Roaming San Agustin (Part 1: The History of the San Agustin Complex)

Truth be told, this entry is way long overdue. But in time for Holy Week, the Urban Roamer finally got around to roaming this important landmark.

And this particular landmark, what else is needed to be said? It is perhaps the most significant landmark that represents the history and legacy of the Catholic faith in our country. It is significant enough to be recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This is the San Agustin Church, the oldest church in the Philippines.

Despite being the oldest church in the country, the San Agustin Church we see today is actually version 4.0, so to speak. San Agustin Church 1.0 was built in 1571, shortly after Manila was established by the Spaniards as the “Insigne y Siempre Leal Ciudad” or Most Distinguished and Ever Loyal City. Unfortunately, that church was made of bamboo and nipa so when fire hit the church in 1574 during the attempted invasion of the Chinese pirate Limahong, you know what happened.  San Agustin 2.0 was built shortly afterwards but it was still a wooden structure so it was burned down, again, in 1583. This time, the culprit was a fire that started when a candle ignited drapery on the funeral bier during services for Spanish Governor-General Gonzalo Ronquillo. The church was rebuilt, yet again as a wooden structure but the same story happened in 1586, when the structure burned down on a Palm Sunday.

Finally, the Augustinian priests who built and ran San Agustin just had enough of what was happening. They decided to go all out and build a more permanent stone structure in its place. With a Baroque design input from architect Juan Macias, the San Agustin Church that we know today broke ground in 1586. It took almost 30 years for the completion of the church, as well as the convent beside as it was beset by lack of funds and the lack of stone artisans. It must be pointed that the technology of stone structure construction was fairly new in the country and San Agustin Church served as sort of a pilot site for what was to become a standard in church building construction for a scale as massive as this one. By 1604, the new stone-structured San Agustin Church was completed, followed by the convent in 1607 or 1614, depending on the sources.

While the church and convent have somewhat stayed intact over the centuries, it did went through some significant changes. For instance, the original San Agustin Church had twin belfry towers but the earthquake of 1880 caused a significant damage to one of the belfry towers (the one on the left) and was in danger of collapsing. Eventually the tower was demolished, leaving the church with the single tower. That was the only significant damage the church experienced in its lifetime.

Save for the walls riddled with artillery in some parts and the roofs mostly gone, the church and convent remained intact so it managed to serve as shelter and an infirmary for those trying to escape the bloodshed going on outside. Eventually, it survived the Japanese artillery and the American bombing that flattened out the rest of Intramuros (reportedly, it’s because  San Agustin served as reference point for American bombers in their carpet bombing activities) leaving it as the only remaining structure of the Spanish colonial period in the Walled City.

However, there was one significant loss in the San Agustin complex during the war. It was the Augustinian monastery built in 1667 beside the convent. What made this monastery significant was that it was the site of a botanical garden known as Fr. Blanco’s Garden. The garden was named as the Augustinian priest Fr. Francisco Manuel Blanco who was also a noted botanist who wrote the landmark work Flora de Filipinas. It was one of the first, if not the first, work that attempted to comprehensively document all the native plants in the Philippines, some of which Fr. Blanco studied in the garden that was eventually named after him. There were plans to reconstruct the monastery and the gardens but apparently, there seems to be no documentation that exists with regards to how the monastery and garden looked like before the war which has made such efforts face quite a hurdle.

a monument of Fr. Blanco

In 1993, the San Agustin Church was given the distinction of being one of the first sites in the country to be declared as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It must be noted though that the declaration is not for the church itself. What’s interesting is that it was grouped together with 3 other churches in Paoay, Ilocos Norte; Santa Maria, Ilocos Sur; and Miagao, Iloilo under the collective group “Baroque Churches of the Philippines.” It’s been said that the reason for this is that the documentation for each church was not sufficient to merit individual recognition, not to mention they do have some shared characteristics, not just in architecture. You see, these 3 churches were also built by the Augustinians as well.

 

Next, a look inside the San Agustin Church

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