Manila Cathedral

Aka. Basilica Minore of the Immaculate Conception; Catedrál Mayór de Manila.

The principal church of Manila it was rebuilt nine times, ten if we count an earlier bamboo and thatch church built in 1571 before Manila’s constitution as a diocese. The first three of ten structures were of light material, the fourth was of stone and masonry. The last cathedral structure was built after World War II (1954-58).

Churches of light material. At the site presently occupied by the cathedral, Miguel Lopez de Legazpi had a temporary church built in 1571. Technically, the church was not a cathedral because Manila was no a diocese yet nor did it have a bishop. A catherdal by Church law is the diocesan bishop’s church.

A Royal Decree of 13 May 1579 ordered that a cathedral be built in Manila, although the city did not have its bishop until the arrival of Domingo de Salazar, O.P. in September 1581. Salazar completed the construction of wood, bamboo and nipa structure in 21 December of that year and placed the church under the advocacy of the Immaculate Conception. Damaged by the fire of 1583, which razed Manila, a temporary church was hastily built but was damaged by a typhoon in 1588.

Churches in stone and masonry. Although a Royal decree of 1587 ordered the construction of a more permanent church, nothing was done until 1591 under Gov. Gen. Gomez Perez Dasmariñas. Work seems to have gone slowly because a 1597 report states that the church had neither bell tower, baptistery, chapter hall nor cloister. The earthquakes of 1599 and 1600 ruined the church completely. This was the first cathedral built of stone and masonry.

A second cathedral in masonry and stone was begun under Abp. Miguel Benavidez in 1603 but work was suspended in 1605, work resumed in 1610 and the church was solemnly blessed in 1614. This cathedral had three naves, seven side chapels including the main one and 10 altars. The structure suffered heavy damage because of an earthquake on 1 August 1621. Although work to reconstruct the church was done under Don Pedro Flavio, interim administrator of the archdiocese, the work came to naught when the 1645 earthquake reduced the church to rubble. It was necessary to build a temporary church in the Plaza Mayor.

On 20 April 1659, under Abp. Miguel de Poblete, the cornerstone for a third cathedral in stone was laid. Poblete died without seeing the church completed although he had left his estate for its completion. In 1671, the capilla mayor was finished, and during the reign of Abp. Diego de Camacho y Avila, the two sacristies, chapter hall and other offices were completed and work on the belfry begun. The cathedral was designed simply: four chapels to the right and three to the left flanked the central nave, a fourth and larger chapel with its sacristy, the Sagrario, was erected to the left. In 1737, Abp. Juan Angel Rodriguez replaced the wooden dome with one of stone.

On 12 August 1749, Taal Volcano in Batangas erupted violently, sending plumes of ash as far north as Manila. Earthquakes and aftershocks accompanied the eruption because in a report of the same year by Abp. Pedro Martínez de Árizala, the archbishop states that he found the cathedral’s fabric so damaged that it was beyond repair. The Jesuit architect Joaquin Mezquita and the military engineer Tomas de Castro concurred with the bishop. Both noted how the fabric was badly designed from the very start and recommended that a new cathedral be built from ground up.

The fourth cathedral. Preparations for the new cathedral were begun when demolition of the old structure began in January 1751. On 17 April 1751, a royal decree ordered the submission of the new plans and a detailed cost estimate. Abp. Pedro Martínez de Árizala had the cathedral thoroughly rebuilt following the plans of the Theatine priest, Juan de Uguccioni. This can be considered as the fourth stone cathedral because Uguccioni had the floor level raised, demolished the last two piers of the main nave and the sacristy to build a transept and apse, raised arches to support a dome and opened the upper registers of the nave for a clerestory. He had five of the seven side chapel demolished, expanded the Sagrario and designed a new façade influenced by the Il Gesú in Rome. Work on the renovated cathedral was completed in 1771.

A fifth renovation of the cathedral happened after 1771. How thorough the renovation was is not clear but by the end of the 18th century the cathedral had a new facade designed by Nicolas Valdes. The Valdes’ facade retained much of the character of Ugucionni’s design; however, Valdes removed the volutes flanking the second story, added finial and statuary to the facade. The cathedral survived to the next century when on 3 June 1863 it suffered extensive damage because of an earthquake.

Various plans for repairing and renovating the cathedral were drawn, among them is design by Vicente Serrano y Salvatierri. Seranno proposed a Romanesque inspired facade flanked by twin towers.

The sixth cathedral was started in 1872 with the architects Luciano Oliver, Vicente Serrano and Eduardo Lopez Navarro working at it in succession. The facade hewed closely to Serrano’s earlier proposal, minus the flanking towers. The bell tower which had stood at a distance from the nave since the time of Abp. Poblete was rebuilt on the same spot, following the old plan of six graduated octagonal floors connected to the nave by a long corridor.

The cathedral plan followed the Uguccioni’s, except for the addition of more side chapels, and the new design combined elements from Byzantine, Romanesque, Baroque and Gothic architecture. Isabelo Tampingco designed and executed the decorations for the portals.

Blessed on 8 December 1879, the cathedral lost its tower during the 1880 earthquake. A more squat and lower structure of four stories replaced the tall structure. This is the picture of the cathedral that appears in early 20th century photographs.
Damaged in 1945, during the bombardment of Manila, the cathedral (the seventh in stone) was rebuilt from 1954-58, following plans by Filipino and Italian architects and designers. The principal architect was Pablo Antonio, who retained the Romanesque facade saved from the war but built a slender quadrilateral bell tower closer to the nave. He eliminated the narrow corridor that joined the two structures found in the earlier plans. Narrow windows covered with stained glass replaced the clerestory found in the turn of the century structure. Galo Ocampo designed the stained glass windows, which depict the Virgin Mary under her different titles (apse and transept) and the corporal and spiritual works of mercy (nave).

Collateral chapels, each with a particular advocacy, flank the triple nave. Beneath the main altar is a crypt where the archbishops of Manila are buried.

Worth noting is the bronze main door, which depict the history of the cathedral. The doors were designed and cast in Italy.
Sagrario. A chapel built beside the cathedral as a private oratory of the cathedral canons. Following medieval practice, the bishop of a diocese had his own community of priests or canons who handled the affairs of the diocese. They, like monks, had common prayers daily spaced through out the day. For this they gathered in the Sagrario. The Sagrario also functioned as the parish for the Spaniards living in Manila. The Sagrario was not rebuilt when the cathedral was reconstructed in 1954.


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