The island of Bohol in the Philippines maintains a vibrant Catholic culture that seems almost extinct in the country's big cities (except during major festivals in Manila like the Procession of the Black Nazarene). Perhaps it's the presence and prominence of old, very well-preserved churches like Baclayon Church that make it so: more than any other structure on the island, the Baclayon Church helps Bohol maintain continuity between its own colonial past and the modern present.
Baclayon Church - officially the Church of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception - is one of the oldest churches in the Philippines, construction having begun in 1717 and completed ten years later. Most of the original structure remains, and is still used for worship by local parishioners; neither earthquake nor typhoon nor Japanese invasion have come close to destroying the Church.
The main church building is a patchwork of old limestone and wood work, later repairs and additions, and adaptations to modern use and abuse. If you go on your own, you'll miss the clues in each detail (and there are plenty); you should request a guide from the parish office to explain what every little bit means.
- Bohol To-Do: visiting Baclayon Church is just one of a number of things to do in Bohol, Philippines.
History of Baclayon Church
The first Spanish missionaries to the area were Jesuits: Fathers Gabriel Sanchez and Juan de Torres set up a mission in Baclayon on the invitation of a certain Doña Catalina de Bolaños. Life in those times was not easy: in 1600, raids by Muslim pirates from Maguindanao forced the Jesuits to move their mission headquarters inland to Loboc town.
The continuing threat of Moro raiders ensured that any church built on the coast would have to be robust, almost fortress-like. Thus the new Iglesia de la Immaculada Concepcion was built to last. Owing to the lack of stone around Bohol, a 200-strong group of forced laborers dragged corals from the nearby sea, hacking them into blocks and using them to build the strong church walls.
A scaffolding of bamboo latticework secured the stones, then the whole construct was mortared into place with a combination of sand, limestone and eggwhite. A bell tower was also built to serve a second purpose as a watchtower against Moro attack. (A dungeon was also constructed to house criminals and heretics.)
After the expulsion of the Jesuits in 1768, the Augustinian Recollect order took over the parish and stayed there till the Philippine revolution of 1898. During their administration, the Augustinians expanded the church building, adding a transept that widened the sanctuary.
Recently, Baclayon Church has also taken on an added role as a center for the worship of Padre Pio of Pietrelcina, spurred by the alleged apparition of Padre Pio on the church's exterior wall.
Interior of Baclayon Church
Visitors gain entry into the church through a vestibule facing the parking lot. Upon entry, you can choose to enter the main worship area, or alternately, go up a flight of stairs to the Church museum on the second floor of an attached convent building.
- Inside Look: For the inside of the church in pictures, read our Walking Tour of Baclayon Church, Bohol.
The vestibule leads out into the church interior via a door beside the sanctuary: the area where the priest and his acolytes stand during mass. The sanctuary wall is an impressive gold and green confection, a series of alcoves done in gilded wood, each alcove inhabited by Jesus, his family, and Catholic saints.
There are three distinct retablos, or reredos, adorning the sanctuary wall. The alcoves in each reredo hold icons particularly important to both the Augustinians who managed the church and to the ordinary parishioners seeking redress from above. Statues of the Blessed Virgin Mary and Saint Augustine hold court alongside patron saints that address parishioner's most common devotions (Saint Lucy for eye afflictions; Saint Anthony of Padua for lost objects; Saint Blaise for afflictions of the throat).
The ceiling directly above the sanctuary is the only painted part of the church ceiling; the rest is currently blank, the original having been damaged by rains seeping through the roof. The fresco above the sanctuary features a painting of the Last Supper, icons of the four evangelists, and an inscription in Spanish: Ave Maria purisima, sin pecado concebida ("Hail purest Mary, conceived without sin"). These paintings are by no means ancient, having been painted in the 1950s by a Baclayon artist.
On the other end of the hall, the rear of the church holds a number of interesting relics:
- a carroza, or carriage, used to transport an effigy of the Virgin Mary through town during high holy days;
- a pipe organ first constructed in 1824, recently restored and still in use;
- marble tiles etched with the names of historic town notables.
Going back the way you came, you can climb a flight of stairs leading to the church museum on the second floor.
Housed in a former convent attached to the church, the museum safeguards an amazing array of artifacts related to the Catholic liturgy, as practiced in Baclayon Church for almost 300 years: priestly vestments (in different colors depending on the time of the year), choirbooks made from cowhide; relics from saints; church records dating back to the 1700s; ivory icons of saints; and a variety of other artifacts collected throughout the church's long history.
Visiting Baclayon Church
To get to Baclayon from the Bohol capital of Tagbilaran, go to the Integrated Bus Terminal and look for a jeepney or bus passing through the town (the jeeps will have "Baclayon" labeled on the side).
- Road to Baclayon: For more information on commuting around the island, read our article on getting around Bohol, Philippines.
You will only be permitted to enter the church if your clothes are sufficiently conservative; i.e. no shorts or exposed shoulders for women. Ladies whose outfits are deemed too revealing will be required to wear a sarong, or cloth, around their shoulders or legs when inside the church.
The church and museum are open for tourists seven days a week. From Monday to Saturday, opening hours are from 8:30am to 4:45pm, with a lunch break between 11:45am and 1:30pm. On Sundays, opening hours are from 9:30am to 4:15pm, with a lunch break between 11:45am and 1:30pm.
There's no charge to enter the church, but visiting the museum will cost you about PHP50 (US$1.20) per person. Photography in the museum is strictly forbidden.
For more information, you can reach the Municipality of Baclayon Tourism Information & Activity Center at +63 38 540 9474. Visit Baclayon's tourism center here: baclayontourism.com.