Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Sites in the Book: San Augustin Church

"You don't happen to know Ave Maria, do you?" 
Click photo to see large version.

If walls could talk, then I would press my ear against the San Augustin Church. It is one of Manila's oldest structures, and still stands relatively intact since it was built in 1586. With its history, this is nothing short of a miracle. 

Take a look at the photo on the left. See the little red circle? What you see is the only building left standing in the destroyed walled-city of Intramuros: San Augustin. All the other buildings (including the Manila Cathedral and 5 other churches) were pulverized into dust during the Battle of Manila. 

But that's just part of the story. The site was consecrated as a house of worship in the 1570s. This was the time of Spanish conquistadors, whom strutted around wearing iron armor in the tropical heat. Manila wasn't much more than a wooden fort on the bay, and most of the invaders spent their time searching for gold, or converting the native Filipinos into Catholicism. Business was good; they decided to stay. Entombed in the church are some of the city's founders: Miguel López de Legazpi, Juan de Salcedo and Martín de Goiti. They lie here still in Baroque splendor.
San Augustin has witnessed and survived Chinese pirates, looting by the British in 1762, earthquakes, floods, riots, fires, assorted plagues, and the Spanish-American War in 1898. (The peace treaty was signed here.) But its real trial-by-fire came during World War Two.

18 February 1945: Most of the Japanese Army has retreated into the walled-city. They are surrounded by the American Army, whose high powered shells are ripping into Intramuros. Homes, schools, hospitals- everything is exploding and crumbling to dust. The Japanese are killing any civilian they see: men, women, children, infants. Not satisfied, they enter churches and hospitals, massacring everyone in sight. They come to San Augustin Church, where many people have taken refuge, and round up some 125 men, including 37 priests. They are marched a few blocks to the front of Manila Cathedral. There, they are forced into underground air-raid bunkers and buried alive. Only six would survive.

Somehow, (by God or Good Luck) San Augustin remained standing. Even the magnificent trompe l’oeil has ceiling survived. The church still functions today, and is the place to go for a big, fat, Filipino wedding. If you’re ever in Manila, come take a look at this jewel of a Baroque church and the adjacent museum. And remember, you are on sacred ground.
B/W photos courtesy of John T. Pilot.

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