Religion has played a strong role in the development of the Philippines. And like any other country where Catholicism is deeply rooted, cultural heritage – since the Spanish and Portuguese conquistadors spread this faith around the world – centered on the churches built within the vicinity of the seat of power.
Latin for “within walls,” the towering walls of Intramuros were constructed to protect the capital from foreign invasions, with Fort Santiago as the citadel at the mouth of the Pasig River.
Intramuros was synonymous to the City of Manila, which was established on June 24, 1571 during the Spanish colonial period. It was the seat of government and political power when Las Islas Filipinas was a component domain of the Kingdom of Spain.
The Walled City was also the center of religion, education and economy, with the standard way of life therein also the standard of life all over the country.
Plaza de Roma, in front of the Manila Cathedral and facing the Plaza del Gobernador (present-day Commission on Elections office) was the main square of the city. Intramuros was dotted with Roman Catholic churches, with San Agustin Church being the oldest, built in 1607 by the Augustinians.
The other Roman Catholic churches built by different religious orders were the San Nicolas de Tolentino Church by the Recollects, San Francisco Church by the Franciscans, Third Venerable Order Church by the Third Order of St. Francis, Santo Domingo Church by the Dominicans, Lourdes Church by the Capuchins, and the San Ignacio Church by the Jesuits. The Walled City was alternately called the City of Churches.
In 1945, Intramuros was devastated during the Battle of Manila at the conclusion of World War 2. It was where the Japanese Imperial Army made their last stand against the combined American and Filipino military forces.
Six years after the war, in 1951, Intramuros, particularly Fort Santiago, was named a National Historical Landmark. Under Presidential Decree No. 1616, the Intramuros Administration was created and commissioned to rebuild, redevelop, administer and preserve remaining structures, edifices, and fortifications of this historic parcel of Manila.
Pilgrimage tour via ‘Visita Iglesia’
While other predominantly Catholic countries have long had pilgrimage tours as part of religious tourism promotion, the Department of Tourism along with the Intramuros Administration only launched last week its first major project of the newly created Faith Sector. It focuses on the treasure of religious cultural history of the Philippines in time for to observe the tradition of “Visita Iglesia” during the Holy Week.
By tradition, devout Catholics visit at least seven different churches on Holy Thursday and Good Friday in fulfilling their Lent panata or sacred vows. The number is significant in reference to the Seven Last Words of Jesus before the Crucifixion or the Seven Holy Wounds inflicted on the Savior before breathing his last as a mortal. There are those who choose to visit 14 churches, however, in reference to the 14 Stations of the Cross.
Today, Maundy Thursday, seven chapels in Intramuros are open to the faithful for their panata starting with the Manila Cathedral and the San Agustin Church. The remaining five are San Ignacio Church, the Guadalupe Shrine in Fort Santiago, Knights of Columbus Fr. Willman Chapel, Lyceum of the Philippines University Chapel, and the Mapua University Chapel.
Notably, this is the first time since World War 2 that a complete Visita Iglesia in Intramuros is possible.
In announcing this tradition returning to the Walled City since the practice stopped more than 70 years ago, Department of Tourism Secretary Wanda Teo said she is pleased with the endeavor of reopening historic churches for the Catholic faithful.
“We will revive this Intramuros tradition during Holy Week and make it once more the center of the Visita Iglesia,” she said.
Besides the seven churches as the focal point of the tradition, other Holy Week activities include the Via Crucis or Way of the Cross, with stations installed along General Luna Street – extending from Beaterio to Muralla Streets – from March 29 until March 31.
Intramuros Administrator Guiller Asido likewise informed that the stretch is closed to vehicular traffic on March 29 and 30 as crowds are estimated to number 500,000 during those days.
PHOTOS BY RENE DILAN