A 1915 guide to Manila Catholic churches


THANKS to Louie and Teddyboy Locsin, booklovers par excellence, a book I owned for decades but never dared to read because its pages were falling apart and its binding was gone, now is re-bound with luxurious endpaper, and has acquired a new and sturdy cover with its title in gilt letters. I have finally read it and it is intact.

It is Guide to Manila Catholic Churches by M. M. Norton published in 1915 in Manila, P.I., by E. C. McCullough & Co., Inc. It was given to me along with a treasure trove of circa 1914-15 photographs of the Philippines by a Mount Holyoke College (in Massachusetts, USA) faculty member (Department of Biochemistry), Isabelle Baird Sprague, PhD, when I was a student there (not in biochemistry). Professor Sprague had been born in the Philippines as her father, a US Army officer, was assigned here in the second decade of the 20th century. And M. M. Norton was a friend of her mother’s, a woman who I surmise found herself in Manila perhaps with a military husband too. I cannot be sure. No information on M. M. Norton have I uncovered except what the book lists as her other works: Verses from the Orient, Outposts of Asia, Builders of a Nation and Studies in Philippine Architecture. All published by E. C. McCullough Press. Maybe some reader can help. As for E.C. McCullough Press in the Philippines, I need to do more research too.

The photographs I mentioned earlier, which I donated to the Intramuros Administration some years ago were enlarged by Neal Oshima for an exhibit. These must have been taken by M. M. Norton because Guide to Manila Catholic Churches has singular photos of each church that she describes.

Considering the US propaganda at the turn of the century regarding Spain’s colonial record in the Philippines, M. M. Norton is surprisingly not only uncritical of Spain’s colonial history but warmly praises and applauds Spain and the Catholic Church. In fact, she dedicates the Guide book thus: “To the Catholic pioneers who came out from Spain and built noble monuments to their faith and laid down still nobler lives in the Philippines;. . .”

Nothing implying the Leyenda Negra that Spain was stigmatized with in relation to its colonies appears. So, in that aspect alone, Morton’s work raises interest and curiosity.

It is a simple guidebook with conventional and sparse photographs (one per church described) of the Catholic churches in Manila in the time of World War I. Many of these churches, most of them in Intramuros, were obliterated in World War II. Some of them have been rebuilt but no longer in Intramuros which they abandoned for Greater Manila, diminishing the character of Intramuros, the Walled City, which until now still shows the traces of its wanton destruction.

Reading the Guide brought me to a Manila I never experienced, had never seen or visited. In 1915 my mother was a toddler in Bicol and I was not in the universe, much less in the Manila of the new American dispensation. In time I was actually baptized in Sto. Domingo Church in Intramuros and heard brief remarks about churches like it that were no more.

M. M. Norton’s Guide shows that they were jewels of architecture, devotion and history. She begins simply by telling one to “Take the Intramuros car and get off at Plaza Mckinley” evoking the tranvia or streetcars of the turn of the century that served so well for public transportation in a time of stability, normality and assurance. She also tells us when such a church that she describes can be visited, where to request for a guide and where in certain monasteries visitors were allowed but only if they were men. All matter-of-factly but descriptively and intelligently presented as to appearance, approach, design as well as a minutely rendered portraits of interiors.

Through it the portrait of the city, particularly Intramuros which she pictures street by street aside from church by church, emerges. A simpler time of peace and order, routine movements around the city, people at peace with themselves and others.

She shows that churches then had space around them by way of a stone courtyard in front or a close (enclosed garden), or some adjacent walled but open space that enhanced its appearance and expressed a welcome to the visitor be he a churchgoer or a visitor like M. M. Norton.

She describes wrought iron entrances or windows or communion rails. She minutely describes doors. She shows the architectural style – mostly Spanish Romanesque with Renaissance touches. She pays tribute to native workmanship particularly in the wrought iron work. She also mentions the ancient paintings, statues, and devotions of each church.

All of them had side altars devoted to a saint or a particular aspect of the Lord or the Blessed Mother. M. M. Norton describes them all one by one. Many churches had cupolas and upper balconies along them. Towers were never too high which she attributes to the earthquake factor in our environment. For some churches she also furnishes the names of the architect and builder and for one she mentions the construction cost.

She even goes farther than Intramuros to the Basilica of Our Lady of Peace and Good Voyage in Antipolo (by car from Manila one hour on good roads she says) and San Francisco del Monte somewhere in the wilds of now Quezon City (by banca via the San Juan River to get there). Also, Quiapo Church, San Sebastian and St. Vincent de Paules.

Apparently she had the blessings of the then Archbishop of Manila Jerome Harty whom she thanks for his assistance.

In my next column I will include the list of churches she lists in the Guide and give the details of the ones that are gone forever from Intramuros. Namely, Sto. Domingo Church, San Jose Church of the Recollect Fathers, Our Lady of Lourdes Church of the Capuchins, San Francisco of the Franciscans and San Ignacio of the Jesuits.


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1 Comment

  1. Benigno E. Serafica on

    Do you have plans digitizing the book and making it available as an e-book? Or a coffee-table book?