These days, you may find it weird that a park can be situated in an unlikely neighborhood of sorts, surrounded by buildings and commercial establishments, right in the middle of intersecting roads which make it look like a rotunda plaza. Despite how “unfriendly” the site of Paco Park is today, it holds so much historical and cultural value that it has deserved the needed attention and preservation, all the more so now as urbanization and the decay it has brought is a serious threat not only to the park’s landscape but throughout the city as well.
Its rich history can be traced back as early as 1807, when the Spanish colonial government in Manila opened up what is then the Paco Cemetery, a municipal run cemetery designed by Nicolas Ruiz that was originally intended as a place for burial for prominent folks who have lived in the city. But an outbreak of cholera in 1821 that caused deaths of many in the city caused the reevaluation of the cemetery’s purpose. It was decided that Paco Cemetery be enlarged to be a burial ground for those who died from that dreaded cholera outbreak.
Soon another outbreak was to affect not only Manila but the rest of the country: the outbreak of what the Spanish government would see as “dissent” that began with the secularization movement championed by Filipino priests Mariano Gomez, Jose Burgos, and Jacinto Zamora. (known collectively as GomBurZa) So when the priests were executed in February 1872 for their implication in the failed Cavite Mutiny in 1872, their remains were buried in unmarked graves at Paco Cemetery.
But the dissent soon exploded to become a revolution. The colonial government went on an offense mode as it executed rebels and prominent figures who they believed inspired the revolution. The most prominent of which is our national hero, Jose Rizal. After his execution, the authorities quickly had him buried in an unmarked grave in Paco Cemetery, but his sister who secretly followed them in the burial made the provisions to have his grave identified, with a cross bearing his initials in reverse to mask it from the authorities who do not want to have anyone exhume or identify his remains. The remains would remain there until 1912, when they were reinterred to the newly-constructed monument in the park that bears the hero’s name.
Apart from being a burial ground for dissenters, Paco Cemetery eventually became a non-exclusive cemetery for basically anyone who can pay the rent for the tomb of their loved ones. Otherwise, your loved ones remains will be “thrown away,” so to speak. In fact, Paco Cemetery was even featured sometime in the 1930’s as an item in Robert Ripley’s “Believe It or Not,” specifically for that policy, which also showed how the concept of rent for a tomb was alien to the West, and to the Americans in particular during that time.
But by that time, its function as a cemetery has long ceased. In fact the American colonial government which was set up in Manila after the Spaniards left had the cemetery closed in 1912. The old graves that bore the remains of those who were buried there were long gone, save for a couple at least that I saw, though I don’t know if the remains are still there.
While the concept of adaptable reuse, in which an old structure that was used for a certain purpose is given new life for a different purpose, has been put in place in a number of buildings, it is rare that a concept like this can be used for a place as creepy and morbid as a cemetery. But apparently, this was the concept that brought about the renovation of the old cemetery to become, in 1966, the place that we now know today as Paco Park. In fact there are free concerts of classical music being held here with the program “Paco Park Presents.” And did I even mention it is also a popular place for weddings as well?
Weddings in the park are being held at this little structure called the St. Pancratius Chapel. (what’s with St. Pancratius and his association with cemeteries here anyway?) Fortunately, this dome-shaped chapel is not as creepy as its namesake in La Loma. Apart from its age, it also holds significance as it has served as the final resting place of some prominent Spanish colonial officials. Today, only the remains of Governor General Ramon Solano are left buried in this chapel.
With its quiet, unassuming charm, (perhaps the result of its interesting history) Paco Park is one of the few places that can be considered an “oasis” in the middle of a city threatened by decay and urbanization gone out of control. It is important that places like Paco Park be given not only needed protection and conservation, but also a sense of appreciation for its history and its humble contributions in making a city like ours a little bit more livable for all of us.
© The Urban Roamer