The Holy Week marks a week of reverence and religiosity for most Filipinos. Every region has its own way of remembering the death of Jesus Christ on the cross. It is seen by many as an opportunity to reflect on their lives and atone for the sins they have committed. Interestingly, a lot of Filipinos have their own beliefs and practices to atone for their wrongdoings.
One of the beliefs practiced by many Filipino families is the Visita Iglesia – the practice of visiting churches during the lent season. There are variations on the actual number of churches to visit during Holy Thursday – some say seven churches while others say fourteen churches to symbolize the fourteen station of the cross. In the end, no matter whether it is seven or fourteen, what is important is that the prayers are offered during the visits to these churches.
Although I am not Catholic, I must admit that old Catholic Churches never fail to amaze me. These churches that tell stories have piqued my curiosity that my visits to cities and the provinces will always include old churches in my itinerary. Hence, I have been toying on the idea for years now of visiting seven Pampanga churches in a day since I was assigned here. I never really got the chance until I shared my thoughts with an officemate who was also planning to do the same thing. The opportunity was hard to miss out that I grabbed the chance and started plotting our itinerary. The plan was to visit seven historical and heritage churches in Pampanga.
Armed with my camera and a list of seven churches that I wanted to visit, I headed out to the town of Guagua. Guagua is a municipality of Pampanga located about 10 kilometers from San Fernando. The municipality derives its name from the word “Wawa” which means mouth of a river. The municipality is located along the Guagua river which played a significant role in trade and commerce during the early years of the town and even in the present. This sleepy town was where my travel buddy, Grace, and I decided to meet and start our Holy Thursday adventure.
I was dropped off at the town plaza where I met up with Grace and it was not a surprise that a few meters from the plaza was the Guagua Church or the Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception Parish. Like most towns and cities in the Philippines, churches are usually the central figure of the community that clearly demonstrates how religion plays a major role in the daily lives of Filipinos. Guagua was not an exception.
The white-washed church towers over the town. It was initially constructed in 1772 by the Agustinians but the original structure was later razed by a fire and from the ashes they constructed the current structure. The simplicity of the church’s exterior compliments its internal design. However, I was not able to catch a glimpse of the altar, a major setback, as it was a custom to cover the altar with a purple cloth on Holy Thursday up to Easter Sunday.
Getting there: One can take a jeep from San Fernando Intersection heading to Guagua. Fare is at Php10. The trip will take about 30 minutes as the jeep passes through the the town of Bacolor. Do not be surprised to see penitents walking the roads as this is a normal scene in Pampanga during the Holy Week. You then go down at the town plaza where the church is also located.
The mere mention of Lubao Church and one would associate it with former president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo who hails from the town of Lubao. Nestled in the center of the town, the Lubao Church or the San Agustin Church is one of the oldest churches in Pampanga and it is also the church where the former president hears mass during her birthday celebrations. Hence, I did not wonder why the church was properly kept and well maintained. In fact, it is the only church that I have seen where they use large industrial fans to ventilate its interior compared to others that use regular electric fans. I must admit that my impression is that the church probably gets a lot of support for its upkeep.
The church's interior has a high ceiling and the breadth is large which makes it really look large once you are inside. The interior's wide expanse and the industrial fans make ventilation inside the church efficient and breezy. Again, the lent celebration did not allow me a glimpse of the altar as it is covered by a purple clothe.
The church was built in 1572 under Architect Father Antonio Herrera. It is considered a historical church as it has also served as a station for the revolutionary government against the Spanish and American rule. A historical marker is installed at the church's front to remind people of the role of the church in Philippine history.
Getting there: One can take a jeep from the town plaza of Guagua with the Lubao signboard. The fare is Php8 and the jeep passes right in front of Lubao Church.
The Sta. Lucia Church of Sasmuan is a dominant structure of the town. Located at the center of the town and right beside a river, the church was one of the first churches built by the Spaniards with a distinct feature of having the belfry sandwiched by the church and the convent.
The present structure is currently in the process of renovation. The church facade and the belfry were the only structures that remained from the original church. However the changes on the structure also speaks of a sad story on Samuan's local history.
The town is known to bury its prominent people in an area within the church's grounds including the town's local hero, Don Monico Mercado, the first to translate Dr. Jose Rizal's "Mi Ultimo Adios" in Kapampangan. However, the desire to improve or enhance the church have resulted to a complete disregard to this custom. The parish priest collected the remains of these prominent individuals and interred them into a common grave without informing the families, including the family of Don Mercado. It was already too late to identify the remains of the hero when they tried to recover the remains of Don Mercado.
The church still stands prominently at the town center but with a stark difference from the original structure that once stood. The church has constructed a dome to complement the structure of the church and the interiors are modern in design with its high ceiling and glass windows that allow natural light to illuminate the church's interior. The clear glass walls also give an open air feel once you are inside the church. I never really saw the original church structure so I really can't compare the difference but I feel that the people behind the new structure should have had considered the historical element of the church so as to have kept intact the story of the church.
On the side note, my visit to Sasmuan Church also gave me a glimpse of a local custom on penance. I chanced upon a penitent at the time of my visit. Penance take various forms in this part of the Philippines and it is not a surprise to see people carrying a cross or hitting themselves with a whip until their back bleeds to signify their penance for the atrocities that they have committed or as part of their promise to the Almighty. The penitents do not enter the church but they just position themselves in the church's grounds or entrance where they pray before moving to the next church.
Getting there: One can take a tricycle from Lubao Church to Sasmuan Church. The fare is Php50 for a one way trip for the whole vehicle. The driver will drop you off at the town plaza where the church is also located.
Betis Church (Guagua)
One of the gems of Pampanga, Betis Church or the Santiago de Galicia Parish is also located in the town of Guagua. It is located about 5 minutes by jeep from the town center. The church was declared a National Treasure but the unassuming facade of the church does not show the beauty that the church holds within its walls. I have heard about the beauty of its interiors but even that did not prepare me for what I was about to see.
As I walked inside the church, I noticed that there are more people visiting the church compared to the others that I have been to which means that the church has a reputation that attracts people to visit the church. It also came as a surprise how well organized the youth volunteers of the church in guiding the visitors who visit their church, informing the guests of the do's and dont's while inside the church. The organized way of handling the guests are indications that they receive guests more than other churches hence the need for a systematic way of handling visitors.
The reason was clear and simple for the influx of guests - the interiors of the church was a sight to behold and it is a tourist spot on its own. The church is considered the "Sistine Chapel" of the country because its interiors can be compared to the said chapel with its paintings and murals on its high ceilings and walls.
Built in 1660, the Santiago de Galicia Parish is known for its paintings that depict the Holy Family, Catholic saints, cherubims, and even select scenes from the bible on its walls and ceilings. The church is not only a place of worship but an art gallery, as well. One would be in awe to the beauty and details of these murals. No wonder the church is visited by many as it is really a sight to see.
A lot of care is being done by the locals in preserving the treasure that they have in Betis. In fact, you will be reminded about not using your camera flash when taking shots of the murals as this have an effect on these paintings. It is a must-see for anyone who visits Pampanga as it showcases the faith and the artistry of the Kapampangans.
Getting there: One can take a 15 minute tricycle ride from Sasmuan to the town center of Guagua. The trip would cost Php30. From the town center, one takes a jeep heading to Bacolor or San Fernando city. Ask the driver to drop you off at Betis Church as it is along the road. Jeep fare is at Php8.
The Bacolor Church or the San Guillermo Parish Church is probably the most popular church in the province after it was featured in a local tv series about a boy, Santino, who gets the opportunity to speak with the Almighty. It is safe to say that the local show did not throw the church into instant fame but it definitely added a little more color to the church's popularity.
Built in 1576 by the Agustinian friars, the San Guillermo Parish Church, or what was left of it, was a mute testament to nature's fury as it was half-buried by lahar in 1991 that flowed from the slopes of Mount Pinatubo after its eruption. The church was once the biggest church in the province and the aftermath of the eruption and lahar flows showed the resiliency of the people of Bacolor after the townpeople excavated the altar and the retablo from the lahar and install it at its current location.
The half-buried church still stands and is still in use. The church's compound also houses a museum which showcases sculptures of Catholic saints and paintings and pictures of the Mount Pinatubo eruption and its subsequent lahar flows that damaged the church and the town.
Getting there: One can take a jeep for San Fernando from Betis Church. Fare is at Php8. Ask the driver to drop you off at the Bacolor Public Market where you can take a tricycle to Bacolor Church. You may also opt to take a 10 minute walk going to the church. The church is not along the main road although you can see its belfry from the jeepney drop off point.
The Minalin Church or the Sta. Monica Parish Church stands at the highest ground of the town of Minalin. Despite of the strategic location, the silt of the river has invaded the interiors of the church. It was recently awarded as a National Cultural Treasure.
The 400 year old church has a unique facade that illustrates a retablo with saints that adorn the facade. It is flanked by two 4-storey hexagonal bell towers. Records have shown that in earlier times, a light beacon was installed atop the church to guide boatmen through the river.
Another distinct feature of the church is the "capilla posas". The four corners of the space fronting the church contain "capilla posa" that remain intact until today. These were the corners where the indios, in early times, conduct their worship and prayers while the affluent have the opportunity to get inside the church to hear mass.
Getting there: From the Bacolor Public Market, one can take a jeep to San Fernando City. Go down at the the Metropolitan Cathedral of San Fernando and ask where you can take a jeep to Minalin. The terminal is located at the back of the San Fernando City Hall, just right after the bridge. Fare is at Php15. You can ask the driver to drop you off at the church.
Apalit Church or Saint Peter Apostle Church is famous for Apalit's resident saint. "Apung Iru", as most Kapampangans would refer to the image of St. Peter, is probably one of the more recognized saint in Pampanga. The whole town bursts in colors and in celebration of thanksgiving to "Apu" for a good year every 28th of June. The celebration's highlight is the fluvial parade where the image of "Apung Iru" is paraded down the Pampanga River.
The current church was built between 1876 to 1880 after the initial structure was destroyed by an earthquake. The church's facade is also flanked by two bell towers which was designed to withstand earthquakes. The church is baroque in architectural style and is a dominant structure in town despite of it not being at the center of the town. One can view the dome of the church when passing through the North Luzon Expressway.
The church's interior boasts of affluence as the church's ceilings is adorned by paintings that is also worth studying. Unforunately, I was not able to get a view of the church's altar. However, the church was full of sculptures and images of Catholic Saints that were being prepared for the next day's religious procession. These images depict part of Christ suffering and the different saints. Although some of these images were owned by the church, a huge part of these collections were from the affluent families of Apalit.
Getting there: One can take a jeep from Minalin to San Fernando. Ask the driver to drop you off at the corner of San Matias along MacArthur Highway. Fare is a Php15. From San Matias, you can take a jeep headed for Apalit and asked to be dropped off at the intersection near the public market of Apalit. Fare is at Php12. You ccan then take a tricycle going to Apalit Church. Fare is at Php40.
Faith and Development
We cannot deny that religion played a huge role in our history and in molding our beliefs and customs as a nation. Although we pride ourselves to being a non-sectarian country, we cannot alter that majority of our celebrations are grounded on our Christian upbringing. Afterall, we are still a predominantly Catholic country. The faith and religiosity of the residents of Bacolor sparked a movement to reconstruct the church amidst the damage brought about by the eruption of Mount Pinatubo. We can also think about how well-kept Lubao Church considering that it is a former president's homegrown church. Faith causes people to move.
These religious beliefs had its effect on how we build our communities. Majority of our towns and cities have the church and their government office as a center of their community and development have evolved around the town center. We can take the case of Guagua Church and Sasmoan Church to exemplify this proposition. Development of our cities and town is centered on our faith.
It is also evident that religion also play a huge part in the preservation of our cultural and artistic heritage. Betis Church's elegant interiors, the paintings on the ceilings of Apalit Church and the facade of Minalin Church are artistice expressions of our homegrown artists. The churches tell the community's story.
Religion is a driving force in our communities. It is a source of hope and inspiration to many. In fact, it has served as a lifeline when times of struggle come our way.
Mount Pinatubo will always be etched in the memories of Filipinos, most especially for residents of Pampanga, Tarlac, and Zambales. After the ashes have subsided down during its June 1990 eruption, it claimed hundreds of lives and displaced a lot of families and communities. Thousands of lives were uprooted from their normal churn and was left out in the dark, not knowing how they will move forward from the catastrophic event.
Knowing the resiliency of Filipinos, today’s economic set-up of the three provinces have turned around to make what was a disadvantage into an opportunity. Volcanic Ash from Mount Pinatubo is now a major source of income for Pampanga with its quarrying operations but more interestingly, entrepreneurs saw the opportunity to use these ashes into hand art which we now see being marketed around the globe.
One of the biggest economic pick-ups of the event was on the tourism side. The great Mount Pinatubo which was once feared upon is now a place frequented by many to appreciate the beauty of nature. Its’ devastating eruption has resulted to the creation of a beautiful calderon at its summit. At present, the local government has substantially taken advantage of this tourism gem by allowing locals and foreigners to visit its peak to admire its beauty.
I have been long planning to visit the peak of Mount Pinatubo. I have seen beautiful pictures and heard stories about the experience and these exposures have resulted to me wanting to visit the peak more. The opportunity to trek to the peak of the revered volcano last February with a couple of my staff was hard to pass off.
The Trek – A Good Cardio Workout
My own Pinatubo adventure kicks off at four in the morning when the team and I had to take a bus from Dau Bus Station in Pampanga to Capas, Tarlac. The bus trip took about an hour and we hopped off at the Capas Municipal Office where we had to take a tricycle for San Juliana. The trip was a surprise for us because the whole trip to San Juliana took about 45 minutes from the main highway. The team did not expect that it will take that long. Nevertheless, the trip will take you to a breathtaking view of the fields of Capas as the mist covers the field.
Upon reaching San Juliana, you would notice that a lot of offices are lined up that offer a day trek to Mount Pinatubo. I suggest that you book your trip ahead to ensure that you have a slot for the trek as there are times that tourists flock the famed volcano that walk-ins can no longer be accommodated. It is also important that you arrived at the designated time as there is only one trip per day and the 4x4 jeeps leave on time. Your tour service provider will be the one to handle your registration for the trek after which you will be assigned to your 4x4, your driver, and your group’s guide.
Adrenaline junkies will surely enjoy the 1 hour 4x4 ride from San Juliana to the trek’s kick-off point. The ride will traverse the O’Donnell River Bed and will offer visitors a spectacular view of lahar formations. These formations form part of the landscape of the riverbed and look really awesome especially when the morning sunshine hits its surface. The scene is straight out of a movie “The Lost World”. Our guide was also quick to inform us that these formations are unstable. The rains can easily cause the erosion of these lahar formations as these are loose lahar. You will also be surprised to see that these formations, which rise to about fifteen stories high, was how much lahar flowed down the slope of Mount Pinatubo.
The 4x4 trip will bring you to the trek’s kick-off point. From the camp, it will be another two hours of gradual climb to the peak. The trek will be a great cardio workout that will test one’s endurance. Despite the gradual climb, one should take extra precaution since the terrain involves loose rocks and volcano debris. One wrong step could result to a sprained ankle.
The trek will be a visual delight as you will be treated with lahar formations that go as high as ten to fifteen stories high. Again, our guide informs us that these formations are unstable and that it erodes during the rainy season. He further explained that the lahar erosions in different areas during the rainy season is the main reason for the suspension of trekking trips as this poses a huge risk to both the guides and visitors. He also mentioned that the Aetas are the ones who set up the trek path after the rainy season since they are familiar with the terrain. He adds that the river bed that we were traversing can turn really nasty.
The final 15 minute trek to the crater kicks off from a mini-complex composed of open air cottages and rest areas. Our guide informed us that going to Mount Pinatubo, years back, was easier. It involved a 4x4 ride to this area and another 15 minute trek from this kick-off point. However, things have changed since and the trip now involves a 2 hour trek by foot. We took a much needed rest in one of the open air cottages and recharged ourselves for the final 15 minute trek to the summit.
The last stretch is an uphill climb which will take around 15 minutes for an average person to traverse. The trek will go through lush vegetation and slippery rocks. I reckon the lush vegetation was somewhat a curtain that is slowly unveiling the site that we were anticipating. The final uphill climb was full of excitement for me as I was excited to see the view that I was merely looking at from pictures and videos of those who have gone there before me. I did not anticipate the feeling of awe once I get to the peak.
Standing at the Peak of Mount Pinatubo
The view was simply breath-taking as you take the last steps to a platform that gives you a full view of the calderon and the serene lake of Mount Pinatubo. The beauty of the view in front of me cannot be captured by any photographer on film or video. The feeling was just a feeling of awe. Nature really has a way of showing that there really is an awesome God above us that makes beautiful things.
From the platform, one navigates down the stairs to a viewing platform to have a perfect view of Mount Pinatubo’s crater-lake. All I could hear from my team were comments on how beautiful the scene that was in front of us. The local development have actually taken steps in the developing the area with picnic sheds, however, they probably did not anticipate the number of tourists visiting the area and these are not sufficient. Hence, trekkers try to find their own spot along the slopes where they can share the packed lunch that they have brought with them.
Traversing the steep stairs downhill will lead you to the shores of the crater’s lake. Here one can pitch a tent or find a secluded and shaded area where one can rest. One thing that I’ve noticed is that despite the heat from the sun, the weather remains cool because of the high altitude. It is best that you bring with you a windbreaker to protect you from the sun or rain and from the cold. Our team decided to take our lunch in one of shaded areas. We also tried to take a nap, enjoying the cool weather.
After taking a nap and getting a tan from doing so, I decided to take a dip in the crater-lake. My fears overcame me as I could see that the water was still and I could sense that it was deep. In fact, there is a warning to take extra precaution as the depth of the water is not yet known. But there were still brave individuals who still took a dip in the cold water. Apart from swimming, one can also rent a small boat to bring you to the center of the lake or to the other side of the lake. I decided to just simply dip my feet to the cold sulphur rich water of the lake while enjoying the view.
I have to admit that a very strong force that made me want to trek up the slopes of Mount Pinatubo was a scene from the indie movie “100”. I got enthralled by the backdrop of the scene when the lead character, played by Mylene Dizon, dipped her feet into the waters of the lake. It really made me want to trek up the slopes of Mount Pinatubo. I knew that it was going to be an experience for a lifetime.
After spending a couple of hours at the slopes of Mount Pinatubo’s crater-lake, it was time to head back home. Our guide tells us that we had to leave the lake by 2pm for safety reasons. As we were hiking up to the slopes, we caught a glimpse of overnight campers setting up their tents. Our guide was again quick to share with us that campers need to secure their tents really well as the winds and the cold can turn very nasty in the evening. The picture of Mount Pinatubo’s crater that welcomed you just a few hours back is the same scene that will bid you goodbye as you head back to civilization.
The trek back offers a different view of the scenes that you have seen earlier in the morning. A slight drizzle along the way was like a small goodbye gift from the great Mount Pinatubo. On our way back to San Juliana, aboard the 4x4, we also had the opportunity to see the gentle residents of the area, the Aeatas, who were spending an afternoon along the riverbed.
I learned a lot from the trek, apart from getting the fulfilment of having conquered Mount Pinatubo. I admire the resiliency of our fellow Aetas and the residents of Pampanga, Tarlac, and Zambales. These people are great examples of how people will rise up from the ashes despite of the adversities brought about by the eruption of Mount Pinatubo. They have turned a disadvantage into an opportunity - an opportunity that I did enjoy and will encourage others to also enjoy. It was tough going up the slopes of Mount Pinatubo but it clearly tells us that there will always be hope. And as the movie “Jurassic Park” phrases it…life will find a way.
Marc del Rosario
I believe in education, entrepreneurship, and caring for the environment.