The Philippines is one of only two Catholic countries in Southeast Asia. Catholicism in the Philippines is hardly skin deep—thanks to the nearly 400-year presence of Spanish missionaries in the country, religion is deeply embedded in the local culture.
Filipino religious belief most colourfully comes to life during fiesta season, where every church celebrates its local patron saint—during the rest of the year, you'll find Filipinos celebrating their religions in one of the thousands of churches around the country.
The oldest surviving churches—like the five listed here—are where you'll find Filipino religious culture at its most ancient, most picturesque, and most deeply-felt.
San Agustin Church
A hardy survivor of Philippine history, the 400-year-old San Agustin Church in Intramuros, Manila is one of the oldest houses of worship in the Philippines. The stone structure dates back to 1607, a baroque pile constructed on top of a former wood church that was incinerated by an errant candle lit for a Governor-General's funeral.
A British invasion, several massive earthquakes, and World War II bombs failed to topple the building. Today, thousands of visitors walk past the Chinese-style dogs guarding the entrance to view the expansive interiors and trompe l'oeil ceilings (art that imitates life, i.e. painted ceilings that look like carvings and reliefs).
The Philippine government named San Agustin Church a National Historical Landmark in 1976, and in 1993, the United Nations awarded UNESCO World Heritage Site status to the church, as one of the Philippines' four major Baroque Churches. (Photo by Harvey Tapan)
The Paoay Church in Ilocos Norte, 460 km north of Manila, has a few things in common with the San Agustin Church in Intramuros—its apparent indestructibility, its construction at the hands of the Augustinian Friars, and its status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site (being one of the four Baroque Churches of the Philippines recognized by the organization).
First built in 1694, Paoay Church survived earthquakes and invasions due to the robust design that gave birth to the term "earthquake Baroque": 24 impregnable coral-stone buttresses hold up the church, preserving it during strong earthquakes and creating a graceful façade that you'll find on no other church in the country. The decorative elements throughout the church betray influences from Chinese and even Javanese sources.
The bell tower is built apart from the church, so as to avoid damaging the latter should the former collapse. The tower also served as an observation post for Filipino rebels during the Spanish and Japanese occupation of the country. (Photo by Harvey Tapan)
The "Minor Basilica of Santo Lorenzo Ruiz" in Binondo, Manila came about due to the Spanish colonisers' distrust of Chinese settlers in Manila. As more and more Chinese converted to Catholicism, the new converts needed a place to worship—but they were not permitted to enter the walled city of Intramuros, where Manila's churches stood.
The church was constructed by the Dominican order in 1596 to meet the Chinese Catholic community's spiritual needs. Time has not been kind to the Binondo Church—it was destroyed by the British in 1762, by an earthquake in 1863, and by American bombs in 1944, but each time it has risen from the ashes. The present reconstruction was only completed in 1984.
The Binondo Church's bell tower is its oldest surviving part, and the one that displays the most conspicuous influence from Chinese architecture—a five-storey octagonal building that resembles a Chinese pagoda. And once you’re done exploring the nooks and crannies of the church, head out to the Chinese eateries along Ongpin and Salazar Streets and have an instant Chinatown food fest. (Photo by Harvey Tapan)
Santo Niño Basilica
The Santo Niño Basilica in Cebu owes its existence to a miracle: a second wave of Spanish conquistadors found a statue of the child Jesus amidst the ashes of a burned native settlement. Recognizing it as a present given by the conquistador Magellan to a local queen, the discoverer ordered a church to be built at the location where the statue was found.
The Basilica building dates back from 1740, a coral and wood structure built where a wooden and earth church once stood. A museum within the church preserves remnants from Cebu's deeply Christian history—from priestly garments to statues of saints to rosaries used by the local faithful.
The statue of the Child Jesus (the "Santo Niño") is preserved behind bulletproof glass in the Basilica. Every year, the Santo Niño is brought out to serve as the focal point of a series of parades held during the festive Sinulog every January. (Photo by Harvey Tapan)
Bohol is one of the Philippines' most devout provinces, as evidenced by the many venerable churches that still stand on the island. Baclayon Church is the most beautiful of them all: a coral-walled church built in 1717 within sight of the sea.
The Church's limestone, coral and wood construction have seen it through some pretty tough times, preserving the many intricate details within. A gold altar screen (reredo) contains a number of santos (statues of saints), the whole construct filling up the wall behind the altar. Above the reredo and altar, a contemporary fresco bears a depiction of the last supper, as well as a Spanish inscription dedicated to the Virgin Mary: Ave Maria purisima, sin pecado concebida ("Hail purest Mary, conceived without sin").
A museum on the second floor preserves relics from the Church's storied past: choirbooks covered with cowhide, priestly vestments, and holy artwork. On the other side of the church, you'll find a pipe organ first built in 1824: recently restored, the organ now plays at every mass celebrated in the church.
To see Baclayon Church at its most vibrant, visit during the feast day of the Immaculate Conception on December 8, or during the second "unofficial" fiesta on the third Sunday of June. (Photo by Harvey Tapan)