Bantay’s St. Augustine. This is what you’ll see when you first peek around the corner of the left belfry and lower alcove corner of the church. It doesn’t look like much but that didn’t stop me from going in and checking it out.
* Also on the eastern side of the church, this is a view looking directly up the wall in the corner formed by the backside of the left belfry / alcove structure. Some of this damage may well be from WWII.
* This is obviously looking up at a dome, but I can’t remember where in the church it is. It’s probably inside the top of one of the alcoves, but don’t hold me to it.
* View from behind the statue of the boy in the semi garden area in the unrenovated eastern side of the church. Looking at some of the ruined areas, I’m sure a lot of it is simply caused by weathering. If the caretakers do not start removing the plants the roots will eventually turn what you see above into a pile of rubble.
* The brick here still has a hint of the encasement stucco that once protected the brick from the elements. Without it, you get what you see, ruination.
* From inside the church looking up at the stained glass window a few feet inside from the main entrance.
* A close up of the stained glass window image of “Our Lady of Charity,” to which the church has been made a shrine in her honor.
* A view of St. Augustine’s bell tower from below its first retaining wall.
* The bell tower from the bottom of its steps.
* Divine standing in the entrance of the bell tower. Notice that there is still a bit of the original stucco or cement covering that once coated all these orange bricks.
* Divine posing in one of the viewing windows, one that looks out over Bantay's cemetery to the southeast.
* Bantay's cemetery. The gap in the hills in the distance I believe is where the Abra River passes through the hills on its way to the sea.
* Well, it IS a bell tower, and it does have plenty of them. Everyone of them appear to be antiques going back more than a hundred years.
* A view to the west of St. Augustine's left belfry and Vigan spreading out in the distance down the hill from there.
* A Close up of the belfry, same view as described in the photo above.
* The bell tower's dome from directly below it through some boards being used for internal support.
* The altar at the front of the church.
* A close up of one of the bell tower bells.
* I LOVE this view of the tower from the bottom of the hillside staircase.
* A statue holding holding holy water at the side rear of the church.
* This one cracks me up. Notice that the ironworks spells out "In Memory of the late." Its funny to me for two reasons, first it's an example of the "interestingly humorous" way Filipinos can use English at times. Obviously, in this case "the late" refers to "the dead." But also, if you are around Filipinos much, especially here in the home land, you'll know about "Filipino Time," which refers to the national tendency to be late, probably even for their OWN funeral. I showed this pic to my wife just to give her a little jazz telling her, "See, this little chapel is devoted to ALL Filipinos!" She's a good sport; I mean, she didn't smack me all THAT hard!