City of Manila

Of Faith and Tondo

Whenever one conjures a mental image of the district of Tondo in the City of Manila, something related to faith or religion would be farthest in anyone’s mind. With the negative perceptions of Tondo by many as this tough, poverty-stricken, godless place, that should not come as a surprise.

But underneath the squalor and chaos lies an area rich in heritage, unbeknownst even to those who have lived here. As this is being written and to be published in time for Holy Week, it is apt to look at Tondo up close on the lens of faith and its contributions to the religious history of the city, the metropolis, and the country as a whole.

Catholicism takes hold

When the Spaniards arrived and colonized what was then Manila’s neighboring settlement of Tondo in 1571, they wasted no time in propagating the Catholic faith in what was then a predominantly polytheistic and Islamic community. In 1572, the Augustinians established a provincial chapter there, its center of operations if you will for its evangelization efforts up north especially in Bulacan and Pampanga. For this, they built a monastery and church which remained standing until 1661 when it was ordered to be torn down by the Spanish colonial government due to fears of a possible invasion by Chinese pirate Koxinga and might use the church as his fortress. When those fears did not materialize due to Koxinga’s death, the church was rebuilt but suffered significant damage in 1734, particularly its bell towers and facade, that it had to be rebuilt. It underwent continuous renovations until the earthquake of 1863 caused heavy damage to the church.

A new church was constructed in the 1870s with Luciano Oliver serving as its architect. It marked the first time in the country for steel framing to be used in a church’s round dome, as well as iron sheets for the roofing and stone for walls. This structure has remained standing to this day, serving as the center of the Catholic faith in Tondo. Called sometimes as Tondo Church, it is officially known as the Archdiocesan Shrine of Santo Niño de Tondo, dedicated to the Holy Infant Jesus, AKA the Santo Niño, which also happens to be the patron Catholic icon in another part of the city, Pandacan.

An independent Filipino church rises

It goes without saying that the relationship between the Catholic church and the Filipinos during the Spanish colonial period was…complicated. While many Filipinos came to appreciate the Catholic doctrines and practices taught to them by the priests, they did not appreciate the abuses many of these priests committed against them, not to mention the discrimination against native priests from being given control of the Catholic parishes. It also did not help that at that time, there was practically a union between church and state and it was the church that was running things in the country.

When the Philippine Revolution broke out in 1896 (which incidentally came about by the discovery of the secret Katipunan movement that was based in Tondo by the Tondo parish priest Fr. Mariano Gil), it brought about an opportunity to set up a true Filipino church. This was realized on August 3, 1902 when labor leader and writer Isabelo de los Reyes, together with the members of Union Obrera Democrática Filipina (the first labor organization in the Philippines, founded by de los Reyes) established the Iglesia Filipina Independiente or the Philippine Independent Church as a nationalist church that has declared itself free from the control of the Catholic organization in Rome. The church at first did not have a leader, so de los Reyes approached his friend Gregorio Aglipay, a nationalist and excommunicated former Catholic priest, to be its leader. Initially rejecting the offer, he eventually accepted to be the first Obispo Maximo or Supreme Bishop of the IFI.

The IFI Cathedral in Tondo during the prewar years (courtesy of the IFI)

The IFI gained considerable following in its early years, which was symbolized by the construction of its national cathedral, located along Calle Azcarraga (now Claro M. Recto Avenue) and Ylaya Street in Tondo. It was a very prominent landmark in that part of Tondo along a major thoroughfare to boot. However, it was destroyed during World War II and the IFI was not able to rebuild the cathedral on the site because the family of the person who originally donated the land to the congregation for the church decided to take back that donation. As such, the IFI was left without a national cathedral for years until 1969 when the present national cathedral in Ermita, the Cathedral of the Holy Child, was inaugurated.

The former site of the IFI Cathedral in Tondo, now a nondescript commercial building
The former site of the IFI Cathedral in Tondo, now a nondescript commercial building

The Protestants make their mark

One of the most surprising aspects of Tondo is its rich Protestant heritage. True, Tondo has remained mostly Catholic, but the various Protestant congregations have a significant presence in the district, helping shape Tondo into what it is today.

Protestant missionaries arrived in the country alongside the American soldiers and bureaucrats who were tasked to establish the presence of the United States in the Philipines in the wake of the latter’s annexation by the former brought about by the 1898 Treaty of Paris. With the American colonial government decreeing that Catholicism was disestablished as a state religion, which itself was a concept they did away with, the Protestant churches wasted no time in establishing their presence in the country. Leading this Protestant wave is the Methodist Church which first arrived here as early as 1898 and quickly established itself in the country. One of the churches they established is the St. Paul United Methodist Church in Sta. Maria Street. Established in 1900, it is one of the oldest Protestant churches in the country, and the first Protestant church in Tondo established by Filipinos who were converted to the Protestant faith. The church’s building was originally made of bamboo but was eventually replaced in 1930 by a concrete structure built in the Art Deco style.

Eventually, the Filipino Protestants decided to not only establish their own church but also administer it themselves, especially upon being disillusioned with how the Methodist church in the country is being run. One of the leading figures in the eventual establishment of a separate Methodist church in the Philippines is Nicolas Zamora, a Methodist preacher and nephew of Fr. Jacinto Zamora, one of the three Filipino priests executed by the Spanish authorities in 1872. Zamora would then establish the Iglesia Evangelica Metodista en las Islas Filipinas (Evangelical Methodist Church in the Philippine Islands), popularly known as IEMELIF, in 1909. Zamora first held church services at a house owned by a fellow named Arsenio Bartolome just a few blocks away from St. Paul United Methodist Church. Eventually, IEMELIF would have its own cathedral along the street which is now named in honor of Nicolas Zamora. However, the church was burned down in 1941 and a new IEMELIF Cathedral would rise in its place by 1959.

The Bartolome House where Nicolas Zamora held church services for a time
The present IEMELIF Cathedral, as seen from Google Streetview, 2022

But perhaps the more well-known legacy of the Protestants would come not in the form of a church but a hospital, made possible through the efforts of Methodist missionaries. One of these missionaries is Dr. Rebecca Parrish who offered medical services at a time when the healthcare system in the country was in dire condition. Beginning with the opening of a dispensary, she saw that given the state of health at that time, there was a need to set up a full-fledged hospital. As she and the Methodist church did not have the means to build a hospital, the Women’s Foreign Missionary Society sought the help of an American real estate broker Daniel Johnston who, at that time, was looking to honor the memory of his late wife Mary who supported missionary work. Johnston would agree to provide the funds for the construction of the hospital which opened in 1907 as the Mary Johnston Hospital. The original hospital building was destroyed during the Battle of Manila in 1945 but, with American aid, the hospital was rebuilt and inaugurated in 1950.

The newcomer is an oldtimer

Interestingly, the last faith to establish its presence in Tondo also happens one of the first religions to have established a presence in the country, which is Buddhism.

Historical records and archeological findings have shown that Buddhism has made its way here as early as the 9th century. However, it did not end up converting as many Filipinos to the faith as it achieved in neighboring countries. It would be further sidelined when Islam and Chrisitianity were successively introduced and propagated across the country as its adherents were confined to a segment of Chinese settlers who immigrated here over the years.

While there were Buddhist places of worship that were made, they were more of an informal kind and there were no Buddhist monks to administer these places. That was the case until the 1930s when Wu Jiangliu and his group, the Chinese-Buddhist Society in the Philippines, purchased land on Narra Street to establish a temple that would center around the image of Guanyin or Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva or saint of compassion. Wu also invited a Buddhist monk from Xiamen, Xingyuan, to be the temple’s resident monastic. Thus in 1937, Seng Guan Temple, the country’s first full-fledged Buddhist temple was opened.

Seng Guan was originally made mostly of wood. So while it survived World War II, it did not survive the fire that engulfed the structure in 1949, though the images remained intact. With the help of its devotees, a new temple made of concrete would be built and completed by 1951 which still stands today.

Faith and the working class

Learning about Tondo’s rich religious history has been a fascinating discovery. But it also begs the question, what makes Tondo unique to be able to hold such a diverse religious heritage?

I think a core reason for this is the working class character of this district. Most of the people in Tondo are people who try to get by their lives each day, with many struggling to make ends meet. As such, faith was something they held on to so tightly, praying and hoping that the Divine Providence will somehow help make their lives better.

At the same time, as working class people, they are all too familiar with abuse, exploitation, and deceit committed against them by their superiors, the elite, the government officials, and especially religious authorities. And if push comes to shove, they will fight back. Some have resorted to active resistance, while others opted to follow other paths where conditions are better, or some even resorting to creating their own paths that will help realize their desired outcomes. As we have seen here, the are many notable examples of the latter two options that were taken.

This story is by no means complete. In fact, there are other notable places of faith in the district that are not covered here. Nevertheless, it is hoped that this piece helps give a better understanding and appreciation of the diversity of faiths in this city and how Tondo has helped shape its religious heritage.

Acknowledgements to Renacimiento Manila for facilitating this tour of Tutuban and Tondo last March 5, 2023. Visit their Facebook and Instagram for information about their upcoming events

Acknowledgements as well to the book “Endangered Splendor, Vol. 1” by Fernando Zialcita and Erik Akpedonu (you can order through the link) and websites Wikipedia, Mary Johnston Hospital, Tulay, IEMELIF and the IFI Page Gallery

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