Kalayaan, Laguna, the Philippines
November 13, 2011
The church in Barrio Longos stands as a vigilant sentinel of centuries past; its baroque stone facade and belfry, blackened by the elements and overgrown with weeds, bear witness to the ravages of time and circumstance. The church appears forgotten, yet additions such as a wooden main portal, a door awning, and latticed windows – palliative attempts to evoke its lost grandeur – show that it has not been completely abandoned.
Unlike most churches of its kind, San Juan Bautista Church (the official name of Longos Church), established in 1669 as a parish church, is tucked in a barrio a distance away from the town plaza. It lost its parish church status in 1959 when the poblacion was transferred to another barrio. Fr. Gabriel Ma. Delfino, the current parish priest, describes this period as “years of plunder.”
Glaring in their absence are the capiz windows, replaced by iron latticework to protect the church from further looting. Some items had been sold and transferred ownership, such as those now on display in the San Agustin Museum in Manila – how they ended up there is a subject of much gossip and speculation. The church stands without a convento, which was dismantled, its Spanish stone blocks and precious lengths of hardwood carted off to Paete and used to build a Catholic school there.
The church regained its parish status in 1996, but also lost its roof the same year, pried off along with its wooden rafters by a twister. A decade later, gale-force winds of super-typhoon Milenyo blasted through the windows, dislodged the roof anew, and destroyed the top level of the retablo. The trusses supporting the new roof of galvanized iron, however, have been positioned too low, leaving no room to restore the missing level. The third level was notable for containing the image of the Holy Spirit as a dove, surrounded by local fruits representing the Nine Fruits of the Spirit. The carving was considered a unique retablo design.
After suffering major losses at the hands of man and nature, the church is now at a new phase in its tumultuous history: restoration and preservation. Fr. Delfino is careful to differentiate between restoration and renovation, and calls Longos Church “a laboratory church,” a conservation effort in progress. His goals are to preserve the high altar of carved adobe, to make a curatorial accounting of the existing images and items, and to restore missing elements, to wit: the flooring, which was originally finished with Machuca tiles, the pulpit and tribuna, which have been removed; the posts, which are newly constructed but should be covered with appropriate tiles and lighting; the main portal, which should have appliques on its bare squares (preferably symbols of Jesus and John the Baptist); the altar, whose carvings have been concealed by a new stone tabernacle; and the windows, which should have capiz and grills, not latticework.
The task at hand is not merely preservation of relics but, more importantly, of representations of Biblical and Catholic doctrines that highlight the rationale and provide the context to otherwise meaningless rituals.
Not all is lost in Longos Church. Several liturgical artworks have survived and must be preserved. Foremost among these is the bas-relief of an adolescent John the Baptist done in the primitive carving style of Paete. The original baptistery retains its old ceiling, giving the room an antiquated ambiance. Remnants of the original wall paintings of garlands and floral designs are faded but can still be made out, even in the dark. The baptismal font, though leaking, is at least still there. The highlight of the baptistery is a bas-relief of John the Baptist and Jesus at the Jordan River. The wings of the Holy Spirit have chipped off, but there are no plans of replacing them just yet so as not to subject the artwork to further damage. Although I’m not Catholic, these relics are part of my national heritage as most of these religious artworks were created by Filipino artists and artisans who put local color into their interpretation of Judeo-Christian beliefs.
Meanwhile, contemporary artworks of the present generation are kept in a repository within church grounds, a testament to the continuity of the tradition of religious art in the country. One painting depicts a saint who looks suspiciously like Michael Jackson holding up a large crucifix.
A considerable part of the charm of Longos Church lies in the fact that it has withstood the vicissitudes of life. Fr. Delfino unabashedly shows anyone who cares to listen which parts of the house of worship have been lost and destroyed.
Parish priests are not only guardians of faith but also of heritage. With their work centered in ancient and historic edifices, their role as keepers of their parishioners’ spirit extends to their country’s soul. They should possess a deep appreciation and understanding of the history and extant legacies of the churches under their care as Fr. Delfino does. That would be half the battle won; support from the government and the people would bring heritage conservation to full fruition. The good priest keeps the faith that Longos Church will one day be a heritage church.
This post is based on my article The Battered Church that appeared in BluPrint, vol.1, 2012.