This ancient and historic monument represents the founding of christianity on the island of Panay. Not only is Santa Monica Church the oldest church in Panay it is also the home of the largest Church bell in the Philippines and Asia.
Panay is located on a plain of very fertile land irrigated by the river of the same name; the climate is rather humid due to the abundant nipa fields and the low sea level. It is bounded by the Sea of Mindoro to the north, Pontevedra to the south and the town of Capiz (Roxas City) to the west. The town is located on the Panay River floodplain and it is said that when the river overflows its banks the flood waters easily reach the main altar in the church.
The original name of the settlement was Bamban and it was changed by the early Spaniards to Panay, a word which means “mouth of the river.” This is also the location of a fortress built by Juan de la Isla in late 1570.
The Augustinians accompanied the first Spanish expeditions to prevent any harm being done to the natives, as ordered by their Prior. It is Friar Martin de Rada who is said to have been the first to priest to preach the gospel on the banks of the river in Bamban. He was subsequently south to Dumangas in Iloilo to continue his missionary work.
Miguel Lopez de Legaspi, the expedition leader, set up his headquarters in Panay in 1569, moving them from Cebu because this was more fertile territory and the region could his forces with plenty of rice and seafood during an emergency added to which the natives were friendly and received the Spaniards well.
In 1581, the Spanish missionaries established Panay as a parish which had six (6) Visitas or chapels spread out across the territory from what are today Dao to Ivisan, Pilar, Panitan and Roxas City.
Friar Manuel Lopez, Prior of Panay, in a letter to the father provincial dated June 7, 1698, speaks of the deplorable state of the church and the convent as a result of a particularly fierce typhoon which hit the province in the January of that year and completely destroyed the church and its ancillary buildings. From this letter we can safely assume that the first buildings were probably finished before 1698, or even before 1692, during the first term of the Prior ship of Friar Lopez. Friar San Agustin replied that the convent was of very good structure, but did not mention the church. According to Friar Lopez, since the people of Panay by themselves were not able to restore the building, an agreement was signed with the alcalde (mayor) who donated 228 pesos from the community treasury to provide the funding.
In 1774 Friar Miguel Murguia rebuilt the church, which was severely damaged a century later by the typhoons of March 5, 1874 and January 17, 1875.
The church, a grand structure built of coral stone is 70 meters long, 25 meters wide and 18 meters high. The walls are three meters (or about 10 feet) thick and the floor is covered with marble. Its structure is shaped in the form of a Latin cross with one large central altar and four lateral ones, each one fitted with gorgeously decorated and gilded retablos or hardwood, decorated with various polychrome statues of high artistic quality.
Artisans from Manila fashioned the Baroque decorations of the main altar which were set in silver. The town’s greatest sculptor, Joseph Bergaño or Sarhento Itak, did most of the bas-reliefs and religious statuary the completion of the church in 1774 was hailed by the whole town as a great event.
Friar Jose Beloso restored the Santa Monica Church again in 1884 and refurbished the convento that he had built from the rubble of previously destroyed church properties. Friar Beloso commissioned Don Juan Reina to cast the largest bell in the Philippines and Asia and the third biggest bell in the world in 1878. The “Dako nga Lingganay” (meaning, “big bell”), as it was popularly known, was made from 70 sacks of gold and silver coins donated by the townsfolk. The finished bell measured seven feet in diameter, five feet in height and weighed 10,400 kilograms or just over 10 metric tons.
The church as all the others built by the Friars bears the Augustinian Seal just above the main entrance:
The convento itself was rebuilt in 1892 by Friar Miguel Rosales and it was finished by Friar Gregorio Hermida shortly thereafter. In 1895, Friar Lesmes Perez, restored the church to its former grandeur.
Unfortunately, the Church was intentionally put to the torch along with the Municipal Hall, by order of the Spanish Governor General Diego de los Pios to dislodge the rebels from the town during the 1898 Revolution.
When independence from Spain happened at the end of the Revolution, the parishes of Capiz were turned over to local secular clergy by the Augustinians (so that they could concentrate on their missionary activities). The members of the secular clergy had taken orders at the Real Seminario de San Carlos in Cebu (founded in 1779), or later at the Seminario de San Vicente Ferrer of Jaro in Iloilo (founded in1869). All the parishes in Capiz and in Iloilo belonged to the diocese of Cebu until 1865 when Jaro in Iloilo was named as an independent diocese and became responsible for most of Panay Island.
Unlike its Baroque interior, the facade of the church is simply decorated by pillars and horizontal ledges with niches for the life-sized statues of the Augustinian saints, Tomas de Villanueva and Monica. The five-story belfry is the center of curiousity because of its unusually huge bell – cast in the 19th century from 70 sacks of (gold and silver) coins donated by the townsfolk. It measures seven feet in diameter, five feet in height, and weighed 10,400 kilograms. The people of the town affectionately called it “Dako nga Lingganay”, Hiligaynon (vernacular) for “big bell”.
On entering the church through the massive wood doors we immediately proceed to the left into the Baptistery to view the original baptismal font.
In the corner of the Baptistery we noticed a stairway, more like a fire escape and upon enquiring from our guide we discovered it was the entrance to the bell tower. Sensing an opportunity, which had been consistently denied us in all the other churches we have visited, we asked if it was possible to go up to view the Bells and the surrounding scenery. The gentleman readily agreed and laid down a few ground rules before we could proceed – he of course led the way. He kept reassuring us that there were only 69 steps – OK, shouldn’t be a problem, maybe not for a 25 or 30 year old…but, for an almost 65 with a cardiac history that climb was one of the toughest things I’ve done in a long while, even though I exercise (walk 3 miles) 5 days per week,. Anyway, after a long tough climb, with rest stops at each level we finally reached the fifth story where the massive bells are located.
I was amazed by their size – there are in fact 9 bells up there and the BIG ONE is really BIG… Here the proof.
The big bell is surrounded by the 8 others and they are jammed together, and it’s really tight trying to move around the tower itself…
While were in the tower our guide told us the full story of the Big Bell…
The bell was cast by Don Juan Reina, who had settled in Iloilo City’s J.M. Basa Street in 1868 and there established his blacksmith and casting shop. When the belfry was being constructed, Fr. Jose Beloso sent for him. With just few rudimentary tools, Reina set up temporary shop at the foot of the town and hurried with the casting of the bell. Priest and caster agreed on the testing time. When the bell was tried, the caster agreed on the testing time. When the bell was tried during the Angelus, the sound was so loud that “every nearby town heard the voice of the bell of Panay.” After being paid by the parish priest, Don Juan returned to his shop in Iloilo.
In a month’s time, the bell cracked. From then on, it’s sounded more like a frying pan than a bell. Furious, the priest summoned Don Juan Reina and ordered him to have the bell recast, for free. Don Juan, who had the temper of a genuine baturro (country man from Aragon) would have none of it. Fr. Beloso, no less stubborn appealed to Bishop Cuartero who, after a heated discussion with the blacksmith, sent a circular to all the priests of the island, prohibiting them from contracting any job to Don Juan.
The deadlock was broken in a very strange manner. Bishop Cuartero would spend long sleepless nights due to a chronic toothache. Ironically, the only dentist who could help him was no other than Don Juan, the blacksmith! Don Juan was sent for, and the bishop meekly submitted himself to have his tooth pulled out.
The sacamuelas, as Don Juan was called, laughingly relished the great opportunity. As he got ready to apply the hook he asked the Bishop with unfeigned insolence: “Your Excellency, is there any job for the bell caster?” “Of course, Don Juan, there is, whispered the Bishop. A big pull and the tooth came out. After this twist of events, it was no longer difficult for the blacksmith to find work.
The bell in the words of the town’s mayor is very dear to the Panayanons both in moments of happiness and in times of tribulation. It symbolizes their link with the Almighty. The inscription on the bell reads:
“Soy la voz de Diosque llevare y ensalzare desde el principio hasta el fin de este pueblo de Panay para que los fieles de Jesus vengan a esta casa de Dios a recibirlas gracias celestials”
(“I am God’s voice which I shall echo and praise from one end to the other of the town of Panay, so that the faithful followers of Christ may come to this house of God to receive the heavenly graces.”).
The small bell dates back to 1721. It was cast by: Benitus a Regibus, Hilario Sunico and Juan Reina.
After spending several minutes in the tower it was time to head back down and we suggest you do so backwards if you ever get the chance to get up there – just as if you were coming down a ladder – it is very steep and it seems to work better that way!
On the way down two interesting items were pointed out to us, both of which left me in awe.
The first was a niche in the exterior wall of the tower which contained some very old machinery which it turns our is the mechanism of the original clock installed in the late 1870s and which unfortunately no longer works…
The second gave us a glimpse of the building technique used in the late 18th century and which I think may still be used today.
There was several courses or rows of stone and at 8 or 9 foot intervals there was a beam of wood about 6 or 8 inches thick separating the courses of stone…just the though that that wood has been in place for over 300 years and would likely be over 400 years old or more, when you consider the age the tree had to be to produce beams of that size.
Once back down in the main church we discover a single nave arrangement, and it is apparent to even the casual observer that the church still needs a huge amount of work.
Monsignor Benjamin Advincular, the current parish priest has the mandate from the Archbishop to get the Church back into proper shape and he is making incredible strides in doing so. In the past several years the complete roofing system has been replaced and one of the first things you notice when walking up one of the side aisles is a 40 foot long (estimated) wooden truss leaning against the wall. This is quite amazing when you think of it. This truss was part of the roof that was installed in the late 1870s and was in place until only recently – over 300 years. To make such a piece of wood, how big did the tree have to be and how long would it take to grow that tree? I think you could easily guesstimate that the wood is at least 500 or 600 hundred years old. Unbelievable when you think of it.
As we approach the transcept, we find that there are two chapels one to the left and another to the right adjacent to the dome area.
The striking feature about these chapels is the sheer size of the altars in them and the fact that they are constructed solely of wood – there is little or no marble or stonework involved in them.
Also striking and noteworthy is the fact that the statues contained in the Altars as well as the intricate carvings covering them are all wood and were carved by the town’s greatest sculptor, Joseph Bergaño or Sarhento Itak. He worked on most of the bas-reliefs and religious statuary and they all date to the early 1770s.
But there are more surprises in store. When exploring the chapel pictured on the previous page we were surprised to find 4 grave markers. That’s right, 4 grave markers in the church. So, who were these people buried in the church? According to the records they were all from prominent Pan-ay families at the time.
Tomb No. 1
D. Lucio Bernales ; Born 1835 & Died May 25, 1904
Tomb No. 2
Pio Nono Bediones ; Born August 18, 1893 & Died November 8, 1914
Petrona Bunda de Bediones; Born March 8, 1844 & Died May 9, 1914
Tomb No. 3
D. Miguel Legaspi y Vega ; Born 1845 & Died October 1902
Tomb No. 4
Antonio Roxas ; Died: August 10, 1891
Gerardo Roxas y Luis ; Died: April 21, 1891
(Don Antonio Roxas was the grandfather, and Gerardo was the father of the late Philippine President Manuel Acuna Roxas.
President Manuel Acuna Roxas’ son was also named Gerardo Roxas he became a Philippine Senator and is now deceased.
The current Philippine Senator Manuel Araneta Roxas is the son of the late Senator Gerardo Roxas and the grandson of the late President Manuel Roxas.)
This area is overlooked by the elevated Pulpit, which is rather rare in churches, nowadays.
The sanctuary is quite impressive also with its intricately carved wood work also the work of Joseph Bergaño or Sarhento Itak.
As we leave this impressive church interior to explore the grounds a little more we find this plaque which commemorates the Church of Santa Monica being name a National Historic Treasure by the National Museum of the Philippines on July 31st, 2011. This recognizes, I believe, the yeoman’s work done by Monsignor Advincula in his efforts to restore the church to its former grandeur. A great deal has been accomplished through his efforts, those of his parishioners and the generosity of their donors.
A great deals remains to be done. With Monsignor Advincula leading the way, the job will get done properly sooner rather than later and for this the people of Pan-ay, Capiz and indeed the entire Philippines are very fortunate and I am certain thankful for the Monsignor’s efforts and dedication.
One of the Monsignor’s major accomplishments is the establishment and opening of the Museo de Santa Monica and Padre Martin de Rada Hall adjacent to the church containing historical artefacts and memorabilia dating to the earliest arrival of Christianity in the area.
Although the museum was closed the day we visited, the Museum Curator was kind enough to give us a glimpse of some of the priceless artefacts.
When you enter the museum you do so through the doors of the original church dating back to the 1600’s.
Inside this entry area of the museum is a small exhibit hall containing some unbelievable artefacts including two altars one made entirely of silver and the other gold.
These altars we taken from the original church’s ruins over the years from the 1600 and 1700s. In addition to these are several Tabernacles which were in use in the church over the years and have since been retired to the museo.
There is also a selection of Priestly Vestments embroidered in pure gold and silver.
There is a solid example of the “bas relief” work of the artist Joseph Bergaño which as we have seen dates back to the early 1770s – here is a sample
Our guide also described how the original church was built. In case we have forgotten, this is an Augustinian built church and as was the custom of the times it was built by folio or forced labour. All able bodied people in the community were required to bring certain building materials to the construction site on a regular basis or very serious consequences ranging from a flogging up to and including excommunication for very serious cases.
The people lives were centered around the project of church building. If a couple wanted to get married they had to perform some type of work related to bringing construction materials to the site in addition to their regular ‘deliveries’ the same applied to anyone requiring the services of the Priest – including baptisms, funerals etc…
As we leave the museum building a look around the grounds reveals a few more interesting items.
At the base of the Bell tower there is a rather large grotto to Our Lady of Lourdes
It becomes obvious that the church was originally another fortress church when we note that around its perimeter there are several buttresses and the walls are 3 meters thick or more.
In 1952 the Most Rev. Antonio F. Frondosa, D.D., a native of Dumalag, Capiz was named Bishop of Capiz (the 1st Filipino native Bishop) and he became the first archbishop of the Capiz Archdiocese on January 17, 1976. Painting found in the Museo de Santa Monica.
In closing, Monsignor Advincula’s next project is the reconstruction of the perimeter wall around the church compound. It was said to have been 5 feet thick and 8 feet high.
It was 5:00pm and getting late, we had been on the grounds poking around and exploring since about 1:00pm Coming around to the front plaza of the church we noticed that the main doors had been closed – nothing more to do, no more last minute checks – just time to get home after a great day of discovery.
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