Historic church in Sorsogon town recalls Spanish rule and heritage


BARCELONA, Sorsogon—During election period when local politicians use even the divine to garner sympathy, campaign materials show photos of candidates with the image of the most photographed church in the province, the Saint Joseph Parish Church in this town.

Cristina J. Racelis, provincial tourism officer, said the baroque structure is indeed the most photographed house of worship in Sorsogon and one of the oldest and well-preserved religious icons in the Bicol peninsula.

Cedric Sarmiento, a water district staff, said foreign and local visitors who pass by the town as first-timers would stop and take photos of the church.

Racelis shared the same observation that this church could drop the jaw of a first-time visitor.

The church location had followed the defensive setup adopted by the colonialists of positioning churches either on hilltop or close to and facing the Pacific Ocean, Racelis said. The belfry served as a watch tower to spot enemies approaching the shore.

“When the bell rang, it could mean several things,” she said. “It could be a warning that enemies were coming. It could be an alert when a storm would land. It could be announcing a wedding or a celebration.”

Sans vertical and horizontal bars, the stance of the church owes its amazing strength to the massive brine-water rocks of the Pacific that were shaped into blocks,  Antonio E. Falcotelo, an engineer and contractor, told the BusinessMirror.

“It stands due to the thickness of the blocks, more than 1 meter in width when stuck together,” he said. “Since there was not yet cement at the time, the adhesive used was mixture of lime and tangule.”

Tangule is the tiny sweet and sticky rounded fruit of a local wild shrub, the size of a rosary bead and eaten by children.

Racelis said eggs were also used by the Spaniards to stick building blocks together.

Lola Rita, 81, said an ancestor was one of the workers from Oas, Albay, dispatched by friars to build the Saint Joseph Church. Her ancestor settled in this town and propagated the Nicomedes family name.

The Spanish topped the church with tisa roofing, the forefather of asbestos, Falcotelo said. The original flooring was fitted with large marble tiles.

He noted that the present front and sides of the church have massive doors made from high-value woods. The ceiling is mostly made from the kalantas tree.

The original altitude of the belfry was altered when reconstructed after its upper segment gave in to a storm, sinking the loft slightly lower, he said.

Teodorico Escanilla, 50-something who rang the bell as a sacristan when he was young, said goats scaled the belfry by the stone staircase as they foraged grass growing on church walls.

“Di ka maniniwalang ma-aakyat nila iyan,” he said. “Pero kaya nila pumunta sa tore. [You would not believe the goats could climb. But they could climb the spire].”

Facing the Pacific in just a shouting distance, the church makes a triangular coordination with the ruins of the Presidencia to the left—house of authorities of the colonial pueblo, and the ruins of the stone school building to the right—torchbearer to the young at the time.

The Saint Joseph Church, the Presidencia and the stone school building were built by Franciscan friars in 1874.

The building materials that made up the Presidencia and the stone school building were also sea-grown rocks stuck together by limestone and tangule, Falcotelo said.

Trilateral coordination of the church with a pueblo government structure and a stone school was the traditional setup of the colonial Spanish conquistadores in establishing settlement, Racelis said.

In the 1960s, a story circulated around the town that a secret underground tunnel starting somewhere at the altar had connected the church and the Presidencia by which friars would secretly meet with authorities to give advice on government affairs.

Falcotelo, who also was a sacristan in his younger years, dismissed it, saying that it was just a plain tale.

He said that townsfolk take pride for having the Saint Joseph church still standing and greeting the sun as it ascends from the Pacific each morning for over a century now.

“We are the only town in Sorsogon with a well-preserved church and two Spanish ruins,” he said.

The Saint Joseph Church is a favorite haven for people seeking solace and solitude in prayer. The growing foliage on the outer walls of the church sways to the gentle breeze of the salted wind from the Pacific.(Oliver Samson)

Today, the two ruins stand in the municipal park immediately next to the Pacific. The ruins flank the center 25 nipa huts that represent the 25 barangays of the town. The huts showcase local produce during the annual town fiesta.

The original name of Barcelona was Danlog, Racelis said. It was renamed after the capital of Catalonia when its landscape reminded the nostalgic colonialists of that beautiful city in the Iberian Peninsula.

Barcelona celebrates its annual town fiesta on May 18 and 19 in honor of its patron, Saint Joseph the Worker.

The original article is published at Business Mirror on May 2, 2013.

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