The driving distance from our jumping off point at the SM City parking lot in Iloilo to Santo Tomas de Villanueva Church in Miagao is approximately 41 kilometres. Which translates into a driving time of between 1 and 1¼ hour.
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The church was built between 1787 and 1797 under the guidance of the Augustinian Friar and parish priest Friar Francisco M. Gonzales, OSA and the mayor or head man of the village (Gobernadorcillo) Domingo Libo.
It is built in the Baroque style; in fact, it is one of four churches in the Philippines which were built in an imitation of the European Baroque-Romanesque Style by the Chinese and Pilipino workers of the time. It was declared a Philippines National Historic Treasure in 1963. In addition, along with the three other churches in this style in the Philippines it was inscribed in the listing of World Heritage Sites by UNESCO in 1993. (This church is actually the third church built in Miagao). The first was sacked and burned to the ground by Muslim/Moro pirates in 1741 and was subsequently rebuilt by the faithful. The newly constructed church suffered the same fate as the first, in 1754. It subsequently took 30 years before the residents felt confident enough to rebuild and the current church is the result.
The building was completed with forced labour (folio). The entire population for several kilometres around was required to pay a tax to help build the church. They were required bring a block of limestone and coral as well as an egg to the site once per week to be used in the construction.
The blocks of limestone were quarried in the mountains surrounding both San Joachim (to the west and north) and Igbaras (to the south and east) a distance of between 30 and 35 kilometres from the construction site. Those who failed to comply with this ‘tax’ were subjected to a severe flogging by the priest and his overseers; the standard was 25 lashes.
The eggs were mixed with crushed limestone to be used as mortar for the joints during construction. Experts today point out that if you inspect the stone work of the church closely you will note a definite yellowish tinge to the mortar used. That, they say is proof that the eggs required to be brought by the surrounding population were in fact used in the mortar mixture. That mortar has now become unstable and has been or is in the process of being replaced in various areas.
The church also served as a fortress to protect the area against Muslim/Moro slave traders and marauders who were active in the region from the late 17th to the early 19th centuries. It occupies the highest point of land in the town and was situated in this location to overlook the land, sea and river approaches to the town.
The towers are of different styles because they were commissioned by two different parish priests in the ‘early years’. The tallest west belfry, on the left, is the older of the two. The original east tower had originally been constructed two levels shorter than its western counterpart. In 1830 therefore, the then parish priest, Friar Francisco Perez, OSA had one story added to the east tower which left it as it stands today, still one story shorter than the west tower.
This oldest, west belfry was part of a ‘chain’ of five such towers called Bantayans, which were located along the Miagao shoreline. They functioned as watchtowers to help the locals protect themselves against attack by Muslim/Moro slavers and marauders, who would kidnap them and sell them into slavery in Mindanao.
Another tower similar to the west belfry of the church, which is located next to the Bantayan Resort just a few kilometres (about 10) south of town at Guimbal on the National Highway towards Oton and Iloilo City, has been faithfully restored. These two towers are the sole survivors of the original five.
The bells in the west tower, of the church, raised the alarm when the watchmen saw the ‘invaders’ approaching. On hearing it, the villagers would rush to the church for protection until the threat dissipated.
The buttresses on either side of the building, suggest its early beginnings as both a church and fort. The walls of the main church are 1.5 meters thick and at the buttresses they are 3 meters thick.
The artwork of the building is impressive considering when it was built. The front is adorned with intricate carvings or sculptures depicting St. Christopher crossing a river while carrying the child Jesus on his shoulder and holding onto a palm tree. In addition, papaya and guava tree sculptures complete the upper portions of the main portico.
In the alcove just below the depiction of Saint Christopher is a statue of Santo Tomas de Villanueva the patron Saint of the parish.
Santo Tomas was the Augustinian Archbishop of Valencia in Spain a see that had not had a bishop for more than 75 years when he was appointed. He grew up in what would today be considered a ‘lower middle class family’, the son of a miller. His parents inculcated in him the practices of their religion and of charity. He was an educator, a prolific preacher becoming the Provincial of the Augustinians in Andalusia and Castile. As Prior in Castile he dispatched the first missionary friars to evangelize Mexico.
During his tenure as Archbishop he gave to the poor so much so that it is reported that up to 500 people would line up every morning to receive donations of food and money from him. He refused to use the trappings and luxuries of his high office preferring to live his life in true poverty giving to the poor and indigent.
He rebuilt churches and hospitals and founded schools for the poor of his region. Many ‘miracles’ are attributed to him including the healing of the sick, multiplication of food, instances of visions of the holy family and especially the Virgin Mary and his conversion of sinners. He was also known for his work with converts to Catholicism from the Muslim faith.
Finally, flanking the main doors on the left is a statue of Saint Henry of Bavaria(also know as Henry the Pious or Henry the Lame) who reigned as King of Germany between 995 and 1024. Henry and his wife, Cunegundes, both took vows of chastity and dedicated their lives to the betterment of their subjects and to the greater glory of God.
When ‘pagan’ Slavs were rampaging through and pillaging the Holy Roman Empire, Henry took up the challenge of restoring the empire. He was able to successfully drive out the invaders, restore the Empire and remove the antipope who had been installed. He reinstated the legitimate papacy of Benedict VIII and as a result in 1014 he was crowned Holy Roman Emperor by Benedict. Henry died 10 years later in 1024 at the young age of 52 following a productive and saintly life.
To Henry’s right is a statue of Pope Pius VI, who reigned as Pope from 1775 to 1799 during the period of the construction of the church and a most interesting time in Church and world history.
Note the intricately carved coats of arms of both Saint Henry and Pius VI over their respective statues, further testament to the incredible skills of the eighteenth century artisans working on the construction site.
The exterior ‘window treatments’ are very interesting and took the Chinese and Pilipino artisans many months to complete. Some are currently in serious disrepair, but plans are in the works to restore them to their original splendour.
On entering the church through the massive carved wooden main doors, we find that it is barrel shaped and is huge; it is capable of seating some 1,200 people for masses or special celebrations.
Surprisingly, very ordinary stained glass adorns all of the windows on the interior as shown in the example below. The interior windows are protected by metal grates covering the openings to prevent unwanted intruders from penetrating the church area.
The interior is dominated by its magnificent and imposing sanctuary, most of which is finished in gold leaf. The altar, presently in use, is the original altar from the late 1700s which had been ‘lost’ and was discovered during repair excavations made on the site in 1982. In addition to the altar, a statue of the Birhen ng Barangay carved in limestone and dressed in traditional Pilipino clothing of the period was also found in the dig and is currently on public display next to the baptistery at the rear of the church.
In the close-up view of the altar above, we see, to the left of the crucifix on the altar are statues of Santo Tomas and San Jose. The tabernacle is finished in gold and silver – 98% pure. The altar here is the original altar that was lost in 1910 and rediscovered in the 1982 excavations on the site.
To the left and right at the base of the sanctuary where the altar rail would have originally been placed are two statues, one of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the other of the Blessed Virgin Mary. These statues date to the 1780’s.
As mentioned earlier during the excavations made in 1982, as part of some restorations undertaken in the church, the original altar and a limestone statue of the Birhen ng Barangay (The Virgin of the Barangay) both of which had been believed lost as a result of the Fire of 1910, were found during the dig.
The Virgin of the Barangay now stands in the Baptistery at the rear of the church.
This is a photo of the original statue of Santo Tomas de Villanueva which was sculpted in the late 1790’s and is currently on display in a secured glass case at the rear of the church.
It is indeed a fitting testament to the people and the construction methods used to build the church is that during it’s lifetime it has been damaged and restored several times as a result of some of the most serious events in Philippines history, those events being:
- In the period of 1896 to 1913, during the Revolution of 1896 to 1898 against Spain, the subsequent Philippine-American War (1898-1902) and followed by on-going popular revolts until 1913 the church was seriously damaged.
- It was especially seriously damaged in a major 1910 Fire during the aforementioned revolts which involved many indigenous tribes as well as Muslim Moros in the south.
- During the Second World War, the church and convent were used as an area headquarters and barracks by the Japanese occupation forces. Both buildings were seriously damaged by the occupiers during this period and they were subsequently repaired or re-constructed following the war.
- Finally, the massive earthquake of 1948 damaged the East belfry. Belfry repairs started in 1960 and were completed in 1962. The 8.1 intensity earthquake not only seriously damaged the belfry, here in Miagao but it also toppled and completely destroyed the main belfry at the Jaro Cathedral in Iloilo City and it also completely destroyed on of the regions most historic churches, the Church of the Immaculate Conception in nearby Oton.
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