Visita Iglesia, an ancient Roman practice of visiting 7 or 14 devotional churches as a form of penitence, is traditionally done on Maundy Thursday after the Mass of Our Lord’s Supper. Pious activities during the Visita Iglesia may include reciting the 14 Stations of the Cross (1 or 2 stations per church) or reciting the Holy Rosary. Traditionally too, those who do the Visita Iglesa pause at the churches’ respective Altars of the Repose, a make-shift altar that temporarily keeps the excess consecrated Hosts to be distributed during the Good Friday Liturgy. An altar of the repose represents Jesus Christ’s agony and solitude in the Garden of Gethsemane.
Until 70 years ago, Manileños completed the Visita Iglesia within the historic ciudad murada (walled city) of Intramuros, which hosted the mother churches and “headquarters” of the pioneer Spanish religious orders, and these were namely:
the Iglesia de San Agustín (Augustinians),
Iglesia de San Francisco (Franciscans),
Iglesia de San Ignacio (Jesuits),
Iglesia de Sto. Domingo (Dominicans),
Iglesia de San Nicolas de Tolentino (Recollects),
the chapel of the Monasterio de Sta. Clara (Poor Clare nuns),
Manila Cathedral, the mother church of the Philippines and the seat of the Archbishop of Manila. These were located practically next to each other. After the Liberation of Manila, however, all but the San Agustín were mercilessly destroyed.
Nowadays, Metro Manila citizens have more choices for the Visita Iglesia. Both pious devotees and non-practicing individuals do the Visita Iglesia for a myriad of reasons. Some do it out of tradition, some simply to have something to do on a holiday with their loved ones. At any rate, here are 7 suggested Metro Manila churches one might find interesting to visit on a day that seems to become more and more an opportunity to travel and reconnect with our capital’s cultural heritage.
These churches represent different kinds of religious charisms and art styles. Some are historic shrines of devotions while others are associated with mysterious folk practices.
Catedral Basílica Metropolitana de la Inmaculada Concepción de María (aka the Manila Cathedral)
Address: Cabildo corner Beaterio, Intramuros, Manila
Destroyed during the Liberation of Manila in 1945, the current building was rebuilt in 1958 through the efforts of the first Filipino Cardinal, Archbishop Rufino Cardinal Santos. The 8th cathedral building to stand on the same spot, it was designed in the neo-romanesque style by a team of Filipino and Italian artists under the supervision of notable Filipino architect Fernando Ocampo. Technically, the Manila Cathedral as an establishment has been around for 430+ years.
Three Popes have celebrated Mass here: Blessed Paul VI, St. John Paul II and most recently, Pope Francis. Beneath the cathedral is the crypt where past archbishops of Manila are buried. The reason why this church is important is because all the other archdioceses and dioceses in the country were technically established by the Archdiocese of Manila. The church also houses the biggest pipe organ in Asia.
Iglesia de la Inmaculada Concepción de María de San Agustín (aka San Agustín Church)
Address: Gen. Luna Street, Intramuros, Manila
The sole structure within ancient Intramuros to have survived the bombings during the battle of Manila, San Agustín is also the oldest stone church in the Philippines (founded in 1571). Any visitor will be captivated by the church’s splendid trompe l’oeil (literally play on the eye in French) paintings, which were done by Italian opera background painters Giovanni Alberoni and Cesare Dibella. The paintings give the impression that the ceilings and walls are carved when in fact, they are painted.
The church and adjacent monastery (which is now an impressive ecclesiastical museum) are important witnesses of history. In a side chapel at the altar, the remains of the founder of Manila, el adelantado Miguel López de Legaspi as well as other Spanish conquistadores are kept in a tomb. Near the entrance, at the Chapel of the Assumption, are the remains of the pioneer members of the Roxas-Zobel-Ayala-Soriano clan, a revered family in the world of Philippine business. In 1898, Governor General Fermín de Jaudenes signed the surrender of Manila to the Americans in one of the rooms in the convent.
In 1993, San Agustin Church was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Basílica Menor del Nazareno Negro (aka Quiapo Church)
Address: Quezon Boulevard, Quiapo, Manila
Home of the famous Black Nazarene, Quiapo church is a devotional church that attracts millions of pilgrims during the fiesta of the said image of the suffering Christ every January 9. It is also at the very center of Quiapo, a pulsating district in Manila filled with vendors and different kinds of establishments.
The current structure was designed by the celebrated Manileño architect Júan Nakpil after a fire partially destroyed the church in 1928. In the 80s, the aristocratic architect José Ma. Zaragoza was tasked to expand the shrine. Both Nakpil and Zaragoza hail from buenas familias closely related to Quiapo.
The devotion to its most famous icon – the Nuestro Padre Jesús Nazareno – began in the 1700s when it was brought to Manila via the Galleon Trade. Although some believe its dark complexion is due to a fire in the galleon, many have said that it is dark simply because it was carved from a type of dark wood commonly used in Mexico. Millions of Filipinos relate to the image of the suffering Lord, and have attributed miracles to the image for centuries.
Basílica Menor de San Sebastián (aka San Sebastián Church)
Address: Plaza del Carmén, Quiapo, Manila
The San Sebastián Church is one of the most interesting structures in the Philippine capital as it is the only all-steel and first pre-fabricated church in the country, and in Asia. Maintained by the Recollect friars, the current San Sebastián was designed by Don Genaro Palacios, head of city works, and was completed in 1891.
The steel parts were bought from the Societe anonyme des Enterprises de Travaux Publiques in Brussels, Belgium and were shipped to Manila in 8 steamships. Upon arrival in Manila, Belgian architects and engineers supervised its assembly. On the other hand, the original, not to mention, intact stained glass windows were purchased from the German Henri Oidtmann Company. The interiors were painted to resemble jasper and marble by members of the Escuela de Dibujo, Pintura y Grabado. Some of the notable artists who helped decorate the church were Lorenzo Rocha, Isabelo Tampingco and Félix Martínez.
The San Sebastián Church is the oldest seat of devotion to Our Lady of Mt. Carmel and the Brown Scapular. Currently, the church is being threatened by its most fearsome enemy: rust.
Abbey Church of Our Lady of Montserrat (aka San Beda Abbey)
Address: Mendiola Street, San Miguel, Manila
The abbey church of the Benedictine monks was completed in 1925 by the Swedish architect George Asp. Located along a street that has witnessed countless rallies, the monks’ abbey church is an oasis of beauty and peace that is not known to many. The neo-gothic structure is beautified by paintings on its ceilings and sanctuary by two Spanish monks, Dom Lesmes Lopez, OSB and Dom Salvador Alberich, OSB.
The church’s apse is decorated with a glorious illustration of the Apotheosis of the Most Holy Name of Jesus while at the center of the retablo made of cider wood is an image of the Santo Niño de Praga. It is also good to note that the church’s marble furnishings are made of Carrara marble, a bespoke Italian type of marble.
Dedicated to the Black Madonna of Montserrat (la morenata), the abbey church hosts solemn liturgies celebrated by Benedictine monks. Not many know too that St. Maximilian Kolbe, a martyr killed in one of the Nazi concentration camps during World War II, actually said Mass in this church during his stopover in Manila.
National Shrine of Nuestra Señora del Santísimo Rosario de la Naval de Manila (aka Sto. Domingo Church)
Address: Quezon Avenue, Quezon City
In pre-war Manila, the fiesta of the revered ivory image of Nuestra Señora de la Naval de Manila – la procesion de procesiones – was a big holiday in the city, and was the start of the countdown to the Christmas season. Sadly, the beautiful gothic church of Sto. Domingo in Intramuros was the first casualty of war when it was bombed by the Japanese in December 1941. The miraculous image of La Naval was fortunately spared during the bombing because it was kept in a vault. From 1941 – 1954, the image of La Naval was temporarily housed in the Santísimo Rosario Church within the University of Santo Tomás.
In 1954, the new Sto. Domingo church was completed in Quezon City under the supervision of Arch. José Ma. Zaragoza. The new church is a cavernous structure designed in the Spanish California mission style and is currently the biggest church in Metro Manila.
At the entrance of the church are bas reliefs of the story of the Battle of La Naval and of Sto. Domingo all done by Italian UST professor Franceso Monti. Eight colourful murals retelling the life of Sto. Domingo are located in the nave of the church and these were painted by National Artist Carlos “Botong” Francisco. Above Francisco’s murals are images of the Four Evangelists painted Antonio Llamas García, a popular portraitist among Philippine high society and a professor of art at UST. The church is beautifully illuminated through exquisite stained glass windows by Galo Ocampo.
In 2011, the National Museum declared Sto. Domingo as a National Cultural Treasure.
Real Monasterio de la Inmaculada Concepción de la Madre de Dios de las Monjas de Sta. Clara (aka Monasterio de Sta. Clara)
Address: Katipunan Ave., Quezon City
Immortalized in Dr. José Rizal’s Noli me tangere, the Monasterio de Sta. Clara is the oldest convent of nuns in the Philippines, and in the Far East. It was established by the Servant of God Jerónima de la Asunción, who at 14 years old, met the great Carmelite saint and reformer Teresa de Ávila. At 64 years old, she vouched to establish the first convent for women in Spain’s farthest colony, the Philippines. On a stop-over in Seville, her portrait was painted by the famous court painter Diego Velásquez. The said painting currently hangs in the Museo del Prado in Madrid.
Sor Jerónima de la Asunción and the pioneer Poor Clare nuns finally arrived in the Philippines from Toledo, Spain after more than one year.
According to Fr. Rene Javellana, SJ, the Monasterio de Sta. Clara in Intramuros was considered “living death” because when a woman entered the enclosure to become a nun, she was separated from the rest of the world with a 30-foot high windowless wall. The only sign that there were women inside Sta. Clara would be the occasional hymns heard along the street as one walked by their monastery.
For centuries, it has been the practice of groups and individuals to offer eggs to the nuns of Sta. Clara to ask for prayers especially for good weather. Some say that the origins of this practice was the fact that the Spanish description for egg white is “clara”; thus petitions for clear weather was accompanied by offerings of eggs.
Like many religious orders, the Poor Clare nuns decided to leave Intramuros after the traumatic violence of World War 2 destroyed their 300-year-old convent. The nuns rebuilt their monastery in 1950 in Cubao, Aurora Boulevard cor. Katipunan. Until today, throngs of pilgrims go to Sta. Clara to offer eggs and ask the prayers of the enclosed nuns for various reasons.
If you are feeling extra pious or energized to do 14 station churches, you may also add to your list: Santuario del Sto. Cristo (San Juan), Carmel of St. Therese (Gilmore, New Manila, Quezon City), the National Shrine of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel (Broadway, New Manila, Quezon City), St. Joseph’s Chapel of Perpetual Adoration aka Pink Sisters (Hemady, New Manila, Quezon City), Immaculate Conception Cathedral (Lantana St., Cubao, Quezon City), Oratory of Sancta Maria Stella de Orientis (Pearl Drive, UA&P, Pasig City) and Santuario de San Antonio (McKinley Road, Forbes Park, Makati City).