San Agustin Church, Manila, The Philippines
When the Spanish arrived in the Philippines in the 1500s, they had two main agendas. The first was economic – they wanted to create new trading routes, plunder natural resources, and use locals as workers. The second was social – they wanted to spread Catholicism to their new colony and convert as many people as they could.
The conversion of the locals to Christianity was not as simple or painless as some writers of history may have you believe. These people were quite happy with their way of life – which included polygamy, divorce, dowries and a bunch of other things the devout Catholics wanted to get rid of.
It took time – and it took violence. Make no mistake about it: this was an invasion by the Spanish and they forced their religion on the native population of the Philippines. I know that sounds a bit harsh and I don’t mean to be disrespectful to Filipinos who are Christians today. After all, 400 years is a long time and pretty much every country in the world was converted to something by someone else at some point.
But I want to make the point because this is not how history is presented at the San Agustin Church in Manila – one of the most important religious sites in the Philippines.
San Augustin is the oldest church in the Philippines, originally built in 1571. The current building is the fourth version and was built just 17 years after the first one. In between, the church was once destroyed by Chinese pirates and twice by fire. It’s probably not a huge surprise, seeing as the first church was made with bamboo and the other ones with wood. This current structure, started in 1587 is much stronger and was built with much more resilient materials – stone, for instance. It has survived for more than 400 years through several wars and plenty of natural disasters.
The church came about initially through a system to make life easier for the missionaries, where they ‘persuaded’ the local people to live in large communities. There was a phrase for this. It was “bajo de campana” in Spanish or, in English, “living under the bell”. What it was referring to was the rule that the locals had to live close enough to the church to hear the bell ring. The bell was an important part of life and, as well as telling the time, was used to organise events and services.
It was missionaries from the Order of St Augustine who established the church and their friars who still maintain it today. It is a beautiful building – based loosely on the churches the Augustinians were constructing in Mexico at the time, with Baroque influences, painted interiors and high ceilings. As I’m visiting, they are setting up for a wedding and I think what a wonderful place it must be to get married. What a wonderful part of Manila San Augustin Church must be.
So why, when it clearly holds such an important place in the city (and rightfully so, in my opinion), does the museum in the attached monastery whitewash the history of its founding and early history?
It talks about the Muslim traders who were already there, saying “the Augustinians preached to them the Gospel of Jesus Christ, attracting them to the Christian faith.” Now, none of us was there at the time, but I feel pretty safe in saying that it wouldn’t have happened quite like that.
If you believe the stories presented, the locals related to the story of Jesus suffering because they too suffered, and so they embraced this religion that empathised with them. When the missionaries told the locals the teachings from the Bible, they instantly converted… according to the museum.
There’s no mention of the Augustinian friars who were stabbed by islanders – allegedly, according to some sources, when they tried to evangelise them. There’s no mention that probably the majority of the locals agreed to become Christians when the Spanish offered to protect them from their enemies (mostly Japanese, Chinese and Muslim pirates) in return.
None of this takes away from the building here and what San Agustin Church symbolises. It is one of four churches in the Philippines that have been listed as a World Heritage Site and it deserves that recognition. I have a wonderful time wandering through the large monastery complex and seeing the treasures that are on display.
I just don’t understand why they don’t put the full history on display as well. Nobody would think any less – it was 400 years ago and the world is different now.
For accommodation in Manila, I suggest the Picasso Boutique Residences.