The Manila Monastery Built by the Pioneers of Love
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The Manila Monastery Built by the Pioneers of Love

In the heart of old Manila stands the formidable San Agustin Church, the Philippines’ oldest stone church, named after the saint whose teachings inspire the Augustinians friars, the “Pioneers of Love” who spread the gospel of Jesus Christ to the lands newly “discovered” by Western explorers.

The current church structure was completed in 1607, alongside the adjacent monastery, which was destroyed in World War II and rebuilt in the 1970s as a museum that should be on every visitor’s must-see list.

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Photography: Aaron Chung Yao Kian

EARTHQUAKE BAROQUE

San Agustin is the only church in the walled city of Intramuros to survive World War II and countless earthquakes as one of the four Philippines churches inscribed in the UNESCO World Heritage List. Its facade may be a drab gray (it was an eye-popping peach not too long ago), but it’s the interior that makes a statement—trompe l’oeil (trick-eye) ceilings that appear three-dimensional and opulent crystal chandeliers cement the church’s status as the “Wedding Capital of the Philippines”.

The museum is just as surprising. On the outside, it looks like an extension of the church. As I approached its riveted wooden doors, a wedding entourage decked in 18th century French attire—including white wigs for men and brocaded full skirts for women—spilled out into the parking lot. The previous wedding party was still having their photos taken at the altar, so this group in period attire had to wait for their turn to march into the sanctuary, probably powdering their noses and enjoying the airconditioning in the meantime.

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Photography: Aaron Chung Yao Kian

THROUGH THE CHRISTOGRAM

I paid for admission and stepped inside another riveted door, this one carved with the IHS monogram (shorthand for Jesus) and a heart pierced with arrows, the Augustinian emblem. I was stunned. It was no longer the dusty collection of liturgical vestments that I had seen on my first visit more than 10 years ago but now among the best museums in Manila.

San Agustin Museum looks much younger than its 400 years, thanks to a 2015 facelift that saw the addition of climate control, gallery lighting and thematically organised displays.

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Photography: Aaron Chung Yao Kian

The museum primarily deals with the work of the Augustinians, the first Catholic missionary order that arrived in the Philippines, establishing hundreds of towns between the 16th and 19th centuries.

LOVE IS ALL AROUND

The Augustinians were also lovers of art and beauty, music, science, education and wisdom, traits that are reflected in the galleries. The cloisters are lined with huge paintings, each corner marked with a retablo (altar) dedicated to a saint. In the sacristy, large wooden wardrobes look as if they open to Narnia. I didn’t dare to open them, but I did peek inside the palatial drawers. Inside were elaborate liturgical vestments with raised embroidery in gold and silver thread. In glass cases were chalices used for the Mass, decorated with precious stones, and centuries-old statues of saints in wood and ivory. These valuable treasures are well worth the price of admission.

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Photography: Aaron Chung Yao Kian

Notable Filipinos are interred in the crypt, which makes it interesting to read out the names on the tombstones. The courtyard is a quiet green space so rare in Manila.

On the deserted upper floor, I walked around Chinese ceramics, antique furniture and a gallery of medicinal plants and flowers that was arranged like a herbalist’s shop. I was looking forward to getting the best view of the church at the choir loft (entry is through the museum), but it was renovation during my visit. Perhaps I shall see the 18th century pipe organ and Asia’s oldest choir books some other time. The old library was also sealed off. I wonder if anyone is still allowed to read the books within. There are also paintings of the many schools still run by the Augustinians today.

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Photography: Aaron Chung Yao Kian

TRANSCENDING TIME

Given the long history of the church and museum, San Agustin has inevitably witnessed more than what the exhibition notes tell us. We do know a few momentous events. It was looted by British soldiers when they invaded Manila in the 1760s. The monastery’s Sala de Capitulacion was where the Spanish drafted their terms of surrender of the Philippines to the United States in 1898. It also served as a hospital and an internment camp of the Japanese army during World War II.

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Photography: Aaron Chung Yao Kian

The Augustinians will forever be remembered for their role in the building and evangelising the country. The schools and churches are living testament of this. For the unseen side of their mission, the San Agustin Museum spreads the message of love that manifests itself through different mediums and disciplines beyond the religious vocation—a true labour of love.

San Agustin Museum
General Luna St corner Calle Real, Intramuros Manila
Opening hours: Daily, 8am-6pm
Admission fee: PHP200

GETTING THERE AirAsia flies to Manila from various destinations. For flight info and fares, visit airasia.com.

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