The Augustinian church at Cebú is especially famous as the location of a statue of the infant Jesus, the Santo Niño (the "Holy Infant”).
There is great devotion to the Santo Niño in the Philippines. This statue was made of wood by Flemish artisans and brought to the island in the year 1521 by the first person to sail all the way around the earth, Ferdinand Magellan. In 1543 an expedition led by Ruy Lopez de Villalobos reached the Philippines. Villalobos gave the Philippines its present name in honour of the Spanish prince who later became King Philip II of Spain.
There were four members of the Order of Saint Augustine in this expedition. They were on board the ships as chaplains, and not travelling in order to commence a mission. King Philip II authorized another expedition in 1559, this time led by the conquistador, Miguel Lopez de Legazpi. The expedition set out from Mexico in 1564 with two secular priests and five Augustinian missionaries led by the famous navigator Andrés de Urdaneta O.S.A.
Legazpi reached Cebu on 27 April 1565 but was met by resistance from the natives of Cebu. The Spanish ships fired their cannons, causing much damage to the town. Under cover of bombardment, a detachment of troops landed in Cebú. The natives, led by Rajah Tupaz, fled to the interior. In one of the damaged houses, a Spanish soldier named Juan Camus found an image of the child Jesus. The image was believed to be the same one presented by Magellan to the wife of Rajah Humabon in 1521.
Two weeks after the arrival of the ships from Mexico, on 8th May 1565 land was reserved as "a place for a church and convent of San Agustin where the Santo Niño image had been found." The five members of the Order of Saint Augustine immediately started to build a church for the Santo Niño. The church was completed within six weeks months of the arrival of the expedition of Don Miguel López de Legazpi (or Legazpsa) from Mexico in 1565. It would have been made of nipa and bamboo, and been little more than a makeshift structure.
This time frame is certain because the first ceremony in the church was led by Father Andrés de Urdaneta O.S.A. on 1st June 1565, immediately before he began his historic discovery of a safe route by sea back to Mexico. Thus, on the 1st June 1565 Andrés de Urdaneta O.S.A. had the satisfaction of blessing the new church before he sailed back on his historic voyage to Acapulco in Mexico. On that day, the image of the Santo Niño was carried in solemn procession from the hut where it was found to the new temporary church, built at a distance from the military houses.
Along the way, they were joined by two visiting chiefs and thirty men. A later augustinian historian, Jan de Medina O.S.A., reported that this first Mass there was celebrated "with more spirit and devotion than with music and splendour." Andrés de Urdaneta O.S.A. addressed the local people in a few Malay words in his sermon; and after the Mass Legazpi again made offers and appeals for peace. The procession with the Santo Niño was the first significant step towards peace between the local people and the men of the King of Spain.
The Santo Niño had belonged to the people of Cebu for one generation. They asked Him for rain, for health in time of diseases and offered to Him fruits and flowers. And now they discovered that He was the God of the Spaniards also. Thus, the Santo Niño showed Himself as the Prince of Peace breaking down the walls of hostility, uniting both races as members of the family of God, and fellow citizens of the angels and saints.
Cebu has been a centre of Augustinian presence since 1565, when Andrés de Urdaneta O.S.A. and four other Augustinians who landed at Cebú began a very fruitful apostolate. The first house of the Augustinians in the Philippines was established there. The statue of the Santo Niño now lies in the Basilica del Santo Niño. It has become a favorite destination for millions of pilgrims each year. On the third Sunday of January each year, in Cebú, millions flock to the streets for a colourful festivity, honoring and placing the island and the entire Philippines under his patronage.
The construction of the Minor Basilica at Cebú.
The minor basilica at Cebú is at least the fourth church built on that piece of ground. The first church of San Agustin to be built in Cebú was a simple structure of wood and nipa. Two weeks after the arrival of the ships from Mexico, on 8th May 1565 land was reserved as "a place for a church and convent of San Agustin where the Santo Niño image had been found."
The five members of the Order of Saint Augustine immediately started to build a church for the Santo Niño. It was completed within six weeks months of the arrival of the expedition of Don Miguel López de Legazpi (or Legazpsa) from Mexico in 1565.
On 1 June 1565 the image of the Santo Niño was carried in solemn procession from the hut where it was found to the new temporary church, built at a distance from the military houses. Along the way, they were joined by two visiting chiefs and thirty men. The natives were deeply impressed by the blaze of candles and the solemn singing. The four other Augustinians at the ceremony were Diego de Herrera O.S.A., Martin de Rada O.S.A., Andrés de Aguirre O.S.A. and Pedro de Gamboa O.S.A..
The building of this first church had been supervised by Diego de Herrera O.S.A.. This church was destroyed by fire in 1605. Pedro Torres O.S.A. immediately started the construction of a new church, again made of wood and nipa. It was finished in 1626, but two years later it too was destroyed by fire. Juan Medina O.S.A. immediately started the construction of another church. He chose to use using stone and bricks, which was a great innovation in the Philippines at that time.
Construction at Cebú stopped, however, because the structure was found to be defective - the bricks began to crumble after a brief period of time. The next attempt began on 29th February 1735, and resulted in the basilica that still stands today. It involved the planning of Diego Bergaño O.S.A., (Augustinian Provincial), Governor-General Fernando Valdes, Bishop Manuel Antonio Decio y campo of Cebú, and Juan de Albarran O.S.A., who was Prior of the Augustinians at Santo Niño. The residents of Talisay also did four weeks of work, and Fr Francisco Aballe O.S.A. also tried to help with his parishioners from Mactan.
The decision was made to build the church in stone, but relatively weak coral stone was the only type that was plentiful in the area. The main walls, made of massive coral stones, are up to two metres thick, making the building look somewhat like a fortress as well as a church. The stones were quarried from Capiz and Panay by an army of bancas (small boats). The molave wood came from the mountains of Talisay and Pitalo and was transported in bancas hired in Argao and Carcar. Fr Albarran O.S.A. confessed that there was much difficulty in quarrying the stones.
Despite the seemingly impossible task, Fr Albarran was not discouraged. He used white stones to make the lime, with one banca transporting some 400 pieces of stone. There was also another obstacle: the lack of chief craftsmen and officers, which forced Fr Albarran himself to acquire some knowledge of architecture, for which he was able to tap into the experience of the Augustinian friars at Intramuros (Manila) and in Mexico at building thick-walled churches and monasteries that were “earthquake-proof.” The church was finished not later than 1739. The main altar is massive, and has three rows of niches designed for the placement of statues. In each niche is the statue of an Augustinian saint, and in the top niche the statue of the Santo Niño stood for over two centuries.
In its architectural style, the facade of the Minor Basilica is a blending of Muslim, Romanesque and neo-classical features, all set in what has otherwise been described as a high degree of integration. The façade is preserved in its original stone texture and natural color, conveying an air of simplicity of line and elegance. The bell tower serves as a counterbalance to the convent located on the opposite far end of the building. It has two blind and open windows alternating in shape, ending up in triangular pinnacles with a circular disc crowned by balusters and a bulbous dome of Muslim influence.
The center section of the building is the focus of attention. There the arched main entrance to the Minor Basilica is balanced by the side rectangular corners. A double-edged triangular pediment crowns the facade. The original features of the church have been retained except for the windows added by Father Diez O.S.A. in 1889. During the last World War, a bomb fell inside the Church but the Image was not damaged. Blown from its niche, its fall was interrupted when it caught on a wall lamp, graceful and unscathed. It was one of the numerous miracles and powers attributed to the Holy Image.
Since the aerial bombings of downtown Cebu City continued mercilessly, the Santo Niño was moved to the Redemptorist church on the edge of the city, and remained there until 20 April 1945. Both the basilica and the Augustinian monastery suffered damage during World War II.
In 1965, both church and convent underwent a major restoration for the occasion of the fourth centenary of the Christian Faith in the Philippines, under the rectorship and leadership of Fr Restituto Suarez O.S.A. Its walls were marble plated, the floor was covered with terrazzo, and leadlight windows added. Cardinal Hildebrando Antoniutti, Papal Legate to the Philippines, conferred upon the church the title of Minor Basilica, a special privilege granted by the Pope Paul VI.
In the foreground of the photograph (above), the pilgrim centre can be seen. It is an outdoor area with extensive seating on the left and right, where far more people can be accommodated than can fit inside the minor basilica. The pilgrim centre is used for large gatherings of pilgrims. At the same time Ferdinand Marcos, who then was President of the Philippines, declared the Sto. Niño Basilica a national shrine because of its historical significance.
In 1976, Fr Restituto Suarez O.S.A. and the Augustinian community prepared a special chapel for the Santo Niño. Atop a special pedestal, the statue is protected behind burglar-proof glass. The walls of the room are marbled, and is usually adorned with hundreds of red roses, which perfume the air. Because pilgrims often need to wait in a queue - for many hours on the busiest feast days - to enter this chapel, its external approach is via a restful garden.
On 19 February 1981, when Pope John Paul II celebrated Mass in Cebu in front of one million people at the old Lahug Airport, the statue of the Santo Niño was brought to the papal altar. Religious activity associated with the Minor Basilica takes over much of Cebu City on the third Sunday each January, when all of Cebu is abuzz with the fiesta for the Señor Santo Niño, called the Sinulog Festival.
On that particular Sunday the largest of all festivals in the Philippines takes place in the streets of Cebu. The Sinulog takes its roots from the candle vendors in front of the Augustinian Minor Basilica of Cebu. It is rendition of the sinug, which is a prayer-dance offered either in supplication or in thanksgiving to the Santo Niño. It is by candle-waving women who follow a simple forward and backward routine while offering prayers for any devotee.
The dance routine of the sinug is said to be in imitation of the sulog (current) of Pahina river of Cebu City. While dancing and waving candles, the women chant: Pit Señor! Pit Señor! which is short for Sangpit sa Senyor or loosely translated as "Hail the Lord!" Devotees have also adopted the chant as an ejaculatory prayer and one would normally hear petitions like: Pit Senyor kang Tatay kini ("Hail the Lord, this one's for my father!")
On the third Sunday of each year, countless visitors from outside Cebu the Philippines come to Cebu City to witness the Sinulog Festival where performers from various parts of the archipelago congregate in supplication or in thanksgiving for the blessings received from the Holy Child.
The rector of the Minor Basilica in 2005, Fr Andrew Batayola O.S.A., undertook some necessary repairs and renovations to the exterior walls and tower of the Minor Basilica. There was some concern about the crumbling nature of the coral stone in the tower block, and this proved tragically prophetic in 2013.
The Earthquake of 2013
Damage was caused by an earthquake of 7.2 magnitude in the southern Philippines on the morning of Tuesday, 15 October 2013. The Basilica was immediately closed to the public on the day of the earthquake on 15 October 2013 after most of its belfry toppled down. The Basilica remained closed for fourteen months. As a National Cultural Landmark in the Philippines, the Minor Basilica is protected by government laws which explains why there was a meticulous undertaking of the restoration of the bell tower, which was the part of the Basilica that suffered the greatest damage. The limestone bell tower of the church, the latest version of which was built in 1735, had been destroyed in the earthquake; it crumbled and all but one of its bells fell to the ground.
The basilica was finally given official permission to re-open on Christmas Eve 2014. Fr Jonas Mejares O.S.A., the Basilica’s Rector, announced that the National Historical Commission of the Philippines (NHCP) had given their clearance for the re-opening of the Minor Basilica on 29 December 2014.
The re-opening of the Minor Basilica on 24 December 2014 allowed for its use at its busiest time each year, i.e., during the days leading to the feast day of the Sto. Niño in January 2015. In the year 2015 the feast had special significance, being the 450th anniversary of the finding of the statue of the Sto. Niño (Holy Child) in Cebu, and also the 450th anniversary of Augustinian presence in the Philippines. The Basilica Minore del Sto. Niño is the oldest church in the Philippines.Photo GalleryFor the Augnet gallery on some of the ministries Augustinian Province of Cebu, click here.
Collapse of a portion of the Basilica Del Sto. Niño in Cebu caught on video. (You Tube: 1 minute) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MNeJ0N0AtXk
Traditional Sinulog dance at the Basilica del Sto. Niño. (You Tube: 1 minute) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UlDm0Zoluf4
Kabilin Sugbo, Sinulog ug ang Sto Niño Part 02. (You Tube: 15 minutes 17 seconds). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wrSJAapfHrY
Inside and outside the Basilica. (You Tube: 5 minutes 4 seconds) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HLqCI5KMg6w
Pedro G. Galende O.S.A.: ANGELS IN STONE: AUGUSTINIAN CHURCHES IN THE PHILIPPINES. San Agustin Museum, 1996. New, Hardcover, with dust jacket, with 206 photos on 402 pages. Measures 10 by 13 inches. ISBN 9719157100. This huge and beautiful coffee table book is filled with full-color pictures and essays about the various Augustinian churches throughout the Philipppines. There is a foreword by National Artist Nick Joaquin, and the chapters include churches from: Metro Manila, Laguna, Batangas, Bulacan, Pampanga, Tarlac, Nueva Ecija, La Union, Ilocos Sur, Abra, Ilocos Norte, Iloilo, Capiz, Antique, Cagayan Islands, and Cebu. This is the most comprehensive book on colonial churches in the Philippines. AN4257