The past few weeks I revisited places I had known as a boy. First stop was the ruins of the Dingras church in Ilocos Norte. In my nostalgia, I would remember the church as some abandoned Benedictine abbey after Henry VIII had looted it and had its monks hung, drawn and quartered on Tyburn Square. Memory does play out its own fictions because Dingras was wild pasture made smelly by a few goats awaiting slaughter for signature Iloco dishes. (I have been corrected by e-mail, Ilocano refers to the people, Iloco is the language.) Where the pasture used to be there is a church. Creative parish priests have put the ruins to good use—as a support for the steel roof that now covers a living place of worship. However, after a recent earthquake that left the church intact, there is fear that the posts supporting the roof could fall like dominoes when the ruins move and place stress on the roof. The suggested quick fix was to dismantle the ancient church façade, in whole or in part, to keep the church usable. To cut a long story short, a public hearing was conducted there, and it was agreed that the controversial ruins would be preserved and strengthened, and that a new church would be built around the ruins. The old need not be sacrificed for the new. Following the architects’ recommendations submitted last May 15, the bishop of Ilocos Norte and the National Historical Institute (NHI) will sign an order to begin preservation work.
Next stop was Bohol province where the NHI identified, installed and transferred to the church, the government and the people of Bohol not one but four historical markers: first, the Church of Maribojoc was marked; then Punta Cruz, the ancient watchtower (also in Maribijoc) that faces a crystal clear sea, was declared a National Historical Landmark; the same day the church of Dauis was marked, and this was followed by the declaration of the Dauis church complex as a National Historical Landmark. This covers the church, the watchtower and the kumbento (convent) in this sleepy town best known for its postcard pretty views and those heavy ensaymadas made with pork lard known as “torta.”
What do all these markers mean? Simply, that these sites and structures deemed historic and historical now form part of the fabric that is slowly being woven into that unfinished tapestry we call Philippine history. These four places newly inscribed in the NHI registry are not just part of the history of Dauis and Maribojoc; they form part of the history of the nation.
I spent two childhood summers at a farm in Bohol, but I can’t remember which town it was. All I recall was that it took an uncomfortable overnight trip by boat from Cebu to Tagbilaran in those days. Halfway to the farm, I was roused from sleep to see a tree sparkling in the dark like a Christmas tree in April, as it was filled with fireflies. I rediscovered Bohol in 1995 when I made a day trip from Cebu. I took a fastcraft from Cebu, rented a tricycle in Tagbilaran and visited all the churches possible: Tagbilaran, Loboc, Loay, Baclayon, Dauis, Maribojoc, Alborquerque, Dimiao and more. I learned a lot about Jesuit and Recollect architecture in Bohol but I returned to Manila deaf after spending hours beside a noisy motorcycle engine.
My next trip was better organized as I was introduced to Fr. Milan Ted Torralba of Baclayon and to Lutgardo “Gardy” Labad, better known for his involvement in cheesy Regal films. For many Boholanos who grew up in the shadow of these churches, they are just that—old churches, everyday sights that they see but do not notice.
Why did people from Manila come all the way to see these dilapidated structures. What did the visitors find so wonderful? Historical markers are a means to direct their attention, to make Boholanos see and notice the treasure in their midst. We are fortunate Bishop Leonardo Medroso of the Diocese of Tagbilaran is sensitive to heritage and what it contributes to make liturgy more meaningful. When I saw his predecessor Bishop Leopoldo Tumulak on the plane to Tagbilaran last week, he sighed and said, “We should have started earlier, Ambeth, we could have saved more heritage.” I replied that we should not fret, for experience is a polite term we use to describe our mistakes. There was no need to regret what is past, but to rejoice in what we still have.
Visiting the churches of Bohol these days I realize how much of the moveable church art and architecture are now gone. A carved side altar from the church in Dimiao is now in the National Museum. Images of saints that used to adorn the now empty niches in church retablos and the intricately designed silver liturgical vessels and other decorations are now in private collections in posh Makati enclaves. Even religious images from private homes have been exported to Manila, the most popular of them being those hardwood images of the Virgin Mary, many of which are carved in the shape of a bell with small pin-sized heads of ivory, painted in a riot of colors: blue, yellow, red, and orange. These folk religious images came with elaborately carved and painted home altars or “urna”; and, of course, the distinctly carved cabinets, tables and chairs of molave and balayong all have been brought to Manila. Worse, many of these things have been exported to Europe and the United States where they are now lost to us.
(Conclusion on Friday)
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