Mention the place “Ermita” and you will probably get many responses that dwell on the district’s not-so-positive reputation, thanks to it being known before as a haven of the so-called “girly bars” that has tainted this old district’s heritage, never mind the fact that these bars are no longer as prevalent as they were before the 1990s.
Nevertheless, for the old Catholic faithful in the district, they have their affections lie on one lady whose presence there predates the bars, going as far back at least to the time when the Spaniards set foot in Manila in 1571. The lady of Ermita that is the Marian image known as the Nuestra Señora de Guia. (Our Lady of Guidance)
According to the story, when the Spanish forces under Miguel Lopez de Legazpi landed on the shores of what was then the Kingdom of Maynila in May 1571, they stumbled upon the image near the shores of Manila Bay, being worshipped by the people there. They were surprised to see it was actually an image of Mary, the mother of Jesus, and were wondering how come the image came to be there, considering that expeditions beginning with Ferdinand Magellan never got to set foot in Manila. Theories have been made over the years: one postulated that the image may have originally come from Cebu where Magellan landed in 1521 and was brought there by trade or something else; others say the image is actually a pre-Hispanic deity that represented a goddess that the Spaniards turned into Mary. Another theory that was put forth recently is that the image came from the Portuguese who visited Manila long before the Spaniards did.
Whatever the case was, the Spaniards wasted no time in bestowing honor on this newly-discovered image. The image soon became known as the Nuestra Señora de Guia; on August 9, 1578, the King of Spain decreed that the image would be “sworn patroness” of the newly-established city of Manila. Work proceeded on building a place to enshrine the city’s new patroness a few meters away from the original site where it was found. Completed in 1606, the church was built as a sort of a hermitage, away from the bustling city center in Intramuros specifically to house the image. The church became known by its Spanish name “La Ermita,” and in due time, the area surrounding it became known by that name as well.
The original church was made of bamboo, nipa, and molave, thus it was prone to natural calamities that hit the city like earthquakes so it had to be rebuilt several times. In addition, the Nuestra Señora de Guia had to relocated from the church to the Manila Cathedral due to the threat of the British Occupation of Manila in 1762-1764 and would not return to the church until 1918. For the meantime, a more permanent stone church was built in 1810, lasting for more than a century.
Like many of Manila’s buildings and infrastructure, the church was destroyed during the Battle of Manila in 1945, though the image was saved from the destruction. Work soon began in 1947 for the construction of the new Ermita church, to be designed by architect Carlos Santos-Viola, who would later be known to be the architect of a number of temples of the Iglesia Ni Cristo, particular the Central Temple. By 1953, the new church was completed and the Nuestra Señora de Guia was enshrined there once more.
Due to the significance of the Nuestra Señora de Guia as the first Marian image to make its way in the Philipppines and the Ermita Church it is housed in, and the devotion of the Catholic faithful to her, on December 3, 2005, the Archdiocese of Manila elevated the church to the status of Archdiocesan Shrine, the church now officially known as the Archdiocesan Shrine of Nuestra Señora de Guia.
In addition, the plaza between the church and Roxas Boulevard was renamed Plaza Nuestra Señora de Guia, in honor of the lady of Ermita. A bronze sculpture of the image adorns the plaza to signify that fact.