Known as the “city of 10 churches,” Intramuros is a walled city crowned by the spires and domes of its spiritual abodes. Brightest among its jewels is one grand design and fertile history: the San Agustin Church.
The Augustinian fathers built the San Agustin Church, a temporary structure of bamboo and thatch, in 1570. Miguel Lopez de Legaspi, the founder of Manila, donated its lot. Fire ruined the Church in 1574 and 1583.
The techniques of stonecutting and lime and sand mixing paved way for the construction of a new Church. In 1586 the Augustinian fathers approved designs for a Church to be made of stone hewn from Guadalupe, Meycauayan and San Mateo quarries. The construction took place the next year.
Historian Antonio de Morga writes, “Here in Manila is the monastery of Saint Augustine, very huge with many dormitories.” When it was completed in 1604, San Agustin measured 67.15 meters long and 24.93 meters wide.
Witness to history
When Archbishop Rojo del Rio surrendered Manila to the British forces in 1762, the invaders sacked the monastery and Church and auctioned their properties. Books, manuscripts, gold and precious stones, ivory images, vestments, silver marcos and two portable organs were lost.
The Church escaped damage in the quake of 1863. But a tremor in 1880 caused one of the church’s tower to crack and in July of that year, the tower was torn down.
Sixteen glass chandeliers were imported from Paris in 1873. Painters Giovanni Alberoni and Cesare Dibella worked for the Church in 15 months with a budget pegged at P6,000. Their work resulted in a superb trompe l’oeil vault with floral patterns, geometric outlines, classic themes and religious images.
In 1898 the Americans attacked Manila after they defeated the Spanish fleet. San Agustin became the refuge of the sick, old, women and children. Governor Jaudenes of Manila prepared the terms for the surrender of the city at San Agustin’s Chapel of Our Lady of Angustias. Soon, the Americans held the Church and stole books, food, money and statues from the monastery.
In 1941 the Japanese bombed Intramuros. The next year, they occupied Manila and made San Agustin a strategic post and concentration camps for prisoners. The Church again became a shelter for hundreds of families and religious priests of various communities.
After Manila’s liberation, the Americans seized the church. Many church’s items were stolen and lost. The monastery’s second floor and the Blanco’s building were totally destroyed. The walls and the roof were heavily damaged.
In 1945 the Church was made into a parish. In 1960 an annex building was reconstructed to house the parish’s offices and the seminarian’s quarters. In 1976 the monastery was repaired and converted into the San Agustin Museum and San Agustin Church was declared as national landmark.
In 1993 United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization listed San Agustin as one of the “baroque Churches of the Philippines.” In 2000 Jaime Cardinal Sin, former Archbishop of Manila, canonically crowned the image of Our Lady of Consolation, staunchly venerated in San Agustin.
San Agustin Church’s quadricentennial
Fr. Pedro Galende, OSA, vice rector of San Agustin cites that historically, San Agustin is the oldest stone Church in the country, the mother of all colonial churches in the Philippines, despite claims by other churches for the distinction.
When the Church was built, aesthetics was sacrificed for durability, as the weather and the material used for San Agustin differed from the Augustinian churches in Mexico, cites Galende in his book, San Agustin Noble Stone Shrine.
San Agustin Church today is known as an earthquake-proof structure and as an architectural icon, with its intricately carved doors, priceless treasures and opulently decorated altars. Seven chapels are housed in the monastery-museum complex and artful tombstones of Manila’s elite such as Ayala, Soriano and Zobel families are in the building. A chapel also houses the remains of Legaspi.
To mark San Agustin Church’s 400th year and the 1650th year of Saint Augustine of Hippo, Spiritual Father of the Augustinians, a thanksgiving Eucharistic celebration is scheduled on November 13, 10 a.m. with Manila Archbishop Gaudencio Rosales as main celebrant. The UST Choir and Orchestra will solemnize the occasion.
The San Agustin commemorative stamp will also be launched. The Church is also working with the Spanish Embassy and Instituto Cervantes for a series of conferences, lectures and workshops on San Agustin’s architecture and history, Galende says.
A music festival is slated on November 24 to 26, with guest organists from Spain and England and performances of Filipino artists. The Philippine Philharmonic Orchestra is invited to participate in the event.
According to Galende, San Agustin is presently pursuing efforts to have the Church be declared by the Holy See as a minor basilica, what with its distinction as a “permanent miracle in stone” for it withstood calamities and wars as well as it serves as a monument to the Spanish colonization and to the Philippines’ evangelization.
Lynda C. Corpuz