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Paoay Church in Ilocos Norte » Architectural Heresy and Our Obsession with Heritage

I had already poked my head into enough elegant churches in Bohol and other old towns in the Philippines but I should not miss Paoay Church, although I used to think all Spanish-era churches in the Philippines are alike. San Agustin Church in Ilocos Norte, popularly known as Paoay Church is definitely unique.  

The uniqueness of this church lies in the unceasing nature of its struggles against time and the history it depicts, in its dramatic architecture and the mysterious heresy hidden within its elaborate brick design.
I approached the church from a nearby dry and impotent brick fountain, excited like a virgin bride walking at the long patio decorated by white bougainvilleas at each side. Waiting for me at the other end is the pyramidal and deliberately flat church façade like an unlit altar, gray yet graceful against Ilocandia’s arid air. Above me are dark clouds stripped of its silver lining, painted like the church’s high frescoes, tragic like the life of Judas.

View of Paoay Church from the fountain
But halfway through the patio, I heard it. This church is whispering heresies of the past. Its fourteen buttresses are like old papyrus, documenting the fusion of the conquistadores and the pagans.

Sic transit gloria mundi,” thus passes the glory of the world, wrote the monk Thomas à Kempis. The survival of churches through time, architecturally and historically, is a subject matter for the architects and historians. My reaction or theory about this specific church, about it being architecturally heretic is mine alone. But let me expound.

Paoay Church history

The Official Marker: WORLD HERITAGE SITE, Church of San Agustin Paoay Ilocos Norte. One of the four Baroque Churches of the Philippines inscribed in 1993 on the World Heritage List pursuant to the 1972 UNESCO Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage. The Church of San Agustin possesses exceptional universal value the deserves protection for the benefit of humanity. 
Paoay Church is part of the UNESCO World Heritage List, under the Philippines four Barqoue Churches collection composed of San Agustin Church in Manila, Nuestra Señora de la Asuncion in Santa Maria, Ilocos Sur and Sto. Tomas de Villanueva Church in Miag-ao, Iloilo. It is currently a property of the Diocese of Laoag, Ilocos Norte.

Church main altar and roof under renovation
According to the official historical marker at the entrance of the church, the parish was founded by Augustinian missionaries in 1593, cornerstone of church laid 1704; of convent, 1707; of tower, 1793. It was used before completion and kept in repair by the people under joint auspices of the Church and the town officials. An inauguration ceremony was held 28 February 1896.

The bell tower
It was damaged by earthquake in 1706 and 1927. Katipuneros used its tower as observation post during the Revolution and by Guerilleros during the Japanese occupation in World War II.    

The massive coral stone bell tower, which was added half a century after the church was completed, stands at some distance from the church, again as a protection against damage during earthquakes.
According to historians, the bell tower also served as a status symbol for the locals. The bell would ring more loudly and more times during the wedding of a prominent clan that it would during the wedding of the poor.

Earthquake Baroque

As reported by Jorge Gazaneo of ICOMOS, “Philippine church is a completed example of one are peiod, but a living document of how time and context have left traces on the early founding intentions of the original designer-builder… on the cross roads of different cultures – Malay, Chinese, European, American, Mexico-Peru – the architecture and art of the Philippines should be valued on standards different from those developed by European Scholars…Unity and authenticity are difficult to be expected in theis part of the world, a violent frontier knowing the ravages of war, heavy typhoons and repeated violent earthquake destruction.”

Paoay Church is the most outstanding example in the Philippines of 'Earthquake Baroque' due to its unique combination of Gothic and Oriental designs. Its façade reveals Gothic designs, its gables show Chinese elements, while the niches topping the walls suggest Javanese influence like the towers of the famous Boroboudur Temple in Central Java, Indonesia. It is interesting to note that the town of Paoay is called "Bombay" in early documents, in keeping with the legend that the earliest inhabitants came from India.

Javanese influence on the Church's buttresses like the towers of the famous Boroboudur Temple in Central Java, Indonesia.
It has fourteen buttresses ranged along the lines of a giant volute supporting a smaller one and surmounted by pyramidal finials. Its details are inspired by the seal of Saint Agustine, the emblem of the king of Spain, the logo of the Pope, the “init-tao” or the sun god, and stylized Chinese clouds.

Fusion of the obvious

Because of its difficult terrain, arid temperature and threat of earthquakes, Ilocos was once described as a “God-forsaken land” and it is said that you have to have the “patience of a spider” in order to survive it. But Ilocanos, hardy people that they are, not only survived in this formidable land but were able to turn this highland country into “God’s own paradise”.

It is but fitting that they dedicate their church to St. Augustine. Aurelius Augustinus Hipponensis (St. Augustine), the philosopher, spoke with mechanical fluency when he proved in his book “The City of God [against the Pagans] (Book III)]” that external and bodily disasters including moral and spiritual calamities are happening to the Romans; and that even when the false gods were worshipped without a rival, before the advent of Christ, they afforded no relief from such calamities.

Naturally, they build Paoay Church to withstand and defy acts of God. The Augustinians forced the naturally-born pagans to build this church. But these converts have their own memory and obsession with heritage, beliefs and superstitions, thus the Javanese, Chinese and Oriental influences in the design. 

Until now, the picturesque front garden of the San Agustin Church is being used for rituals known as the Guling-guling festival, an annual festivity that signifies the last day of merrymaking before the Catholic community's observance of the Lenten Season. There are those who conjecture that there is probably a pagan underpinning to the practice, similar to Valentine’s Day; the tradition that places the birth of Jesus in late December, the darkest time of the year; and the timing for Easter right after the vernal equinox. 

Paoay Church is truly the fusion of Catholicism and the pagans.

Final Note

New developments are under way for Paoay Church aside from restoration, which aims to make the province of Ilocos Norte the country’s “northern gateway.” To generate more tourist activities, the provincial government of Ilocos Norte announced a plan to put up a commercial arcade, which would feature the town’s unique products along a stretch of the road lining the Paoay Church.

Aesthetically, I don’t know if these commercial establishments will do any good, so you have to visit Paoay before it becomes a commercial-church. 

We, Filipinos are always trying to find what old memories look like… our obsession with heritage is always there, searching within the artificial and re-engineered versions created by our invaders.

Paoay Church does renders Ilocandia as forever enchanting and continues to make its visitors have a taste of past life back in times like in the decade when it was first completed.

Back in the days, when Filipinos are born pagans.

Paoay Church Architecture and History

Roman Catholic Parish Church of San Agustin / Location: Paoay, Ilocos Norte / Started 1694, reinaugurated 1896

Mentioned as early as 1593, Paoay began as a mission station of Batac, Ilocos Norte. It gained independence as a parish in 1686. Construction of the present church began in 1694. It was led by the Augustinian parish priest Antonio Estavillo who directed the people in cutting and transporting wood, fetching water, making bricks, and quarrying and dressing stones. Considering the immensity of the church, the completion date of 1702—according to one source—must refer only to the termination of a part of the building, most probably the apse. A longer testimony in 1710, listing the main and two side altars as well as the 16 buttresses, confirms that the church was substantially erected by then. The church was repaired in 1865 and again from 1889 to 1898. The reinauguration in 1896 was celebrated with fireworks.

The coral-stone bell tower, standing some distance from the church, was finished in the second half of the 18th century and substantially rebuilt in 1884. It was repaired with the church from 1889 to 1898. Its facade features rusticated pilasters on the second level, standing on the plain pilaster of the first level; this is the reverse of the usual order in Europe. The Paoay Church is perhaps the most outstanding Philippine variant of “earthquake baroque,” a term first used by Pal Kelemen in reference to South American churches. Its phalanx of buttresses is the most massive of its kind in the country. Fourteen are formed along the lines of a gigantic volute supporting a smaller one, surmounted in turn by pyramidal finials. These volutes appear again as miniature scroll forms along the stone wall enclosing the expansive patio. A pair of buttresses along the length of the nave have stairways, which were probably used when parts of the roof had to be repaired. The lower half of the apse and most of the walls were constructed of coral stone. The upper level is finished in brick. The order is reversed in the facade, with the heavier coral-stone blocks occupying the upper levels and the finials. Irregularly shaped blocks with carved floral decoration flank some entrances and may be remnants of an earlier building. On the facade the decorative carving is limited only to the uppermost levels, with the lower two-thirds a massive blank.

In 1993, Paoay was inscribed in the World Heritage List under the title “Baroque Churches of the Philippines.



References and Citations:
» Wikipedia Entry “Paoay Church” [Retrieved: 05 September 2011]
» UNESCO Advisory Body Evaluation. Baroque Churches of the Philippines [Retrieved: 05 September 2011]
» : Paoay Church panophotographies - immersive and interactive spherical images
» St. Augustine. Aurelius Augustinus Hipponensis.  “De Civitate Dei contra Paganos [Concerning the] The City of God [against the Pagans] (Book III)]” Translated by Marcus Dods. From Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, Vol. 2. Edited by Philip Schaff. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1887.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight.
» “50 Most Extraordinary Churches of the World
» De Jesus, Noel F. Manila Bulletin “Charms of the Old World” Posted: June 5, 2011, 10:58am [Retrieved: 05 September 2011]
» The Philippine Star. “Guling Guling of Paoay: Truly a galing galing festivity!” Updated March 06, 2011 12:00 AM [Retrieved: 05 September 2011]
» Rene Guatlo “Paoay sways to Guling Guling” Inquirer Lifestyle. Philippine Daily Inquirer. 03/15/2009.
» CBCP News “300-year old Paoay Church to get facelift” Posted: March 15, 2011
» ALL PHOTOS on this post are taken by the author YODZ Insigne via Samsung Galaxy S Smartphone 

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