Boljoon, Cebu, the Philippines
March 5, 2011
Boljoon, Cebu Island, 1823.
Monsoon winds from the south had been agitating the waters around the Spanish settlement town of Boljoon. Atop a watchtower, a sentry spotted a fleet of pancos outlined against the horizon. He frantically hoisted a red flag on a bamboo pole as villagers, assigned sentinel duties for the week, cried “Moros! Moros!” They rang a massive bell at the baluarte and prepared the canons peeking out of the loopholes. At the toll of alarm, brawny menfolk mounted their armada of wooden sailboats, the balangayes.
Ten balangayes raced to meet seven pancos at sea and canon fires exchanged. Three pancos capsized as the others gathered speed and collided with the Cebuano fleet. The warring vessels locked into one another. The Boljoanons engaged the Moros in close combat using arnis martial arts moves while teetering on their bobbing boats on choppy water. At this point, the battle was waged by the bolo (machete) and the kris (wavy dagger).
This decisive three-hour battle kept the raiders at bay for nearly three decades. Exhausted and bloodied, the Boljoanon warriors returned to shore where villagers loudly cheered for their victory and mourned for their losses. Then the swarming crowd cleaved to make way for Fray Julian Bermejo, “el capitan parroco” – the warrior priest of Boljoon.
Fast forward to 2011.
Boljoon is now a sleepy town; its fortresses are mere vestiges of its action-packed past. Fr. Bermejo’s baluarte, under restoration during my visit, and Boljoon Church’s belfry have similar fort windows. The belfry housed not only a bell but also canons back in the day.
Lindzey Romero, the president of Boljoon Heritage Foundation, is kind enough to give a crash course in Boljoon history to travel buddy Ki and me. He explains that Fr. Bermejo built a chain of fortifications in the coastal towns of Cebu and trained Cebuanos in tactical defense to quell a spate of Moro raids. The Moros from the south were resistant to Spanish colonization, unlike the indios in the Visayas and Luzon who had been easily subjugated and converted to Catholicism. This caused constant conflict between the Moros and the Spanish.
These days, Boljoon has no more need for el capitan parroco. But a new season brings with it new dangers. Looting, defacing, and neglect plague the country’s historical heritage. It’s nothing short of a miracle that Boljoon’s colonial treasures have mostly dodged such dangers. Still, Boljoanons should remain vigilant in safeguarding them. Lindzey comes off to me as this town’s heritage guardian, attempting to preserve the vestiges of history that add quaintness to the naturally picturesque Boljoon.
Boljoon Parish Museum
Intermittent excavations have been conducted since the early 1920s, pioneered by archaeologist Carl Eugen Guthe who scoured the country’s southern islands, to unearth the remains of a pre-historic settlement where Boljoon Church now stands. Several human bones have also been dug up, indicating that the Cebuano ancestors buried their dead under their dwellings. A rendering of that ancient community with the church structure outlined for scale and Spanish era artifacts are exhibited at the museum, located at the ground floor of the rectory. Most memorable are an uncredited Madonna and Child painting of undetermined origin and extant handwritten baptismal records from centuries past.
Boljoon Church (The Church of Patrocinio de Maria)
Rebuilt in 1783, Boljoon Church is one of the best preserved colonial churches in the country. Much of the church’s coral stone structure and bas-relief survive to this day. Even the gold-gilded retablo has not lost its sparkle. Local artist Miguel Villareal painted the wooden ceiling in the early 1900s with drawings of various church architectural designs. However, much of the church’s charm lies in the fact that its front door invitingly opens up to the sun-drenched water of Bohol Strait. Behind the belfry, a walled Spanish churchyard overgrown with flowers and weeds, lies in partial ruins. Ki and I find it by chance while taking photos of the church at different angles.
Partly concealed by the bell tower, an ancient cemetery sparkles in the glow of the afternoon sun. The gate’s skull-and-crossbones design and the pediment’s carving of an otherworldly figure lend an eerie ambiance, only balanced off by the fragile beauty of a bed of flowers.
A recent addition to the church complex, Escuela Catolica was built in 1940. The house marries masonry and wood in stately harmony. I stop at its front steps to take everything in. The intricate calado woodwork on its pediment base and the prayerful murmurs from a religious meeting detain my senses.
Other than Lindzey, we have the privilege of meeting other townspeople who embody the soul of Boljoon. Lani is the neighborly sort who injects local trivia to Lindzey’s historical stories. Without qualms, she reveals that she’s a descendant of a friar in a real-life lineage of fictional Maria Clara. Her Spanish lineage shows in her sharp facial features and fair complexion. Someone was “el amante parroco” in Boljoon’s history. Rounding up the small town cast, the town clown, Jose, takes care of all the laughs.
Before we know it, Boljoon is bathed in the last rays of sunlight. As Ki and I wait for a Ceres bus by the church plaza to take us back to Cebu City, we hear the church bell peal. It vaguely conjures up the long-gone era of el capitan parroco, although its relics are preserved through the efforts of the capitan of the town’s heritage. The wars and violence that have shaped Boljoon’s history and architecture seem unimaginable in the present peace and quiet. Just beside Fr. Bermejo’s baluarte, we see young men playing soccer with nary a care and the elderly walking in brisk half-steps to evening mass. All is well with the world in Boljoon.