It is Lent. Time to go visiting the Churches. The norm for Catholics here is to visit 7 Churches, preferably on Maundy Thursday.  But I have decided to instead do the 7 during the entire Lenten Season, and to choose the 7 Churches with lots of history. First off: San Agustin Church in Intramuros, a 16th century church claimed to be the oldest stone church in the country.




Filipinos:  A Strange Race?


From Makati where I live,  we drove along Roxas Boulevard with a lovely view of Manila Bay towards the Pier.  We took the right towards Intramuros, where one finds Fort Santiago and the Manila Cathedral.  We skipped both, and drove directly to San Agustin Church and Monastery.



Standing right in front of the Church and looking around, I found how un-Asian this corner in Intramuros is.  No wonder some of my foreigner friends tell me that Filipinos are “strange” in that way. Strange in that most of us bear Spanish-sounding surnames.  Like Ramirez.  Like Chavez. Like Guerrero. Or Mendoza.  Sure, we were a Spanish colony for close to 400 years, but other countries had Dutch or Portuguese or British colonizers – yet, I don’t hear of them with Dutch or British or Portuguese family names.  Or am I wrong?   Strange in that our language is interspersed with a lot of Spanish words and that Filipinos very readily use Spanish expletives that I do not wish to repeat here.  Truth is we even coined a word for the elitist Filipinos …… “con** crowd” — which literally means a lady’s private part in Spanish.  Strange in that we are so used to counting in Spanish (uno, dos, tres………) or in telling the time in Spanish ( a las tres y media, a las dose, etc.).   But more than anything else, we are very “Spanish” in our faith.  The Philippines does not have the temples of Cambodia, Laos or Thailand,  nor the pagodas of China , Japan and Korea,  but we have many Catholic Churches dotting the countryside which are worth seeing. Churches always form a central and core part of every Filipino’s lifestyle.  Here in Manila,  a few old Churches remain standing despite this city being the second most -bombed city during World War II.




More Than Just An Old Church


San Agustin Church at the corner of General Luna Street and Real Street in Intramuros is hard to miss.  It is just a stone’s throw from the Manila Cathedral (when facing the Cathedral, take the right side and walk straight towards San Agustin Church) and an easy walk from the Fort Santiago, another tourist destination.


Inside the Church, one finds off some corner a confessional box.  The parish priest sits inside while parishioners take turns to have their confessions heard by the priest with only a small screen window separating them.  On your knees, you confess your sins!  In another corner,  there is the pulpit where the parish priest used to say his homily or sermons.   Times have changed since those days.   And the ornately designed pulpit is now simply a reminder of how grand our old Churches were or still are, if luckily preserved and bomb-spared as with this Church.  But Filipino Catholics still make their confessions to their priests in this box-like structures though modern-day Catholics are not discouraged from doing face-to-face confessions.


This Church is a favorite among brides such that “bookings” for weddings need to be arranged at least a year in advance.  I have attended one too many wedding ceremonies here, and wedding receptions were held in any one of the nearby colonial-inspired restaurants and bistros just across the Church, or in the garden within the church courtyard.  On weekdays,  you may find school groups doing their field trips, and on weekends you would likely witness wedding ceremonies.  That is how “busy” this Church is.





Yet………the adjoining Monastery which has since been converted into a Museum hardly gets a crowd. The day I visited,  I walked alone along many corridors.  Kind of eerie, if you ask me.  I honestly felt like some statues are staring down at me.  In one of the exhibit rooms ,  I got goosebumps finding a dark corner with 4 or 5 statues clad in black robes.  They were representations of the early Augustinian friars who built this Church and established a religious order in the country.  It “helped” that the room was dimly lit, such that you find the robed statues just when you are almost face to face with them.  Off another corridor,  I found huge paintings, some pitifully warped, and woodcarvings depicting hell.  You bet my hair stood on edge and felt my heart beating out of my chest.  I almost had regrets that I came when school’s over. I could have timed my visit with a school group’s field trip instead and spared myself of some palpitations.




Miguel Lopez de Legazpi Rests Here: A Short History Lesson

Filipinos all know that Ferdinand Magellan discovered the Philippines. But Spanish colonization and the subsequent Christianization of the Philippines didn’t start with the discovery of Magellan in 1521, who incidentally was slain by a local tribal chieftain named Lapu Lapu in the island of Mactan in Central Visayas. While Magellan captained the very first ship to sail completely around the world,  Magellan never lived to tell his tale of discovering the Philippines and to prove that the world is indeed round. However, his discovery led to Spanish Expeditions led by Ruy Lopez de Villalobos in 1541 (who was driven away by hostile locals)  and then by Miguel Lopez de Legazpi in 1565. Legazpi befriended a native Bohol chieftain called Datu Sikatuna  in a ceremony called “Blood Compact” and from there, established Spanish colonies with the aid of  local allies starting with the island of Cebu. With the colonization, came Christianization of the natives who earlier practiced nature worship.  And as pagans converted to Christianity, they were baptized and given Christian names.  So.  Now you know why many Filipinos have Spanish family names. Right?


Legazpi was a diplomat more than he was an explorer.  In Manila, he befriended both Rajahs Lakandula and Sulaiman and with some help from Augustinian and Franciscan friars, established a governing city council in 1571. At the same time, he ordered the construction of Intramuros, proclaiming it the capital of Manila and seat of the Spanish Government in the East Indies. He died in 1572 and was laid to rest right here in the San Agustin Church.


Now, enough of history and back to topic.




Father Blanco’s Garden

After doing the rounds (actually the “squares”) in the Museum,  it is refreshing to go down and spend some time within the garden.   If you have a book with you,  you can take over one of the benches and while away the time while resting your legs and feet in Father Blanco’s garden.  The garden can do with more flora, but you can enjoy the afternoon breeze here before venturing out of the Museum grounds. In my case,  I found the time to check out the “Binondo Food Wok Map” while here in the courtyard garden.  This is the map I bought (for 100 pesos) in the Bahay Tsinoy (literally means House of Filipino-Chinese) one block away from San Agustin Church.  (Facing the Manila Cathedral, one can take the road on the left side till you hit the 2nd corner.  This is Cabildo Street corner Anda Street)  Of course, if it is too sunny, you may simply have a drink and some chips or biscuits in a corner stall (can’t even call it a cafe) within the Museum.  There are tables and chairs where you can sit, facing some huge paintings.  Not bad in terms of scenery, but the corner stall can certainly offer better drinks (like a good brew?) and better wafers or local rice cakes.




More Time to Spare?

If you have more time to kill,  you may head straight for the Walls by taking Real Street (the Church is right at the corner of Real and General Luna Streets) , passing by a good bistro called Ristorante delle Mistre and remembering to have a cozy dinner there on the way back.  There is an option to walk along the walls or ON the walls.   There are stairways to get on top from where one is afforded a view of the nearby Manila Hotel and the sprawling golf links which get all lighted up at night.  On this visit, I found many young couples on a date here.  Good choice.  It is quiet, breezy and has good views.


As I trace my steps back to the Church, I passed bronze representations of ex-Presidents in what is dubbed as Gallery of the Presidents.  I cannot help but feel amused to find those of ex-presidents Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and Joseph Estrada side by side.  Even in bronze, it is kind of strange and quite amusing to find them together.  Can’t wait till 2016 when that of incumbent President Noynoy Aquino joins them.  Oh, I do not mean to be disrespectful.  Just that it is no secret in my country how these 3 ‘adore’ each other.   Enough said.  Go drop by Ristorante delle Mistre and have that mango cheesecake (less than US$2)  to go with your brew.  If you have the appetite for lunch or dinner, order their set menu. Come, visit and enjoy Manila!


Better still, enjoy the many islands of the Philippines.  I am a local living here and must admit I still have a long list of must-visit destinations around the country. Like Mount Pinatubo.  Or Puerto Galera in Mindoro.  Or Sagada.  Plus many more.  Now, that’s a confession!


For more photos, check out my TravelBlog site.