San Agustin Church is the only one of the original seven churches in Intramuros to have survived the American blitzkrieg of 1945. To appreciate its uniqueness we must go back in time to 1571 when Miguel Lopez de Legazpi, founder of the first permanent Spanish colony in the Philippines has laid down the plans of what for three hundred plus years was to be known as Intramuros.
Fray Diego Herrera was only priest with Legazpi at the time. He was assigned to build a church to carry out the orders of King Philip II of Spain “for the spreading of our Catholic faith and the spiritual salvation of the pagans.” The first church erected on site that was a hastily constructed out of bamboo and nipa was ransacked and set on fire by Lim Ah Hong and his band of pirates when they attacked Manila in 1574. After nine years, another fire destroyed the second church.
Lone Survivor of World War II
In 1606, a permanent church was built by soldier and architect Juan Macias –it is the church we see today at the intersection of General Luna Street and Calle Real. The sturdy stone church with a Mexican-baroque design and the Chinese granite lion at the churchyard gates has withstood fire, earthquakes and war. One of the two bell towers remained intact after the 1880 earthquake that destroyed the other.
During the 1945 Battle of Manila, the Japanese soldiers used San Agustin as headquarters and concentration camp for the residents of Intramuros. About 7,000 Intramuros residents were imprisoned in the cloisters. When the smoke cleared, only the stone walls and arches of the old structures in Intramuros jutted out from the piles rubble and debris –except for San Agustin Church that survived with having the Legazpi chapel by the main altar damaged by a direct bomb hit.
A UNESCO World Heritage Site
San Agustin Church earns the title as the oldest building in the Philippines. It is the last genuine heritage symbol of Intramuros. In 1993, the church was inscribed in the UNESCO World Heritage List.
Today, a wedding at San Agustin is much desired because of its artistic interiors and historical significance. The main door is a thing of great beauty. Of carved molave, it has panels depicting symbols of the Augustinian Order together with figures of its founder and his mother –Sta. Monica.
As our eyes adjust to the momentary gloom of the interior, the central nave and its fourteen side chapels gradually come into focus. The richly baroque interior of the church is laid out on a simple Latin cross plan, with the gilded baroque pulpit carved from narra in 1672 is an amazing work merging baroque motif with tropical flora like the pineapple at its base.
The marble blocks of the floor give off a slightly luminous glow, lightening the faces of the people at prayer. Towards and inside the chapels, these blocks become inlaid gravestones of princes of the church, governors and other who have figured in Manila’s history.
By this time the finer details of the church’s massive barrel vault and dome have come to view and below them are the sixteen large, glossy and art nouveau crystal chandeliers imported from Paris at the turn of the century. They illuminate a beautiful trompe l’oeil ceiling painted in 1875 by two Italian artists Juan Dibella and Cesar Alberoni.
Fittingly, in the chapel to the left of the main altar, lie the remains of the founder of the city of Manila, Legazpi whose reclining bronze statue of was commissioned by Spanish sculptor Juan Miguel Iriarte.
Exiting the church, we entered the monastery adjoining the church where the country’s most extensive wealth of church art and artifacts are housed in the monastery-turned-San Agustin Museum.