Cabatuan town was established by the Spanish in 1732. St Nicholas Church was built as a full fledged parish under Friar Antonio Lopez in 1733 who built a simple church and convento were built at that time.
It was about a century later, in 1833, the current church of St Nicholas of Tolentino was built under the guidance and direction of Augustinian Friar Ramón Alquezar. Friar Alquezar remained in Cabatuan until is death in 1863.
Because of a dearth of major building materials in the immediate area Friar Alquezar had a kiln built so that he could ‘fire brick’ which he had made in the town for use on the project. The church was not only the very first brick structure built in the Visayas but it also became, as a result of its sheer size, the largest brick structure in the region.
The church was completed by Friar Manuel Ruiz in 1866 who had taken over the project after Friar Alquezar’s death in 1863.
It is built in the Tuscan style of architecture. The Tuscan influence is seen mainly on the main façade which is made up of rectangular plaques, twinned pilasters alternating with plain walls containing niches or windows. It had, at the time it was built, fully 6 belfries on the three facades of the church. It was monumental in scope – for that time.
The church actually represents a clash of architectural styles. The main facade is in the Tuscan style as noted above with three levels. The first level has the main entrance and is flanked by two niches for images, The second storey actually is the level of the choir loft (to note this church has no loft) which features a niche containing a statue of San Nicolas de Tolentino under which is an occuli and two other stained glass windows. A large triangular pediment crowns the entire thing which is a departure from the Tuscan style.
The other two faces are more neoclassical in style and include massive pilasters with Romanesque niches.
There were two massive Baroque style brick belfries on each of the 3 facades of the church at the time of constructions.
Unfortunately four of them were lost in the Lady Caycay earthquake of 1948 leaving only the two facing what is now the front of the church and the town plaza on Northeast side of the building. Each of these 2 remaining belfries are roofed by bell-domes. The domes are covered in corrugated iron the installation of which was completed in 1860. In a report to Iron Age magazine in 1929 L. J. Lewery of the Pacific Manager for Armes International Corporation stated that: “ The oldest roof located in the Philippines is on a church roof a Cabatuan, Iloilo Province, Island of Panay. The roof and siding of the domes were ordered from Morewood and Company of London and Birmingham, England. The church is not now used regularly, and the town ‘Presidente’ remembers no repairs that have been made to the roof. At the present time (1929) the weather side of the roof has lost nearly all the zinc coating, yet the iron base appears to be in excellent shape…”
Let’s return to the façade of the church to discover what is there.
We learned earlier that the first level consists of the main entrance flanked by two niches for images (statues in this case) of: the Blessed Virgin Mary to the right of the main entrance and the other of the Sacred Heart to the left. In the above photo you will also note the four sets of twinned pilasters (columns) which frame each section of the façade.
The next level consists of a niche containing the statue of San Nicolas under which is an occuli (round window) containing a stained glass window depicting Saint Augustine and these are flanked by a rectangular window each with another stained glass: on the left is a depiction of the Ascension and to the right is a depiction of the Assumption. In addition, above each of the 3 elements are two different seals. Over the statue of San Nicholas in the Papal seal or coat of arms and above each of the other two windows is the Augustinian Seal.
When we move to the more easily accessible side of the church, the west side, we can clearly see the plainness of the construction which in the first section of the lower level includes very large windows and two major doorways. We can also note the base or first level of one of the fallen bell towers. This sections façade is broken up into 5 sections by large brick pilasters. The second level contains four occuli with stained glass windows in them and a large rectangular window next to the existing bell tower.
The next section of this façade is exactly similar to the first section with the exception of the buttress at the south end of the wall and the unoccupied niche on the second level over the major entrance way which replaces an occuli.
As we move inside the church we are struck by its majesty and simplicity. The interior is built almost entirely of brick with little or no ornamentations.
This is a single nave church and built in the form of a cross.
The age of the structure is readily apparent and it is awe inspiring in its grandeur. It is not surprising when you learn that it is in fact the largest church in the region, even larger than the Cathedral in Iloilo Proper.
There are four chapels throughout the church. They are the 1. The Adoration Chapel, 2, The Baptistery Chapel, 3, The Confessions Chapel and the 4th is currently not in use.
As we approached the Sanctuary what impressed us most is the massive limestone and marble construction of it.
The High Altar is reputed to be the tallest in all of Iloilo and contains the statues of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, The Sacred Heart of Jesus and a statue of San Nicolas. The large crucifix is in its place of honour atop the Tabernacle.
The church is filled with various statues including: Santo Niño, San Lorenzo Ruiz, Saint Joseph and several of the Virgin Mary.
Earlier in our presentation of this church we made mention that it was built through forced labour and that the citizens of the village, at the time, were severely punished if they failed even in the slightest manner not meet their established quotas. The most popular punishments, if you can call a punishment popular, were a flogging and being tied to “The Tree of Bondage” for a fews days with food or water. Well that tree still exists today. It is located immediately across the street from the Cabatuan Municipal Building in the street facing the church and about 30 meters to the east of it.
Here is a photo of the historical marker and of the tree itself.
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