Bacolor, Pampanga, the Philippines
May 24, 2010
On a bright and brisk summer day, when the clouds had deserted the heavens, I passed with my fellow road-tripper, Ki, through a dusty country road in Bacolor at the heart of the province of Pampanga, and found ourselves within view of a ghostly-white stone church.
The San Guillermo Parish Church starkly stood in this dusty whiteout: the powdery sand reflected sunlight with twice the glare; the vast open land, rendered more panoramic by squint-size vision, had been ironed into an immense flatness by volcanic dust.
It used to be one of the largest churches in Pampanga. Now, its imposing 12-meter height had been halved by force majeure. The more-than-400-year-old church was inundated by an avalanche of lahar in 1995 from the slopes of Mt. Pinatubo that erupted three years before. The erstwhile volcanic mud that buried entire houses and engulfed the landscape had since caked into solid ground with a mantle of whirling white sand and gray pebbles.
One enters the church through what was formerly a window. The blinding brightness outside was distilled into a soft glow: the kind of light that blurs rather than illuminates. It is refracted light that creep up from small windows strangely set too low on the floor. These half-moon fenestrae were the exposed parts of partially-buried cathedral windows.
The low ceiling made the nave oddly incongruous with its long aisle and a grand retable at the far end. It somehow looked like an ambitious chapel. The exposed wooden crossbeams supporting the truss roof added to that rustic chapel vibe.
Considerably taller than the nave, the retable had been set back at the domed apse, excavated from its premature burial and reinstated under the dome where it could fit. The statues therein had also been restored by the people of Bacolor, a testament to their indestructible faith and devotion to their cultural heritage.
Bird songs echoed through the church, each chirp doubled as it were by the entombing dome which had become a virtual aviary. Amidst the frenetic fluttering from one dark-toned religious painting to another, small black figures hung immobile on the wall. The birds were not alone, I realized; they shared the cavernous dome with sleeping bats, little ebony spots dotting the ivory-white wall. The nebulous lighting, the avian vocals, the cataleptic bats all meshed into an alpha state of a wakeful dream.
A doorway to the right of the church led us to a hall lined by statues, paintings, photos, and artifacts that told the history of both the church and the town: the Museo de Bacolor. We were the only souls there other than the life-size statues of saints and chubby cherubs that mutely watched us stare back at them. A sense of antiquity stifled our words to a hush.
The process of restoration of the devastated church was documented with before-and-after photos displayed on cracked masonry. It must’ve required meticulous hard work for the townsfolk to restore these antiques, but the spirit with which they undertook this project was clearly undaunted. Their efforts had paid off.
A couple of miniature doorways with vertical clearances for dwarfs opened to claustrophobic chambers. One was a prayer alcove with short pews dramatically lit by natural light from small stained-glass windows. Another contained non-religious artifacts, including a curious golden chest and a meters-long wooden boat. Alas, there were no inscriptions and there was no one to ask, just antiques laid bare yet shrouded by shadows. These chambers were dim, simultaneously tranquil and spine-tingling. In one ambry, a striking reproduction of the Shroud of Turin hung like an apparition, slowly revealing its form in the darkness. It stopped me in my tracks and I gasped as the hair at the back of my neck stood up.
Surprisingly, the museum was open to the public for free with a small souvenir shop by the museum should you feel compelled to part with your money. It was unmanned though; the place, in fact, seemed deserted which lent an eerie air to the ambiance. Ki and I found ourselves mostly alone in its dark corridors and sunny courtyards. This must’ve been a similar ominous peace and quiet when people evacuated the town before the onslaught of lahar: the calm before the storm, if you will.
The area around the church was well-tended: the trellised courtyard by the parish office, the cloistered walkways, even the aged belfry. But the lone well at the back of the church silently beckoned despite a pall of gloom that washed over it in the beating sun.
Beyond the well and across the field of overgrown grass, mounds of concrete and heads of angels jutted out from the weedy ground. It then dawned on us that this was a churchyard. Rows of multi-tiered tombs lined the horizon. We took wide strides over half-buried tombstones and mausoleums that were scattered about. The dead here had been buried twice: first six feet under, then six meters under petrified lahar. Cenotaph tablets formed clearings on the grassy field, marking the approximate locations of loved ones’ internment deep in the ground.
We nonchalantly took photos of the remnants of the cemetery. I believed that the dead remained dead; they did not haunt the living. Strangely, the headshots of half-buried angels would not show in BOTH our cameras (and also in our laptops). The rest of the shots were fine. It was as if some unseen hand had banished them from our memory cards and, consequently, our memories.
As local superstition would have it, we should’ve asked “permission” from sepulchral spirits when tarrying at their turf. They must’ve been awakened with each footfall and click of the shutter. After this brush with the supernatural, I doubted my disbelief.
As Edgar Allan Poe wrote, “…they must sleep, or they will devour us–they must be suffered to slumber, or we perish.”