Six Meters Under

Bacolor, Pampanga, the Philippines

May 24, 2010

On a bright and brisk summer day, when the clouds had deserted the heavens, my friend Ki and I drove 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.

San Guillermo Parish Church in Bacolor

The San Guillermo Parish Church stood, stark and solitary, 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 was once among 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.

Front of the Church, Back of an Angel
San Guillermo Church Eclipsing the Sun
Foot-Level Fenestra

We entered the church through what was formerly a window. The blinding brightness outside was distilled into a soft glow. The refracted light crept up from tiny windows set too low on the wall, blurring the interior rather than illuminating it. 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.

Vertically-Challenged Nave of San Guillermo Church
Bats, not in the Belfry, but in the Church

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.

Museo de Bacolor
Saints and Statues at Museo de Bacolor
Wooden, Eathern, Masoned

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.

Before and After Restoration
Jars in an Ambry in Museo de Bacolor

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.

Shroud of Turin in Museo de Bacolor
Belfry of San Guillermo Church from Museo de Bacolor
Religious Relics at Museo de Bacolor

Surprisingly, the museum was open to the public for free with a small souvenir shop by the museum. It was unmanned. The place seemed deserted which lent an ominous peace and quiet to the ambiance. We found ourselves mostly alone in its dark corridors and sunny courtyards.

All Quiet on the Church’s Front
Patchy Masonry
Boughs of Bougainvillea

In the dead silence of the mossy belfry beside the church and the lone well at the back, the trellised bougainvillea in full bloom was the only sign of life. The area around the church was well-tended, despite this curious absence of people.

Well at the Churchyard of San Guillermo Church
San Guillermo Church from the Churchyard
Buried Twice: Mausoleum at San Guillermo Church

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.

Cemetery Condo: Philippine-Style Public Cemetery
In Memoriam

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 later in our laptops. The rest of the photos were fine. It was as if some unseen hand had banished them from our memory cards and, consequently, our own 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.”

From Dust to Dust

48 thoughts on “Six Meters Under

    1. Hi! Wow, thanks for the vote of confidence. I was tickled pink by the prospect of being “featured”! Hehehe

      But I’m just a point-and-shooter. Even then, I don’t use half the features of my handy digicam due to sheer ignorance. I’ve never owned an SLR in my life! So yeah I’m not even an amateur. Just someone who likes taking snapshots. 🙂

  1. Another lovely post. Churches are such odd structures in that people can experience the visit in totally different ways. I see them as fascinating architectural, historical, and anthropological locations while the man/woman next to me might be having far loftier thoughts and feelings. Thanks again for the trip.

    1. Or they may have spooky experiences. Like I did. 😀

      Couldn’t agree with you more. Churches are fascinating. Actually, places of worship in general. In most cases, they are architectural wonders, contain great works of art, and are preserved through the centuries. They represent what is sublime in a given culture. And they’re usually at the vortex of historical events.

      Since I started this blog, I realized I mostly visit either churches/cathedrals or temples (or wat as they’re called in Cambodia and Thailand). 🙂 Soon, I’d be visiting a mosque in Bandung, Indonesia and I’m super looking forward to it. It’d be the first mosque I’d see up close!

  2. aaaaa….a place shrouded in mystique…proved by the banished angels….a place, where you could stay for hours in serenity and at the same time ill at ease cause of all those spooky saints all the bats hanging on walls….and yet, a place worth visiting and feeling…

    beautifilly – written, really love it…and the shots imply just what they are aimed at…’ they must sleep’ now…you’ve got what you wanted…;)))
    thanks for the trip…you know how much I love churches, cathedrals, mosques.. with all their architecture and atmosphere…..looking forward to new posts….

    1. Yeah I did get what I wanted, so the sepulchral spirits can sleep now. 🙂 It’s truly worth visiting, so when are you jetting over, Teacher Reny?

      The next few posts will be about more churches. You also get what you want. 🙂

  3. You have the most amazing eye for beauty that most people would miss. I am in awe of your pictures and am now praying that I can have my “Some day” (hence, the name of my blog) in visiting these amazing places. Your story telling is wonderful. Makes me feel like I am there with you. So happy you found me today!
    Much Love, Deanne

    1. Wow, I’m overwhelmed by your kind words, Deanne! I could learn a thing or two about descriptive writing from you too. Your Holy Land post was both fun and insightful. Be reading more when I get some downtime.

  4. Beautiful AJ! Your photos have taken me on a journey to this extraordinary church. U love visits to churches. There is something so mystical and mysterious, yet powerful and tranquil at the same time. You have captured my imagination while I was reading this.

    1. Thank you for taking time to read my wordy post. 🙂 I patterned the first line with that of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher” and the last line is a quote of the last sentence of Poe’s “The Premature Burial.”

  5. Hello there, sana mabisita nyo pa ulit ang bacolor and know more about Bacolor History. Lapit lang bahay namin dyan sa San Guillermo at masarap manirahan dyan. tahimik na lugar,masasayang mga tao at napakabilis na ng pagunlad nito ngayon. Kaya tara na at bisitahin ang Bacolor.

    1. Salamat Gadoy! Gusto ko talaga makabalik sa Bacolor. Sigurado ako na marami pa ako makikita at matututunan. Mukha ngang tahimik ang parteng ito ng Pampanga. Pero sana sa pag-unlad ng bayan, sana patuloy na mapangalagaan at maprotektahan ng mga mamamayan ng Bacolor ang mga historical heritage ng lugar tulad nitong simbahang ito.

  6. The church and the falling snow on this page transport me to a previous life when there was snow and wine in abundance. Where am I, now?

    Age, this post was truly a delight. Seeing the familiar bougainvillea made it all the more special. They grow everywhere, I presume.

    Wishing you the happiness and cheer of the season.

    Joy always,

    1. How uncanny. Mom and I were just talking about my grandmother’s garden of bougainvillea of different colors (lavender and salmon, included). We’re planning to plant 2 rows of them in our driveway. Yes, they are very common here.

      Thanks for reading this old post, Mrs. Sus! Holiday cheers to you!

      1. Love the post too, good piece of writing. I also mentioned you in my year-end message in my blog. Thanks. Those Zara and Burberry are second-hand, 🙂

    1. Beauty and story – the church certainly has those in spades. Not to mention, hope and the indomitable human spirit. 🙂 I hope people visit not only in November.

  7. very detailed coverage of the church’s history .. i hope it can restored sooner. With hundreds of years of history it is a pride of pampanga that witnessed all of its fall and glory.

    1. It is restored and fully-functional. Of course, it just can’t be shoveled out from 6 meters of sun-baked lahar. And it shouldn’t because that’s really a significant part of the charm and history of the church.

    1. The spirits did not make an appearance, but they did make their presence felt. How uncanny that only the photos of gravestones would not show in my camera and PC. The rest of the photos were fine. And it NEVER happened again with my camera, so I can’t charge it to device malfunction. Creeeepy!

  8. I would have wanted to see the half-buried angels, but let’s not insist if some strange force wouldn’t allow it…. It’ nice to know that the church and museum were restored even after the havoc that lahar created.

    1. Shades of Poltergeist, really. So yeah Chakaness, we shall not insist. After the onslaught of lahar, I wonder if the church also gets submerged in floods that happen regularly in Pampanga now.

    1. Not really a waste. The destruction is part of the story and soul of this church. It may have been structurally diminished but the tragedy also added to its mystique.

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