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Michael Aquino

Grand Theft "Statue" at Baclayon Church in Bohol, Philippines.

By January 31, 2013

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Image Mike Aquino, licensed to About.com.

If the Philippines is known for its fervent Catholicism, then the island of Bohol is a stronghold of the faith, manifested in its many beautiful churches across the province. Yet few of these churches have the history or the significance of Baclayon Church, located on the coastal town of Baclayon a few miles east of Bohol's capital Tagbilaran.

For a 300-year-old church, the Baclayon Church is very well preserved for its age. Remarkably, the Baclayon Church even survived the Japanese invasion of World War II; the captain of the local Japanese Imperial Forces was a Catholic, and was persuaded to spare the churches when impending defeat prompted the Japanese to destroy and massacre as they retreated.

The stout walls of the church, meant to be proof against earthquakes and pirate invasion, have stood tall against all threats but one: art thieves.

The reredos (known locally as retablos) behind the altar have long housed expensive and richly clothed carvings of Jesus, Mary, and the saints. Thieves have often taken a shine to such invaluable antique statuary; these statues are made of ivory, and are prized by rich collectors who don't ask awkward questions.

Image Mike Aquino, licensed to About.com.

The statue of Saint Blaise, for instance, has already been stolen twice. The first time it was stolen in 1987, the collector who purchased it eventually suffered pangs of conscience that drove him to return the relic. The next collector who bought it when it was stolen a second time in 1997 happened to be a friend of the first collector, who saw the statue and persuaded his friend to return it to Baclayon Church!

The statue was not returned in its entirety; the precious original ivory hand that held the saint's staff has vanished, and may have been sold as a separate item. To forestall further temptation, the original Saint Blaise is kept in the museum, while a copy stands in its place in the church.

The original statue of Saint Anthony of Padua, however, is lost for good, having been stolen in 2001. The massive irony of the situation - a missing statue of the patron saint of lost objects - is not lost even to our guide, a demure, conservative-seeming Catholic volunteer. "[Saint Anthony's] own image, he wasn't able to help with that!" she chuckles. "It was stolen right before his feast day, and hasn't been recovered."

Image Mike Aquino, licensed to About.com.

Today, the statues standing in the retablos are only copies of the originals, which are stored in the second-floor museum. We have no pictures to show of the museum and its relics - photography is forbidden there - but if you want to see the inside of Baclayon Church (and there is plenty to see!) check out our walking tour of Baclayon Church.

For details on transportation to (and around) Bohol, read our articles on Transportation to Bohol and Getting around Bohol. For cheap accommodations on nearby Panglao, this list of budget resorts in Panglao Island ought to help you.

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