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Exploring Tayabas History: Uncovering the Past of a Timeless Town

Today’s Tayabas was once capital of the province of the same name. The earlier capital, a coastal town fronting Marinduque, known then as Calilaya or Caliraya, and now as Unisan, was destroyed by a pirate raid in 1605. Tayabas served as cabecera or capital of the province for the rest of the Spanish period. In 1901 the Americans transferred the capital to Lucena, a former coastal barrio of Tayabas known as Cota (fort). Tayabas province was renamed after Manuel L. Quezon, first president of the Philippine Commonwealth, who hailed from that province, on 7 September 1946.

Tayabas Provincial Capitol
Tayabas Provincial Capitol, 2021 (Photo by Jerome Chua)

Tayabas, situated on the southern slope of Mount Banahaw, was a natural confluence point along the Bicol-Manila route. Its inhabitants, who built rice terraces akin to those in the Cordillera, spoke a type of Tagalog known as Tayabasin. The area was ministered to by the Franciscans throughout the Spanish period. First to evangelize in the area in 1578 were Fathers Diego de Oropesa and Juan de la Plasencia, who is credited with the draft of the Doctrina Cristiana, the first printed book in the Philippines in 1593.

The town, with the rest of the province, pertained to the Diocese of Nueva Caceres. By 1700, Tayabas boasted the title “La Muy Noble Villa de Tayabas” (The Most Noble Villa of Tayabas). Such title appeared in Father Domingo de los Santos’s Vocabulario de la lengua tagala, published when the Franciscans briefly ran their printing press in Tayabas in 1703.

To this day, Santacruzan processions are accompanied by chanting in front of chiseled stone crosses in the barrios. Some of the crosses are as high as 2.10 meters.

By the 1860s the poblacion had about 500 houses, all of wood and roofed with cabonegro, a vine. Bandits set the cabecera on fire in 1877, destroying, among others, the Casa de Comunidad, the archives and the telegraph station. Tayabas was again reduced to ashes by the bombings of the Allied Air Forces on 15 and 22 Mar ch1945, ironically to liberate the town from the hands of the Japanese soldiers. Only 32 houses were left intact and 618 residential and commercial buildings were totally destroyed.

Tayabas was declared a component city in 2011.

The Tayabas poblacion has a good number of existing heritage sites, beginning with those at the approaches to the town.

The present roads that lead in and out of the cabecera go back to the Spanish colonial era. Increased commerce in the province prompted the construction and improvement in the 1850s of five major roads. The eastern road with a southern branch to Pagbilao and to the Bicol region, and the northeast one to Mauban on the Pacific coast, were completed under the supervision of Governor Jose Maria de la O.

However, the other roads—two leading to barrio Cota on the southern coast, now Lucena, and two others leading west to Lucban and Sariaya respectively—are attributed to intrepid Franciscans who hacked their way through the forests on Banahaw’s flanks. Over the Aritao river alone, on the way to Sariaya, 17 culverts and a bridge of four arches were built under the direction of Father Bartolome Galan from 1826 onwards.

Puente de Malagonlong

Puente de Malagonlong
Puente de Malagonlong (Government of Tayabas City)

Of the 19 stone bridges constructed between the 1840s and 1850s, only 11 are still standing. All use the Roman arch and are of cut stone. The most significant, also the longest and tallest colonial masonry bridge in the Philippines is the graceful, five-arched Puente de Malagonlong. Spanning the Dumacaa River on the eastward route to Mauban and Pagbilao, its construction was directed by Father Antonio Mateos beginning in 1841. It survived the flood of 1845 and was inaugurated in 1850 as inscribed on a resting place in the middle of the bridge. The inner sides of the stone arches are inscribed with letters and symbols, probably the marks of stonesmiths or stone suppliers. The bridge was apparently breached but repaired in 1872.

With the transfer of the provincial capital from Tayabas to Lucena in 1901, the old camino principal (main highway) was diverted and the bridge almost forgotten. Malagonlong Bridge was one of the first casualties of World War II when, on 26 December 1941, US soldiers tried to blast the bridge to deter the coming of Japanese troops.

In 1997, a Tayabas ordinance disallowed the construction of new structures near the more than 10 surviving stone bridges. However, the integrity and visual setting of Malagonlong bridge were affected when a new concrete bridge was built a few meters away. In 2004, the National Historical Institute (NHI) declared the bridge as a historical site. In 2011, the National Museum collectively declared the stone bridges of Tayabas as a National Cultural Treasure.

Puente de Alitao

Puente de Alitao, a few meters away from the Church of San Miguel on the Tayabas-Sariaya road, was built of wood by Father Jose Medio in 1798, and then of stone in 1823. It is also known as Puente Antigua or Puente de Munting Bayan. Puente de Don Francisco de Asis , also on the Sariaya-Tayabas road at Barangay Domoit, was completed on 15 October 1854 and named after the husband of Isabela II of Spain. Puente de Bai or Puente de Tumloy was more intact than other bridges when it was replaced in the 1850s by the Puente de Ese, Puente de Despedidas, and Puente de la Princesa on a new road to Lucban. Unlike most of the bridges which were made of adobe, Puente de Mate and Puente de Lakawan are made of sandstone.

Puente de Isabel II

Puente de Isabel II
Puente de Isabel II (Government of Tayabas City)

Other bridges which are still passable by vehicle as of 2014 include the Puente de Isabel II and Puente de Gibanga.

All roads lead to the poblacion or town center where the two most important and iconic buildings in Tayabas are located. The first one is the church, now the Minor Basilica of San Miguel Arcangel, and the second, the casa de comunidad or tribunal.

Basilica Minore de San Miguel Arcangel

The Basilica Minore de San Miguel Arcangel has a long history. First a humble bamboo and nipa church dedicated to San Miguel Arcangel, it was built between 1580 and 1585. In response to the directive of the provincial Pedro Bautista, later martyr of Japan and canonized saint, a stone church was constructed there after 1600. In 1721, the church roof was repaired, and in 1736 a wall was built around the complex. Earthquakes that shook Mount Banahaw in 1743 ruined the church, which was described at this time as very artistic, made of cut stone, and decorated with beautiful and gilded retablos. Destroyed by the earthquakes were the facade and tower, including the choirloft, organ, and baptistry. The convento, said to date from 1649, supposedly also lost its well-stocked pharmacy during the earthquake.

The structures were subsequently rebuilt on a grander scale on the same site, as evidenced by the troneras or gun emplacements on walls built during the era of pirate raids. In 1746, the wall was fortified by adding a meter more of mortar. Four years later its height was once again increased. Major constructions followed in the 1760s: in 1761, a two-story facade crowned by a triangular pediment; in 1768, a tile roof replacing the one of nipa, and a dome over the main altar; and in 1771, a wooden barrel vault.

From 1855 to 1860, a rotunda crossing with a round-ended transept was added to the church, under the direction of Father Benito de la Pila. This made the church plan resemble a key. In 1858, the construction of the quadrangular cupola over the crossing began, and the facade was capped with a third story and semicircular pediment. The completed church was blessed on 11 November 1860. In 1864, the interior walls were covered with stucco as a ground for decorative painting. The next year, a pipe organ was installed by Telesforo de Lavarez from Pasay. In 1873, a new sacristy was added to the transept. In 1894, the church’s tile roof was replaced by galvanized iron. With its 103-meter-long nave, Tayabas is considered one of the longest 19th century churches.

In 1925, the church interior received another set of decorative paintings done under the supervision of Victor Flores. World War II left the church unscathed, although the convento, converted into a garrison by the Japanese, was damaged by bomb shrapnel. In 1946, a wooden communion rail was built for the main altar. In 1964, the wooden barrel vault was covered by a second ceiling of lawanit to prevent old paint and debris from falling. In 1984, Father Froilan Zalameda began supervising repair and restoration work on the church. The ceiling was repainted in the 1990s.

Having undergone many renovations, the facade style is best described as eclectic. The older triangular pediment can still be discerned where the new and old facades meet. The three-story arrangement is unusual for Philippine facades, which tend to have just two levels. The trilobed main entrance in the Mudejar style, similar to the entrance of the Santo Niño Basilica in Cebu, is crowned by an angel that unusually “deflates” into the wall. The divisions between stories are marked by pairs of horizontal bands. The niches contain images of angels, San Francisco, Santo Domingo, and San Diego de Alcala, whose ancient image and relic in the church drew numerous pilgrims.

The wooden barrel vault and cupola of the church are painted with blue, maroon, beige, and white depicting symbols of the Passion and mystical titles of Mary. The oldest retablo is in the sacristy; in rococo style, possibly from the 1770s, it is similar to those in Tanay. The other seven altars are in the neoclassical style, possibly dating from the 1850s. The main retablo, dedicated to San Miguel, is crowned by symbols of theological and cardinal virtues. The central portion bulges outwards, an echo of the rounded transepts. The altars on the gospel side are for San Jose, the Mater Dolorosa, and Maria Assumpta; those on the epistle side are for the Inmaculada Concepcion, San Diego, and Navidad.

The church patio, a former cemetery, is enclosed by a low wall. Adjoining the length of the church nave is the stone-and-wood convento that encloses an inner court.

Sensible restoration, especially of the ceiling, has made Tayabas a resplendent example of a colonial church. However, the construction of two contemporary edifices along the flanks of the church destroys the vista of the nave.

The church was elevated to a basilica on 11 October 1988. The Basilica of San Miguel Arcangel was declared a National Cultural Treasure on 31 July 2001 by the National Museum. A Diocesan Museum adjacent to the church was reorganized in 2010. In 2014, work began on replacing the deteriorated wood planks on the ceiling with new ones.

Historic Chapels

There are also a number of historic chapels elsewhere in the poblacion. The Ermita de San Diego de Alcala, said to have been established in 1683, is now a private residence. Its old stone walls may still be seen adjacent to the Alitao Bridge. The Ermita de Nuestra Señora de las Angustias, said to have been established in 1728, is a single nave structure with a facade embellished with engaged pilasters, niches and an espadaña pediment. It was damaged in 1945 but eventually reconstructed through the efforts of the Tayabas Elite Club, an association of Tayabasin women. A turumba procession, similar to that in Pakil, Laguna, is held here annually.

Santuario de las Almas, a mortuary chapel
Santuario de las Almas, a mortuary chapel, 2011 (Joanne Mina)

Ermita de San Roque

The Ermita de San Roque, said to date from 1755, is the chapel for what was known as the Camposanto para los Españoles, the old cemetery. Its facade is baroque with volutes defining the sides of the pediment and the apex curved rather angled. Since the transfer of the niches to the new cemetery, it was also called Santuario de las Almas (Sanctuary of the Souls) and more recently, Santuario de San Jose. In the Camposanto para los Indios or Cementerio Catolico at Munting Bayan is another chapel built in 1887. It is a mixture of styles. While the triple arch over the pediment is Mudejar in influence, the flanking tower uses a Roman arch, and the main door is in the Gothic style.

Casa de Comunidad

The Casa de Comunidad, also known as casa tribunal or hall of justice was the civil counterpart of the church and convento. In early times, the Hall of Justice was customarily in the house of the local leader. A permanent space was designated for it in 1773; a stone structure rose in 1810. The present grand structure of cut stone was begun in 1831, according to a marker on its keystone. It was officially inaugurated in 1835 and was named Casa de Comunidad. Historically, this building housed various offices of civil government, such as the office of the gobernadorcillo or mayor, carcel or detention cells, archivo or archives, storage room for weapons, guest rooms, and the juzgado or Sala de Justicia or Hall of Justice.

The building was repainted in 1837 for the arrival of Archbishop Jose Segui of Manila and the bishop of Nueva Caceres, who came to administer the sacrament of confirmation to around 1,000 people. In 1841, the tribunal was the place of trial of hero Apolinario de la Cruz, who was thereafter shot in the adjacent plaza. Burned in 1877, the building was restored in 1886. It served as headquarters for Spanish—and later Japanese—troops, as a school and as a wartime hospital. In the early 1980s, the Tayabas-Manila Association and the NHI spearheaded the restoration of the building. In 1988, the NHI declared the Casa de Comunidad a National Historical Landmark. Today it houses the public library, display areas, function halls, and offices.

Casa Real 

The Casa Real or Provincial Capitol was erected in 1858, but it was totally destroyed in 1945. It is now the City Hall, popularly known as the “Tahanang Bayan,” and faces a park dedicated in 1858 to Prince Alfonso, son of Queen Isabel II. The park would be later renamed Rizal Park, after the national hero. Its facade was patterned after a two-story elementary school in Tayabas which was destroyed by fire.

Carcel Publica

The Carcel Publica or Public Jail had adobe walls that are still standing. The interior houses several private entities, including the office of the Free and Accepted Masons.

Escuela de Niños

Escuela de Niños or primary school was formerly the province’s administrative building. It was won in a public auction by a secular priest, Juan Huelva, then subsequently bought by Father Manuel Gonzales, parish priest from 1852 to 1855 and concurrent vicar forane, who turned it into a school. Unfortunately, the escuela has been demolished.

Large underground tunnels are rumored to connect key buildings with one another, such that the fraile (friar) would always emerge from the chapel of the Camposanto para los Españoles or Santuario de la Almas to give the final blessing way ahead of the mourners. Thus, Tayabas’ built heritage is linked through legend.


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