A reader asked me if, being an atheist, I don’t pay particular attention to churches when travelling. Sure, I do. I have a deep curiosity about churches — not for their religious symbolism but for their historical and cultural significance. Design and architecture are of special interest to me too. And if I have to name the religious structure that piqued my interest the most, it would be the Fo Guang Shan Buddhist Monastery in Kaohsiung, Southern Taiwan, which houses a thousand buddha statues in various sizes. If my old external hard drive hadn’t gone out of commission, I’d post photos of the place. Unfortunately, the photos from the Taiwan trip were in that hard drive.
I’m not sure if the reader who asked me about my (apparent lack of?) interest in churches was reacting to the recent spate of articles about Bacolod, none of which was about a church. If that was what he was referring to, he could have checked the archive where he would have found last year’s articles about The Angry Christ mural and the Chapel of the Cartwheels in Hacienda Rosalia.
Are those two the only churches I saw in Bacolod? No, during last year’s Bacolod trip, the first “attraction” we went to was the San Sebastian Cathedral. Like any tourist, my first instinct was to take photos. The problem was that the facade of the church was dominated by anti-RH bill tarps which totally ruined the aesthetic value of the photos and rendered the church building a mere vessel for the political bias of the priests running the diocese. So, I took one photo of the facade trying to leave as much of the anti-RH tarps out of the frame.
Then, I stood at the main door and took a photo of the interior. And that was it insofar as photos go. But the historical significance of the San Sebastian Cathedral never escaped me. Before the city came to be known as Bacolod, it was called San Sebastián de Magsungay and the name of the place is tied up with what is now the San Sebastian Cathedral.
When the Spaniards arrived during the first half of the 1500s, there was no Bacolod. By the second half of the 1500s, under Spanish rule, the settlement of Bago (a coastal city south of present-day Bacolod) became a township and one of its declared religious dependencies was a settlement called Magsungay located near the mouth of the Magsungay River. As was the common practice by missionaries at the time, settlements were “placed” under the protection of one saint or another. The Spanish missionaries placed the settlement of Magsungay under the “protection” of San Sebastian. The village grew and came to be known eventually as San Sebastian de Magsungay.
Slave raids were not uncommon at the time. After a particularly bad attack by Moro forces in July of 1755, the settlement moved inland to a bakolod, an Ilonggo word for hilly or elevated area, which is now Barangay Granada. Another Moro raid in 1787 made the settlement move again to the coastal area, the site of present-day Bacolod.
By 1788, Bacolod was declared a parish. By the early years of the 1800s, it had its own parish priest and no longer had to share the services of the parish priest of Bago. It was during the term of Fr. Julian Gonzaga that the first church in Bacolod was built in 1825. The original structure was a modest wood and galvanized iron affair.
Fifty years later, under Fr. Mauricio Ferrero, the construction of a stone church began. It seems that Fr. Ferrero had knowledge about construction and that was attractive to the then mayor of Bacolod. Tit for tat. The mayor would provide free prison labor to build the stone church but Fr. Ferrero would, in return, design and supervise the construction of a prison made of stone. What is today known as San Sebastian Cathedral was built with coral stone from Guimaras and hardwood from Palawan. The structure has undergone several reconstructions since.
I could have written all that last year. But I didn’t because I had no good photos to go with the article. Today, however, a little over a year after that trip and less than a month after this year’s trip to Bacolod, I reconsidered and decided to use the only two photos I took of San Sebastian Cathedral including that of the facade made ugly by anti-RH bill tarps. I decided that it is more important to tell the story about the old settlement, how its name evolved and its relation to the patron saint after whom the parish and the cathedral was named than to grumble about the tarps that uglified that cathedral’s facade last year.
Or, perhaps, the tarps on the facade should now be taken in the context of the successful passage of the Reproductive Health Bill into law. Today, those tarps symbolize the loss of the Catholic church in the Philippines.