SPOTLIGHT: Franciscan church stands witness to 500 years of Philippine Christianity

If by any chance you find yourself in the suburbs of San Francisco del Monte in Quezon City in the Philippine capital, never leave without visiting the Santuario de San Pedro Bautista, also known as the San Francisco del Monte Church, one of the oldest churches in the country.

Behind the parish church’s meek appeal lies a significant past that helped define Christianity in the country.

In 1584, Franciscan missionary priest Pedro Bautista y Belasquez arrived in the Philippines. He was 42 years old, had acquired fame as a preacher in the cathedral of Toledo in Spain, had taught philosophy for three years in Merida, and was an excellent musician.

While living in the busy old walled city of Manila, Father Bautista realized the need for a place to contemplate, a place away from the “mother house” in Intramuros.

Spanish Governor General Santiago de Vera, in behalf of King Philip II of Spain, acceded to the friar’s request and granted the Franciscans a piece of land in a village east of the city that was later called Retiro.

The friars would go to the hilly place where Father Bautista built a small chapel made of bamboo and grass to retire, relax, recollect, and to revive their spiritual vigor. The place was named the Nuestra Señora de Monteceli, although it was popularly known even during that time as San Francisco del Monte.

From this place, Franciscan missionaries, including Father Bautista himself, were sent to Japan, China, and the Moluccas.

While living in his mountain retreat, the priest became known as a protector of the indigenous Aeta tribe who live in what would later be known as the province of Zambales north of Manila. He would always write to Spanish civil authorities in behalf of the tribal people.

In 1593, with Japanese imperial forces threatening to invade the Philippines, Father Bautista was sent as an envoy to Japan where he eventually stayed as a missionary. At the height of Christian persecutions in Japan, the priest and 25 others were martyred in 1597.

In 1627, the reconstructed stone church in San Francisco del Monte was dedicated to the Blessed Pedro Bautista. After almost 150 years, the priest and the other 25 martyrs were canonized by Pope Pius IX.

After the Philippine revolution against Spain in 1897, the Franciscan missionaries in Manila were expelled, and those few who remained sold parts of the land for them to survive.

From the 250-hectare piece of land given by Governor General de Vera to Father Bautista, only the two-hectare church compound remains to this day where a Franciscan church and convent still stand.

In the church, below the place where the original altar was is a cave where the friars pray, even to this day. It is the same cave where Father Bautista and the other martyrs spent hours contemplating before they went to Japan for their mission.

“This is one, if not the only place in the world, that a patron saint established and where he actually lived,” said Franciscan priest Ireneo Tactac III, current parish priest of the Santuario de San Pedro Bautista.

Realizing a dream

Since early in the last century, Filipino Franciscans have always dreamt of declaring the church a “cultural heritage” and to document the rich history of the place. It is the same dream that pushed Father Edwin Peter Dionisio, OFM, to work for the declaration of the parish as a minor basilica.

The priest still remembers one day in 2014 when a large portion of the ceiling fell while he was performing baptism rites.

Since that day, the poor friar has worked hard to renovate the church, not just because of the ceiling, but in preparation for the 500th anniversary of the arrival of Christianity in the country.

“It’s about time to look back to one of those who first evangelized the nation,” he said, referring to Father Bautista and the other martyrs who helped in the evangelization of the country.

But the road to realizing the dream is paved with a lot of challenges. While there were several volunteers, nobody wanted to take the responsibility to lead the project until a lady architect said in jest that she can renovate a church.

After five years of work and after spending about US$600,000 of donations, the church now stands a pristine as it was many years ago.

“What’s interesting here is that this is funded by the people,” said Father Dionisio. “We didn’t have big sponsors, but we collected small amounts given by ordinary people,” he said.

“Who would’ve thought we would be able to raise such an amount?” said the priest.

Still, the priest had to answer a lot of questions and criticisms, even from fellow Franciscans and members of the clergy.

In 2017, a priest and church art historian, described Father Dionisio as having the “Midas touch” for painting the “retablo” gold.

(A “retablo” is a devotional painting, especially a small popular or folk art that uses iconography derived from traditional Catholic church art. More generally, a “retablo” is the Spanish term for a “retable” or “reredos” above an altar, whether a large altarpiece painting or an elaborate wooden structure with sculptures.)

Other critics slammed the work as “not the finest and not faithful to authenticity.”

Father Dionisio, who is also head of the Cultural Heritage office of the Franciscans, said the original colors of the retablo, based on a 1932 photo, were actually white and gold.

In 1970, when the parish church was being reconstructed, the altarpieces were kept in storage and were only brought out in 1987.

“I repainted and enhanced the ‘retablo’ because it was already fragile, and I’m scared that if an earthquake occurs, it might collapse,” said the priest.

He said that aside from its “historicity and significance,” the art and architecture of the church were also important for it to be declared as a minor basilica,” a “vindication” for the priest.

A minor basilica is a church of historical and architectural value that has “particular importance for the liturgical and pastoral life” of a place. It is the pope’s church in some place around the world.

Minor basilicas are specifically tasked with celebrating the feasts of the liturgical year with great care and attention.

Pope Francis bestowed the title minor basilica to the parish on July 9, the day before the 158th anniversary of the canonization of San Pedro Bautista.

“This is an affirmation of how good God has been to the Philippine Church,” said Father Dionisio, although he said it is a “great responsibility.”

“Maybe [the elevation] was also a confirmation of God’s grace through San Pedro Bautista’s missionary effort that in times of the pandemic, God will never leave us,” added Father Tactac.

Both priests noted that in the many times that the church structure was destroyed and reconstructed, its foundation — the physical one and its history — endures.

The church has become a witness to the country’s history and the history of the Philippine Church. Its restoration and elevation as a minor basilica are a fitting tribute to the 500 years of the arrival of the Catholic faith to the islands.

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