Simbahan. What originated as a word connoting a place of adoration, a temporary structure or refurbishment made in honor of anitos, (lesser deities), during feasts in pre-Hispanic Philippines has, with the conversion of its inhabitants to Christianity during the Spanish colonization period, come to mean a permanent place of worship, a church.
From their itinerant lifestyles and widely scattered settlements, the reducciones, the system implemented by the Spaniards to hasten the Christianization and Hispanization of the natives has led to the formation of Christian communities thus founding the towns and later, cities. The simbahan thus, emblems of faith and authority for most of these communities for more than three centuries, have been mute witnesses to the unfolding history of its people’s lives and daily struggles.
The colonial church, imposing and grand as what the friars planned and built was more a product of what materials were available, of what natural disasters conspired to shape it, of what extant memory the padre has of the flamboyant churches in the mother country in Spain or, in most cases, those in Mexico and of what the artisans, without a concept of how a Baroque church actually looked like, eventually executed their versions of it to become a truly unique Philippine version that most scholars now categorize under Peripheral Baroque.
It is this uniqueness that has made the Philippine colonial churches special that makes it more apparent to conserve these, or what remains of it. Unfortunately, through the years, wanton destruction and neglect has taken its toll. Eager parish priests and parishioners have made their mark on these churches to update their look with the times. Demolished part of a section to give way to a wider door or an additional portal or to construct an adoration chapel that seems to be the rage nowadays. Centuries old ceiling paintings, testament to folk artistry, erased forever and in its place poor copies of Michaelangelo’s masterpiece from the Sistine Chapel. Paletada, the “skin” that covers the exterior of the church is peeled off to appease some peoples concept of “a romantic look” but in the process weakening the very building blocks. Or demolishing an original structure and with it anything old and aging and in its place, a gaudy piece of concrete painted with the colors of the rainbow. The list can go on and on.
There is a need to know what we still have or what we have lost and in the process hope that something can be done about it before its too late and a major Filipino identity will just become a distant memory preserved in pictures and words.