The Church of San Agustin, or more popularly known as Paoay Church, is one of the four Baroque Churches in the Philippines inscribed to the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 1993. The other churches are the Church of San Agustin in Manila, The Church of La Nuestra Señora de la Asuncion in Ilocos Sur and the Church of Santo Tomas de Villanueva in Iloilo. These were recognized because they satisfy the following selection criteria:
(ii)…exhibit an important interchange of human values, over a span of time or within a cultural area of the world, on developments in architecture or technology, monumental arts, town-planning or landscape design;
(iv)…be an outstanding example of a type of building, architectural or technological ensemble or landscape which illustrates (a) significant stage(s) in human history;
According to Ivan Henares, this church is said to exhibit ‘the pinnacle of earthquake Baroque architecture.’ The Agustinian friars perhaps knew that the Philippines is vulnerable to earthquakes and volcanic eruptions since it is located in the Pacific Ring of Fire. This is one good reason for the 24 massive buttresses surrounding the church. These gave the needed structural support for such natural calamities.
But I wonder how much of the church’s original structure survived the earthquakes in 1706 and 1927 (as described in an inscription at the front entrance). At any rate, it was indeed a privilege for me to see a second UNESCO World Heritage Site in Project Windmills or our series of adventures in the Ilocos Region (the first was the historical town of Vigan). Had I known beforehand of existence of the other church in Ilocos Sur, we would have squeezed that even in our already cramped itinerary.
We reached the site via a 20-minute tricycle ride from the Batac-Paoay intersection. We paid a standard fare of Php50.00 which was good for 4 persons. We arrived there in time for an unforgettable lunch at Herencia Café which is located just across the church. Aside from tourists, there were also people setting up a sound system, tents and plastic chairs. They were then preparing for a double celebration that would occur the day after: Imelda Marcos’s birthday celebration and inauguration as a new congresswoman as well.
The belfry is located a few feet away from the church. This was also used as a watchtower during the Philippine revolution and the Japanese occupation. It is said that Fernando Poe Jr. had the safety steel railings installed before they filmed some Panday movie scenes inside the tower. They are still there and are very much in use to this day. You have to hold on to the railings for a sense of safety as the wooden planks creak under your weight. But once you make it to the top, you would then be treated to a 360° view of the town – the Paoay dunes and the South China Sea just to name a few.
There are only three bells remaining. Only one is functional since the clappers of the other two are missing. Sadly, there are also graffiti present on the bells’ brass surfaces. There was one that stated ‘Jura Lex Zed Lex.’ To the guy who flaunted his ignorance: if you intend to callously write on a century-old artifact, get your spelling checked next time.
After our sand boarding and 4×4 adventures at the Paoay sand dunes, we headed back to Herencia to get our baggage. Just before we hailed a trike to get us back to the intersection, the afternoon sun casted a golden glow on the church façade. I was lucky to capture one photo of that moment before the sky became overcast.
The Church of San Agustin in Paoay is indeed not just a century-old church in Northern Philippines. It is also not just one of the 4 Baroque Churches recognized internationally. And it is certainly not just an important tourist destination in Ilocos Norte. It is in fact all of the above, and so much more.
It is a source of pride for every Filipino and a reminder of our rich cultural heritage. If viewed in that perspective, then everything must be done to ensure its preservation for the next generations to enjoy.