Bantay Church and Tower as History

October 4, 2012
The bell tower built on a mound

I wasn’t suppose to see Bantay today but I did because I saw countless tourists gathered to have their pictures taken with the iconic red brick tower as background. I got curious if there was an event. I later found out that those folks were pilgrims. The church is popular pilgrimage among Catholics because it houses the miraculous image of Apo Caridad, the Lady of Charity, the oldest Marian icon in the region.

According to historians Galende and Javellana the builders feared that the enormous belltower, that doubled as an observation tower, would squash the church in the event it collapse during an earthquake. So they built it away from the main building. Compared to the customary church towers built (usually attached to the main building) during that same century, these towers in Ilocos are distinct because they were designed to perform multiple functions. From this belltower one could see a fantastic view of the town, including Vigan, the vast western seas and the mountains in the east.

In the Visayas, we have the “bantay sa hari” (like that of Mandaue but these towers, sadly, are fast diminishing), towers that have no bells but served as sentinels against pirates and Moro raiders. Ilocos’s Bantay, the town’s name, must have been derived from its bell tower’s role during those days. Similar to Cebu, the Augustinians built these structures that doubled as defensive towers which were sometimes armed with canons like that of Argao.

An old house that serves delicious grilled pork bbq!
The western seas

Bantay is home to one of the first native author in our history, Pedro Bukaneg, who also helped the friars learn Iloco during the crucial years of putting the northern region under the bells. In Bantay, he co-wrote the first book written in Ilocano, “libro a naisuratan ami a bagas to doctrina cristiana” in 1621. Bukaneg is an interesting historical character, but like Pinpin, little is known about him. It is said that he appeared in the river, a baby floating in a basket like Moses. “Christianized heathen” according to some Ilocano historians is the true meaning of “bukaneg”. It was likely that he was abandoned because he had perceived physical disabilities. Adopted by the Augustinians and was sent to Manila to study. Inside the convent he became a linguist, a master poet and a musical genius. Bukaneg and Pinpin are examples of native converts that became zealous advocates of spreading the religion. The missionaries and their native scribes pioneered literature in the local languages because evangelization, they figured, will spread much faster, become more potent, when its agents speaks the local language. Teaching Spanish would’ve been impractical, almost impossible given the missionaries number so even if there’s a decree that all subjects must be taught Spanish, the friars never prioritized this (a case of, obedezco pero no cumplo).

Another figure that became part of Bantay history are the Silangs. In San Agustin, Diego Silang imprisoned a handful of friars including the bishop. When the British successfully took Manila, Silang collaborated with them to overthrow what remains of the Spanish in his Ilocos. He was appointed by the British, the Governor of Ilocos. In the end he was killed by a fellow Ilocano – a man denounced as traitor because he sided with Filipinos who wanted to stay Spanish against Silang’s, who wanted to go under British. He was killed in a house not far from the church. After the assassination of Silang, his wife Gabriela continued the struggle but was later captured in Abra and was hanged along with his men. This husband and wife story presents to us an admirable story of heroism for love and freedom but their concept of liberation was limited to their Ilocos, they were operating in that confined space because the Filipino idea was yet to be born. To claim that their movement was one that is national, or moving towards a united revolution, is historical allegory.

In recent years, I’ve written more on churches, their cultural and historical importance, than any other heritage structures. I feel I’m beginning to sound more like a religious nut to some people. But you know, tangible heritage, what’s left of it, are mostly churches these days – a huge chunk of it . These centuries old buildings dominates our heritage landscape, while the clusters of bahay na bato and all the other civilian structures built during Spanish Philippines era has been largely removed from our landscape. Economics has a lot to do with this situation. The preference of descendants and local governments to make profit rather than contribute to society by preserving these centuries old structures. But the root of our peoples eagerness to impart from our heritage can be traced to how history is taught as national education. Aided by revisionist historians text books that regards Spanish era as “colonial”, thus, deserving no merits affected conservation in all levels.

The campaign to eliminate our hispano filipino memory by detaching us from it has been for the most part successful because this disinformation campaign has become our history text. Unwittingly, these so called nationalist historians, desperately wanting to make the Filipino accept their asianic golden age by debasing his hispano filipino past, assisted the cultural and economic intrusion of the Americans. Instead of embracing the idea of an decolonized Filipino, the Filipino in turn went to the culture that America introduced. In the end, we ended up with neither a Filipino identity that is asianic nor hispano, we became the brown styled, wannabe Americans.

Not unless we understand what these monuments of our heritage represents, we’ll remain the kind of Filipinos our failed historians wanted us to become. We’ll never see an end of Filipinos who unconsciously declares their revulsion towards the accomplishments of our hispano filipino ancestors and the culture they bequeathed us within their circle of Filipino friends but among outsiders and foreigners lay claim with pride “my grandparents are Spanish”, “I have Spanish blood”,  and ” my grandparents, they spoke Spanish!”.

San Agustin of Bantay


Behind these mountain must be Provencia de Abra!
The bells of Bantay


Salamat kaayo sa Ginoo sa tanang kalipay nga among gibati diri sa pagsuroy-suroy diri.. a Visayan note in the church log book.
The ruins at the side of the church
The guide usually acoomodate tourists who wants to climb the church tower. To avoid children from loitering and climbing the tower, volunteers guards the church grounds which I thought is a good idea.

I spoke with the church’s tour guide and he told me stories about local movies and music videos shot in the grounds of the church.My sweet Lord. What a comedic relief this was. I was tired traveling all day, listening to him was a welcome break. Yeah, he should have lectured me with the towns historical facts but hey, lets cut him some slack, these guys don’t get paid (they’re given an allowance everyday for food), but still they look after the church and its visitors, and that’s a very noble thing to do. I’m sure he knows more but we just never had that conversation. Anyway, he gave me a snippet about a popular telenovela in channel 2, I would like to share this here. This is his exact words: “Katrina and the guy will be married here (with Bantay church as background), this will be the ending of the telenovela”. I don’t know what he was saying but I wrote it down. You’ll never know when these kind of information would come in handy!

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  1. Bukaneg was an example of our native peoples excellence in fields of education, in which the whole country was denied during the Spanish regime.

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