The Franciscans in the Philippines, 1578-1898

The main church of the Franciscans in Intramuros before it was destroyed during World War II

The main church of the Franciscans in Intramuros before it was destroyed during World War II

Franciscan seal bas relief on the belfry of Guiuan Church

Bas relief of Franciscan seal on the belfry of Guiuan Church

The Ordo Fratrum Minorum (Order of Friars Minor, OFM) is a mendicant religous order founded by St. Francis of Assisi.

The first 15 Franciscans arrived in the Philippines in 1578, the second religious order to come to the country. The first were the Augustinians (1565). They were then followed by the Jesuits (1581).

Upon their arrival, they were temporarily housed in the Augustinian convent in Intramuros. On August 2, after moving into their own place the previous day, they blessed their first church dedicated to the Nuestra Señora de los Angeles (Our Lady of the Angels).

Guiuan Church in Eastern Samar

Guiuan Church in Eastern Samar

Church in Tanay, Rizal

Church in Tanay, Rizal

This church (top photo), initially made from bamboo, nipa and wood was eventually made into a stone edifice in 1739. Considered one of the impressive churches in the walled city, with the chapel of the Venerable Orden Tercera (VOT) perpendicular to it, it was destroyed in 1945 during World War II. The present location is currently occupied by the Mapua Institute of Technology.

In many Franciscan churches built during the Spanish colonial era around the country, the order’s emblem can often be found inscribed on the façade of the churches, in many bas reliefs in the interior as well as inscribed on the bells. In Guiuan’s belfry (second photo from top), it is found inscribed at the second level. The emblem consists of the crossed arms of Christ and St. Francis with the image of the cross behind it.

Church in Marilao, Bulacan has a rather unusual belfry which is built further at the back of the facade

Church in Marilao, Bulacan has a rather unusual belfry which is built further at the back of the facade

The Franciscans evangelized a big part of Luzon and the Visayas. In Manila, they had their main church in Intramuros (Our Lady of the Angels), and Sta. Ana, an old settlement even before the Spaniards came.

They took charge of the the southern towns of Bulacan like Obando, Sta. Maria, and Marilao, to cite a few, near Manila (the northern part were taken by the Augustinians). It is in the present provinces of Rizal, most part of Laguna, Quezon and the entire Bicol region that they founded and established many towns and cities as well as built impressive stone churches that still stand today.

The beautiful churches of Lucban and Tayabas in Quezon, the ornate ones in Pakil and Paete, all in Laguna, as well as the massive Naga City Cathedral, San Jose, Sagnay, and the quaint Lagonoy churches in Camarines Sur are just a few of these still extant edifices that they built. There are also ruins, especially in Bicol, and a few watchtowers like in Gumaca, Quezon, testament to the devastating muslim slave raids.

During the middle of the 19th century, they took over the spiritual administration of Samar and Leyte. These two provinces were first administered by the Jesuits but after their expulsion in 1768, the Augustinians took charge.

Basilica of Tayabas, Quezon

Basilica of Tayabas, Quezon

Beautiful church of Pakil, Laguna

Beautiful church of Pakil, Laguna

Other than churches, the Franciscans also pioneered charitable works and the caring of the sick. They have founded several hospitals as early as 1580 like the San Juan de Dios Hospital and San Lazaro Leprosarium, even predating the English colonies in the Americas (Pennsylvania Hospital, 1751). Two others are Naga Hospital of San Diego (1586) and Hospital of the Holy Waters in Los Baños (1592).

In literature, Fray Pedro de San Buenaventura wrote the Vocabulario de la lengua Tagala, a Spanish – Tagalog dictionary published in Pila, Laguna in 1613. A Bicolano-Spanish dictionary was also published in1745.

Authorship of the country’s first book, the Doctrina Christiana, published by the Dominicans in 1593 is attributed to Fray Juan de Plasencia. There are still other literary works that the Franciscans have done.

Church in Malilipot, Albay

Church in Malilipot, Albay

The order also built many schools, dams and roads. However, one controversial issue that marked them was the two novels of Jose Rizal, the Noli me tangere and El filibusterismo which negatively portrayed the Franciscans in the country during the Spanish colonial period.


  1. Hi Estan, The facades do all look very similar. Marilao’s church is unique and such a heavenly color! What is the name of that one?

    It’s interesting to me that different photos of the same church at any given time can evoke a different feeling and emotion. Many good photographers like you, can take a photo but present a totally different “picture” of the same church… I guess that’s why one can never get tired of shooting church photos, and observers never get tired of looking at these photos.

  2. queeniebee,

    It’s St. Michael’s Church. Regarding photographing churches, one has to know when’s the best light possible and know how to handle such kind of structures. 🙂

  3. Sir Estan,
    my gratitude for your great info’s and pics of franciscan churches and world heritage churches.

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  6. Rizal portrayed the Franciscans negatively in his novels because they were the most loved, known, and popular priests and brothers in the Philippines at that time, especially in Manila and in the surrounding Tagalog speaking areas. Strategically, if one has to attack Spanish friars, the best is to attack tthe most popular one. If the Spanish Franciscan friars were all evil, how come the Filipinos stayed Catholic even after the American period when Protestantism was introduced.

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  11. The same Rizal tells that in order to attack the Church instead of writing articles in newspapers, he was advised to write novels (I think because once you read a paper, you through it away, whereas you keep books ). So these novels are fiction (that is, are false ) intentionally aimed to attack what the freemasons thought to be against the enlightment of the Philippino: the friars. Friars, like other trades, are not intelectuals or professors. Their mission is to spread the Gospel and help people to gain the salvation of their souls. It is very uncaring of Mr Rizal and very little filipino delicadeza to humiliate one of these friars showing him unable speaking Latin. The only thing you can say about someone who preaches something is if this person lives what he preaches or not. Still it is up you to accept it. I have to say that the friars converted the filipino heathen through their living example and sharing with them the hardship of their daily living.
    I have to say also that Mr Rizal succeded. Little he knew that more than a century afterwards, his writings are still throwing mud to innocent people whose grandparents were unborn when Rizal wrote this panflet.

    As everyone knows, franciscans are one of the most popular orders in the world. Only you need to count their numbers.

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  13. are there any references sir used in this article as well as for the “The Dominicans in the Philippines”?

  14. Hi, do you have any documents regarding the presence of the franciscans or the sfo or the tersera orden franciscanus in Pasig? ty

  15. Hello, I am not sure how to begin, but I am doing a research for Rev. Fr. Gil Martinez. He was a Spanish friar who became a parish administrator for the Borongan and Guiuan churches in the late 1800s. I would like to know what happened to him. He sired 2 children with a Filipino lady from Taft, Samar of which one was my grandmother. I would like to know what became of him and when he left the Phil. for Spain. Does anyone know how I can begin to know more about him? Kindly point me to the right direction, please.


  16. The Franciscans took over all Samar parishes in 1768 from the Jesuits except for Guiuan and Basey, which were run by the Augustinians until ca. 1804 when these too went to Franciscan administration.

    The Franciscan P. Fr. Cayetano Sanchez Fuertes has a wonderful essay on Rizal and the Franciscans (“THE FRANCISCANS IN THE LIFE AND WORKS OF JOSE RIZAL”) in the Philippine Quarterly of Culture and Society, Vol. 11, No. 1 (March 1983), pp. 1-56.

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