The parish of Santo Tomas de Villanueva was founded by the Augustinians in October of 1754, under Friar Vincente Campos. But it wasn’t until 105 years later, in December of 1859, that the cornerstone of this majestic church was laid by the Town’s Parish Priest, Friar Florencio Martin, as well a delegation of town officials and visiting dignitaries from as far away as Manila, Cebu and Iloilo.
The first mass in the new church was celebrated on December 22nd, 1864.
It is obvious when looking at the front view of the church that portions of the façade are clearly not 150+ years old while other parts of it are. We’ll come to that in due course.
When we came to town to visit, our prior research told us that the Church had been the work of the Augustinians. So, the first thing we did was to do a walk about to see if we could find the proof. If you’ve been following our adventures so far, you will know exactly what we were looking for. Right? It’s the Augustinian Seal which appears on every one of their churches.
We walked the length of the entire church front, which includes the present church façade and the parts of the old Convento and Parish Hall that still remain, The Church and its auxiliary building stretches for an entire city block facing the very beautifully maintained town plaza. We found nothing on this side of the building, so we moved over and we explored the east side and EUREKA there it was…although it took some time to really discover it.
One of the main features of this church is its dome. This is one of the things that makes it quite distinctive from all the other churches we have seen. The dome was added during reconstruction that took place in the late 1990’s, it was in fact dedicated/inaugurated on Santo Tomas’s Feast Day in 2001.
See it yet, the Augustinian Seal, that is?
Okay, Okay, for those with weak eyesight here it is:
Now that we’ve settled on the original church having been built by the Augustinians, we can continue.
Friar Campos was the first resident parish priest appointed to the settlement of Alimodian in 1754. It was in 1756 that the Governor General approved the founding of the Town which was named: Sto. Tomas de Villanueva of Alimodian. In late 1757 the newly elected town officials were faced with the construction of a church and convent. According to the Alimodian Parish Heritage Book (2006), the church was to measure 30 fathoms long and 9 fathoms wide and the convent was to be 20 fathoms long and 9 fathoms wide. That translates to approximately: 180 feet long by 54 feet wide for the church, and 120 feet long by 54 feet wide for the convent.
The original church which Friar Campos undertook and which was completed by Friar Calchetas consisted of simple materials which were readily available in the area such as: bamboo, cogon (thatch) and logs.
But, as the religious fervour of the residents grew it became necessary to expand into a more permanent structure. It was under Friar Francisco Monesterio that a new structure was built starting in 1780 and completed in 1784. This church was built of plastered brick and stone.
Unfortunately, disaster struck in 1787 when the town was hit by a devastating earthquake that destroyed the newly constructed church.
It took another 74 years for a new and permanent church to rise from the ‘ashes’ of the old.
As mentioned earlier, it was on December 5th, 1859 in a ceremony including visiting dignitaries from Manila, Cebu and Iloilo and the then parish priest Friar Florencio Martin that the corner stone was laid and a time capsule containing:
The documents directing/agreeing to the construction of the church duly signed by the Governor General and local church and governmental officials, a gold necklace, and assorted coins of the day.
The capsule was buried under the area of the proposed main door of the church.
Construction of course, as was normal and usual in the day, was accomplished with forced labour – ‘folio’ involving men, women and children. Each person was assigned a quota: men had to bring stone to the site much if it quarried in ‘nearby’ Leon (about 11 kilometres away) and the women and children had to gather white stones which were heated and crushed to produce lime which was then mixed with clay from the surrounding area to make the bricks which were used extensively in the construction. Under the folio system failure to meet one’s quota resulted in a flogging with a “palmeta’, basically a palm frond.
The church was finally opened on December 22nd, 1864.
It took another 7 years for the church to get its bells installed in the belfry. On February 17, 1877 the bells were installed in the belfry – they had been struck in a foundry in Arevalo (part of today’s Iloilo City) and were hauled to the site of the church on a series of oxcarts. People from everywhere along the route lined the streets to see the spectacle and offered alms to help pay for the haulage.
The bells were made of bronze and silver alloy; the largest one (mayor) weighed about 3,250 pounds. All the bells had been named after a saint and had that name stamped into the bell. The names given the bells were: San Augustin, Sta. Monica, San Ignacio de Loyola, Sto. Tomas de Villanueva. It is said that several hundred men helped to pull the bells into the belfry.
Examples of the extensive brick work used throughout the church:
Many of the ceilings in the church were also bricked. This sounds almost impossible today, but think of it being done in the late 1800’s – that was quite an impressive task and here is the proof of it – after 130 + years you can see this treatment in the church’s Baptistery.
In 1882 under Friar Serapio Gonzales, the roof (brick and lime) of the main areas of the church were replaced with galvanized iron to add to their durability.
But, just a few years later, on February 1st, 1887 another earthquake struck with little of no damage to most of the church. The only casualty was the statue of Saint Augustine which fell from its pedestal over the church’s main entrance.
The first Filipino born parish priest to be assigned to the church was installed on December 18th, 1902 – Father Maximo Montealto was the first non-Augustinian priest to head the parish.
Over the following years things went well in the parish until World War II started. Many refugees from the City of Iloilo proper came north to interior towns just like Alimodian where the Convento became a refuge for many wealthy families from the City.
When the Japanese landed in Iloilo on April 18th, 1942 the refugees already in Alimodian fled to what was considered safer ground in the mountains nearby. Somehow the convento was destroyed by fire at that time and soon afterwards the Civil Government of the town ordered that the church be torched in order to keep it out of the hands of the Japanese occupiers who it was feared would use it as a detention centre and storage place for their supplies. All that remained of the church was the foundations and the belfry. Several local families were able to save many of the church’s artifacts.
Once the Filipino fighters surrendered to the occupiers in 1943 – peace of a sort returned to Alimodian and the then parish priest set about rebuilding the church for his flock. He kept it simple and built a makeshift structure of bamboo and sukdap (sukdap is the skin of young bamboo which is stripped from the stalk and used to tie together stalks that would support a wall or partition.)
Shortly after the war in 1946, led by Father Marcos Deloso efforts were made to rebuild the church but it wasn’t to be. Lady CayCay intervened. [Lady CayCay is the earthquake measuring 8.1 on the Richter scale that hit Western Visayas at about 01:48 hours on January 24th, 1948]. The Lady destroyed everything including the Belfry which had withstood previous earthquakes and calamities sending its historic bells crashing to the ground; the only bell to survive the Lady was the biggest one named ‘Mayor’ which weighed over 3,200 pounds and is still in the belfry today.
Once again the parishioners were called upon to help build a temporary structure and this they did willingly. Engineers and architects went over the site and what remained of the former structures in detail and found that most were safe to include in a rebuilt church.
The new structure, with the exception of the dome, which was added in the late 1990’s), was opened in 1951 and the repaired belfry in 1952. The old convento building became the new parish hall and activities centre and a new convento was built in the inner courtyard of the church.
If we walk towards the rear of the church and to the left (in the above view towards the rear) we arrive at the Baptistery, which is so beautiful because of its simplicity. The walls of the room are constructed mainly of locally fired brick and large stones while the ceiling is constructed of the same locally fired brick. A statue of St.John the Baptist baptising Jesus oversees the room.
At the front of the church the chapels on either side of the main show something very interesting. It is reported that the cracks in the walls that are evident in the photos that follow are reminders of the fury and strength of Lady CayCay.
Engineers have surveyed the church and have certified that it is quite stable and not in any danger of collapse.
Even though it does not appear that much work is being done, you should be reassured that there is on-going work and has been for much of the last 20 or so years to improve the church and it’s allied buildings. Currently, work is being done on the former convento which is being changed into the Parish Activity Centre on the second floor, and the first floor now houses the new Adoration Centre, which left me speechless, it was so beautiful.
On leaving the Adoration Centre, we can see some restoration work which is currently underway involving the support columns under the Old Convento and New Parish Hall.
Directly opposite the adoration centre is the inner courtyard and the entrance to the new modern Convento, on the north side, which opened in 2002.
On the west side of the courtyard is the shrine to Our Lady of Fatima which was constructed with materials from the original church.
And on the south side is the back entrance to the upper floor of the “old Convento” (1st photo). The north side of the courtyard is closed in by the church itself (2nd photo).
If we look up to the church’s façade we see that there are statues of three saints welcoming parishioners to the church. They are: San Augustin, Santo Tomas and San José.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.