Protestantism in the metropolis: The Union Church of Manila

Brought by the Americans when they set foot to colonize the Philippines, Protestantism has grown to make a significant presence in the country’s religious environment that was long dominated by the Roman Catholic Church and, in Mindanao especially, Islam.

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Interestingly, Protestantism was not introduced to the Filipinos in the same manner the Spaniards introduced Catholicism here. In fact, there were no widespread conversion activities. One can point out the democratic ideals introduced by the Americans, emphasizing on religious freedom and all that. But the more understated reason as to wh Protestantism developed differently in the country is because it was geared more at first to the Americans themselves who came here, who needed a venue to practice their faith at a time when there was a Catholic church in almost every corner but not a single Protestant church in sight.

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the first ministers of the UCM engraved in these commemorative tablets

To meet this growing need, members of 3 Protestant denominations: the Presbyterians, Methodists, and Episcopalians entered into an agreement on October 11, 1914 to build a unified place of worship for these different Protestant denominations, thus the name the “Union Church” of Manila or UCM.

Worship services were first held in a chapel along Padre Faura known as the Emerson Chapel, serving as its home for around 40 years. Having been devastated during World War II and rebuilt soon after, by the 1950s, the congregation grew as more Filipinos and other expats joined in. And the chapel was no longer enough to meet the needs of a growing flock.

It was then decided in 1958 to move to a bigger venue, this time in the growing suburb known as Makati, The UCM first made its home at the corner of what is now Gil Puyat and Makati Avenues. However, as the 1970s approached, the church faced a serious issue. You see the Union Church properties in Padre Faura and Makati were owned by foreigners who were members of the congregation. But by 1974, foreigners (Americans to be precise) were no longer allowed to own property in the country thanks to the terms of the Laurel-Langley Agreement that was made in 1955. With a bleak future the church was facing, help came in the form of the Makati Commercial Estate and the estate’s developer, the Ayalas. The UCM signed a 50-year lease of a property in Legaspi Village to be the new home of the church. For this new home, Architect Jose Maria Zaragoza was tapped to design the new church.

Zaragoza’s Union Church of Manila (courtesy of Flickr)

The result was a sprawling landmark of a structure whose roof is reminiscent of the salakot hat. It had a shell exterior, said to represent the Philippines’ tropical climate, and a modernist style of architecture influenced by Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer who also happened to be an influence in Zaragoza in building the church and other structures as well. It was to become a landmark in its own right, standing high in the midst of the neighboring skyscrapers that were rising above it.

But then the UCM faced another prospect of misfortune (I’m sensing a trend here now, but I digress) as the 1990s marked the lease contract was already approaching the half-way mark. To avoid the prospect of losing yet another home, the church entered into an agreement with the Ayalas in 1997 for what is to be a permanent home for the Union Church of Manila. To make this become a reality however, there were sacrifices that had to be made. One of them was to give away two-thirds of the original church property to the Ayalas for development. Thus, the iconic Zaragoza structure had to go.

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With everything cleared out, work began on what is to be the church’s new and permanent site. It was finally opened in 2001. For some who grew up with the Zaragoza structure, they lamented the new building as being “dull,” and did not even bother to at least pay homage to Zaragoza’s old masterpiece.

Dull architecture aside, it is good to note that at least the Union Church of Manila finally has a home to call their own. As they approach their centennial soon, it is in a way a fitting achievement for a long colorful, and sometimes troubled history.

Acknowledgements to the Philippine Star and the Union Church of Manila

© The Urban Roamer

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