City of Manila

Intramuros and Its Lost Rich Catholic Heritage

Intramuros during the Spanish colonial period was not only the center of political power in the Philippines, it was also the center of faith, the Catholic faith, in the country. At a time when there was no separation of powers between church and state, Intramuros was where everything that would influence the way of life of the people emanated from.

While Intramuros would lose its status as a political center during the American colonial period, it still pretty much retained its status as a spiritual center for a still Catholic-dominated population in the midst of the rise of new religions and denominations that came about during that time. That was until World War II changed everything, destroying most of the Walled City’s old churches especially during the Battle of Manila in 1945.

San Agustin Church, the surviving remnant of the prewar Catholic heritage of Intramuros
Manila Cathedral, rebuilt after World War II

Of the original 7 churches, (well 8 if we count a chapel, more on that later) only San Agustin Church survived after the war to become the country’s oldest surviving church. Manila Cathedral, the seat of the Archdiocese of Manila, would be rebuilt and reopened a few years later in 1958. Currently ongoing at this time of writing is the rebuilding of the old Jesuit church of San Ignacio which is expected to be reopened as an ecclesiastical museum in 2016-2017.

Today, we look at the other  churches that used to stand in the Walled City which gave Intramuros a much Catholic character and helped made it known as the “Little Vatican of the East,”  a heritage devastated by war and never to rise again, at least for a foreseeable future.

Santo Domingo Church

We may know now Santo Domingo Church as that massive church along Quezon Avenue in Quezon City, but before the war, the church as well as its famed image the Our Lady of La Naval de Manila used to be found in Intramuros beside the old University of Santo Tomas campus.

The church was named and dedicated to the founder of the order that built the church, St. Dominic (Sto. Domingo) de Guzman of the Dominican Order. Like the Manila Cathedral, the old Santo Domingo Church was built and rebuilt over the years. The first one built in 1588 was a bamboo and nipa structure that collapsed due to the weak foundations. Santo Domingo Church 2.0 was a stone and nipa structure built in 1592 but was gutted by a fire in 1603. The third one was built in 1613 in all stone but was destroyed by an earthquake in 1645. Santo Domingo Church 4.0 was built and continuously improved over the years but was toppled down by another earthquake in 1863.

Santo Domingo Church 5.0 (courtesy of Hecho Ayer)

Perhaps the most famous of the pre-QC Santo Domingo Church incarnations would be the 5.0 version. Finished by 1868, this one that would remain standing until World War II. It employed a Neo-Gothic architecture that was designed by Filipino architect Felix Roxas; its interiors bore intricate carvings made from various Philippine wood species like molave, narra, and ipil.

Santo Domingo Church interiors (courtesy of Nostalgia Filipinas)

Unlike the rest of Intramuros, the church was destroyed years before the Battle of Manila as it was destroyed in 1941 by Japanese bombs shortly after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. It was this incident in mind that may have prompted Gen. Douglas MacArthur to declare Manila as an open city to spare the city from further destruction in the midst of advancement of Japanese troops.

After the war, the Dominicans that ran Santo Domingo decided to rebuild the church, this time up north in Quezon City. As for the land where the old church stood, it was eventually acquired by Far East Bank to be one of its bank buildings. Far East Bank was eventually acquired by the Bank of the Philippine Islands; the building thus became a BPI branch in the process.

Our Lady of Lourdes Church

Among the prewar Intramuros churches, the Our Lady of Lourdes Church was the youngest. The church was completed in 1898, a time of transition as the Americans were taking over the city and Spanish rule was coming to an end. Administered by the Franciscan Capuchins, the church was named after and dedicated to the Marian image the Lady of Lourdes who introduced the devotion to the Lady of Lourdes in the country. There is also the story that the image was made the church’s titular head out of a promise the Capuchins kept in return for the church being spared from a possible attack by American forces on Intramuros that never got to happen.

the old Lourdes Church (courtesy of the website of the National Shrine of Our Lady of Lourdes)
Lourdes Church interior (courtesy of Hecho Ayer)

It was said that in the prewar years, the church was a popular venue for weddings and first communions, especially among the elite families. Many people would visit it during the feast day of the Lady of Lourdes on February 11. But during World War II, the church was heavily destroyed during the Battle of Manila while many Capuchin priests who stayed there were brutally massacred by Japanese forces. After the war, the surviving Capuchins decided to move out of Intramuros to their new home up north in Quezon City where the new Lourdes Church and a school that shares its name now stands.

As for the old Lourdes Church grounds, it was eventually transformed to be the site of one of the prominent arts and crafts stores in Intramuros, the El Amanacer Building.

San Nicolas de Tolentino Church (AKA the Recollect Church)

Ran by the Augustinian Recollects, the San Nicolas de Tolentino Church (AKA the Recollect Church) was originally built in what is now part of the Rizal Park complex, something that has been previously written here. As with the other churches in the Walled City, the Recollect Church went through various reconstructions. The first church was built in 1608 but was demolished in 1642. Then rose the San Nicolas de Tolentino Church 2.0 which was damaged by an earthquake in 1645 and was tattering in ruin until it was gone for good during the 1863 earthquake.

San Nicolas de Tolentino Church (courtesy of Nostalgia Filipinas)

It would be the third version of the church that was completed in 1881 that would become a landmark in prewar Intramuros. Various accounts described the church as beautiful and grand, with a four-tiered belltower, elaborate carvings on its facade, and a grand pipe organ designed by Fr. Diego Cera, the same fellow who designed the Bamboo Organ in Las Piñas.

church interior (courtesy of Hecho Ayer)
Fr. Diego Cera’s bamboo organ for the Recollect Church (courtesy of Cealawyn on Fickr)

The Augustinian Recollects were driven out by Japanese forces during World War II as the Japanese found use of the church as a garrison and an armory. The church was destroyed by heavy artillery during the Battle of Manila, leaving only the facade intact, at least for the next 14 years. The Augustinian Recollects eventually made the church-convent of San Sebastian their new home while the facade of the old Recollect Church (the only part that survived the war) was demolished in 1959, which was a shame since it could have Manila’s answer to the St. Paul’s Church facade in Macau.

In 1975, Manila Bulletin bought the property to be the new headquarters of the newspaper, where it still holds office to this day.

The Franciscan Complex: San Francisco Church and the Chapel of the Venerable Third Order 

The Franciscans, being the second Catholic religious order to establish a presence in the Philippines, used to have a significant presence in Intramuros. A landmark of this Franciscan presence was its main church, the San Francisco Church, named after the order’s founder St. Francis (San Francisco) of Assisi.

Intramuros’ Franciscan complex: San Francisco Church on the left and the Chapel of the Venerable Third Order on the right (courtesy of Nostalgia Filipinas)

As with the case of many Intramuros churches, the San Francisco Church went through some reconstructions after its first church of bamboo and nipa was destroyed by fire in 1583. San Francisco Church 2.0 was built in 1602 but an earthquake in 1645 made significant damage to the structure that it was eventually demolished to give way to a new church in Baroque architecture which would be built in 1738.

San Francisco Church 3.0 would suffer some damages such as earthquakes, but the structure overall was pretty much stable that it was able to withstand them as a whole. In addition, the church, like the rest of the Intramuros churches, bore elegant interiors as well which made it a popular destination, especially during the feast day of St. Anthony of Padua every June 13 when many devotees would gather in the church plaza.

San Francisco Church with the statue of St. Anthony de Padua in the foreground (courtesy of Skyscrapercity)

Right next to it was not really a church but a chapel, the Chapel of the Venerable Third Order, (Venerable Orden Tercera or VOT) built for the Franciscan congregation’s Third Order. (the non-monastic Franciscans) Originally built in 1618 as a small chapel, the structure was expanded over the years as it eventually employed a Neoclassical look.

Chapel of the Venerable Third Order (courtesy of John Tewell on Flickr)

The two churches were destroyed during World War II in the Battle of Manila. After the war, the Franciscans made their new home in the equally historic Santuario de San Pedro Bautista up north in Quezon City while the Third Order relocated to Sampaloc district where they already have a church there, taking along with them the devotional activities dedicated to St. Anthony of Padua which used to be held in San Francisco Church. In 1952, the Franciscans would establish a second presence in the metropolis with the inauguration of Santuario de San Antonio in Makati’s posh Forbes Park village. It would be here that the old statue of St. Anthony de Padua at the old San Francisco Church was relocated.

As for the old Franciscan property in Intramuros, in 1956, the family of Tomas Mapua purchased the land from the Franciscans to be the site of the college campus of Mapua Institute of Technology. The move of Mapua, the establishment of the Lyceum of the Philippines next door and the Pamantasan ng Lungsod ng Maynila a few blocks away, not to mention the existing presence of Colegio de San Juan de Letran, transformed the part of the Walled City into an educational hub.


While Intramuros has lost much of its Catholic heritage it had during the prewar years, the Catholic heritage of the Walled City remains strong in the two currently remaining churches. Along with it is a new character and legacy that Intramuros today is striving to project and preserve for present and future generations. Admittedly, so much work still needs to be done but it is a work that is continually in progress as upcoming developments in the area are something to be optimistic about at least.

Acknowledgements as well to Vic Torres’ book “Ciudad Murada: A Walk Through Historic Intramuros,” Hecho Ayer, and Nostalgia Filipinas

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