Exceptional Philippine Churches

Abridged version of “The Lasting Links with Spain: The Churches of the Philippines” written by John L. Silva and published by The Ortigas Foundation.

There are over 1,170 churches of various sizes in the 144 cities throughout the Philippines. Fewer than 400 of these old churches are 100 years and older. In the past 300 years, many of these churches were damaged or destroyed by typhoons and earthquakes. Many were rebuilt with modifications and alterations from their original designs. More recently, some of these churches were refurbished not in keeping with heritage conservation practices, or sadly, were ruined out of neglect and deterioration.

The five religious organizations that created spheres of influence on the islands –- the Augustinians, Dominicans, Jesuits, Franciscans and Recollects -– incorporated distinctive designs and religious symbols on their cultures.

The Spanish-era churches are located in various parts of the Philippines, with the earliest and most numbers concentrated in the central Visayas islands. It was in Cebu and later Bohol that early proselytization occurred.

Here are five such churches chosen for their architectural style, particularly that of the front facades meant to impress on the populace an air of solidity, majesty and devotion. These churches also suggest an intervention of style not solely Spanish. The friar community were also composed of French, German, Flemish and others of the Holy Roman Empire and brought with them ideas and plans of churches reminiscent of their countries. The Chinese were experts in ivory, masonry and stone work while the natives (indigenous, Indic, Javanese and Muslim) were excellent carvers. Their artistic sensibilities insinuated themselves in the construction and décor of many churches.

Church of St. Matthias in Tumauini, Isabela

The church was constructed between 1873 and 1874 by the Dominican Vicar Domingo Forto and Mayor Pablo Siason. It is considered the best and most artistic brick structure in the country. Carvers from Pampanga province assisted in constructing the adorning brick insets seen on the façade that were attached with the use of egg mortar.

The bell tower, built in 1805, is said to be the only cylindrical bell tower in the country.

 Church of St. Matthias in Tumauini, Isabela (Source: The Lasting Links with Spain: The Churches of the Philippines)

Church of St. Matthias in Tumauini, Isabela (Source: The Lasting Links with Spain: The Churches of the Philippines)

Church of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception in Baclayon, Bohol

The church was constructed in 1727 by the Jesuits out of coral stone and tabique (plaster on wood). Until the earthquake of 2013, it remained one of the best preserved Jesuit churches in the country. In 1768, it was ceded to the Augustinian Recollects, who built a fortification around Baclayon Church because of its proneness to raids, during which the townspeople would seek shelter within the walls.

Several years ago, on the first buttress of the wall facing the convent, an image formed by mold appeared which the local faithful saw as the face of St. Pio of Pietrelcina. Every year, as the mold grows, it becomes more defined. Over a doorway next to the entrance of the convent is another mold image taking the shape of the Madonna and Child. The locals describe these images as miraculous and have taken to adoring them.

 Church of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception in Baclayon, Bohol (Source: The Lasting Links with Spain: The Churches of the Philippines)

Church of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception in Baclayon, Bohol (Source: The Lasting Links with Spain: The Churches of the Philippines)

Church of St. Thomas of Villanova in Miag-ao, Iloilo

The church was built in 1786 by an Augustinian priest Fr. Francisco Gonzalez Maximo and completed in 1797. The current church is the third, the previous two destroyed by Muslim pirates. Its simple and massive design points out its function as a fortress with two large medieval-looking bell towers of unequal heights doubling as watchtowers and flanking the main structure.

Miag-ao was one of the four churches declared by UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 1993 as part of the “Baroque Churches of the Philippines” series.

 Church of St. Thomas of Villanova in Miag-ao, Iloilo (Source: The Lasting Links with Spain: The Churches of the Philippines)

Church of St. Thomas of Villanova in Miag-ao, Iloilo (Source: The Lasting Links with Spain: The Churches of the Philippines)

Church of St. Augustine in Paoay, Ilocos Norte

The church’s construction began in 1694 and was completed in 1710. It was also a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1993. Described as “one of the most enchanting churches in the Ilocos,” the Paoay Church is a breathtaking fusion of Baroque, Gothic and exotic Asian architecture.

It is a massive structure made of de capaza stone and brick with thick walls made of coral blocks, faced with bricks and sealed with hard lime mortar mixed with sugar cane juice.

 Church of St. Augustine in Paoay, Ilocos Norte (Source: The Lasting Links with Spain: The Churches of the Philippines)

Church of St. Augustine in Paoay, Ilocos Norte (Source: The Lasting Links with Spain: The Churches of the Philippines)

Minor Basilica for the Holy Child in Cebu City, Cebu

Founded in 1565 by the Augustinian priest Rev. Andres de Urdaneta, the first church and convent were made of hard wood, earth and thatch roofing. By 1735, a construction of hard stone was built on the same spot. The Basilica houses the oldest religious image of the child Jesus given in 1521 by Ferdinand Magellan to the wife of the local chieftain, Rajah Humabon, both having converted to Christianity.

In 1966, the church was raised to the rank of minor basilica by Pope Paul VI.

 Minor Basilica for the Holy Child in Cebu City, Cebu   (Source: The Lasting Links with Spain: The Churches of the Philippines)

Minor Basilica for the Holy Child in Cebu City, Cebu (Source: The Lasting Links with Spain: The Churches of the Philippines)

Despite numerous natural and man-made cataclysms, there are still many churches standing today, a testament to the friar-builders’ indomitable goal of establishing a permanent Catholic presence in this part of the world.


 John Silva

John Silva

John L. Silva is executive director of the Ortigas Library, a research library in Manila.


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