Cabatuan Church: “Iglesia Primera El Centro de Iloilo”

July 22, 2010
The giant red church of Cabatuan

I went outside the city to visit Cabatúan Church. A tía told me that it is where the father of Senador Manny Villar hails from. I was not sure what to make out of that information but I did hear some news about him funding roads on this part of the country – that fact must be the senator’s reason. Cabatúan is a 3rd-class municipality and is located 24 kilometers outside Iloílo City. It took me around 45 minutes to get there by jeepney. The airfield of the new Iloílo airport belongs to Cabatúan, but the airport can only be accessed through Santa Barbara town. Hopefully, this helps increase the coffers of Cabatúan, a town which has been relegated to a low-income municipalidad today.

Since it was a Sunday, the plaza in front of San Nicolás de Tolentino was buzzing with human activity. I walked around the plaza and found it quite modern and spotlessly clean – cleaning is a preoccupation that the Ilongos seem to relish very much. The last scheduled morning mass had just ended. The market was packed and raucous, possibly the only time that it was like that. Many people were lining up inside what looks like a carinderia – I got curious to find out what it was all about. It turned out that the place was serving “batchoy”, an Ilongo specialty. And in this part of the province, it’s ridiculously cheap, so I gave it a try.

Manuel Bezeta, the Spanish chronicler, described Cabatúan as “de pintorescas y deliciosas vistas y el  clima es templado y saludable”. Much of what he saw is still visible today. The same Spaniard also shed some light on what the town was engaged during its heyday: “sus naturales se dedican con especialidad al cultivo de la agricultura”. And the Cabatuanons haven’t abandoned this agricultural spirit to this day. The Cabatúan was doing well then as it was commercially exporting rice outside en bastante cantidad, a successful venture that made the town progressive. Perhaps this is the golden era before the terrible events paid a visit. The wars that came – first with Madre España, then with the Yankees, and later Japan – had brought them economic ruin, much like it did to the rest of the country. They had good roads during their years of progress that are passable anytime of the year according to Bezeta (buenas calzadas transitables en cualquier época del año). A testament of this growth is the number of tributes collected from the town which was generally higher in the 1800s than any other town in Iloílo except Jaro.

And the Friar’s gave the natives crops that outlived their missions, “maíz, tabaco, cacao, azucar, trigo en abundante cantidad (in high quantities), café, pimienta, legumbres, etc” of these crops the one that has ceased to be cultivated is wheat (and tabaco in this region) – this is intriguing as this illustrates that the missions has attempted to introduce wheat culture but it never flourished (which is attributed to a number of factors). Just imagine if it had succeeded, we would not be importing wheat for our breads and poultry feeds. Unlike the other crops that have been with us for so long that we no longer deem them foreign, wheat, never quite made it. Another interesting industry that is now lost in Cabatúan (and other parts of Iloílo) is sheep raising. The taste of mutton was never palatable to us – and we had little use for its wool as our hot weather forbids its use.

The mighty Cabatuan river

The Cabatúan River, which made their soil fertile and productive was, according to Bowring, “abundant with crocodiles”. It was low and wide when I crossed it; the shoreline was lined with gigantic rocks. There is a newly constructed bridge right beside the old one. The old bridge has metal frames but utilizes wood blocks as tracks. It is single lane and incredibly, the wooden bridge is accessible to trucks.

I was interested to know if the town was named after Batúan, a souring fruit used in popular Ilongo dishes. It is a fruit related to the mangosteen: the round yellowish green fruit is unfamiliar to many Filipinos but common in Ilongo cooking. My mother told me that the town was named after the fruit, but websites like Wikipedia listed several other possible sources (but of course, you can hardly rely on what they write there since virtually anyone can edit the information). This is the dilemma with the etymology of town names since record-keeping began when the Spaniards came. It makes it difficult to trace the real origins of prehispanic names that are predominantly based in oral tradition. The name Manila alone has several possible sources that even up to this day, nothing has been proven to be the real version.

San Nicolas, the super saint of the Agustinos' massive bellfry in Cabatuan
A retablo carved in quarried stone

The Iglesia de San Nicolás de Tolentino is the “first and largest red brick” church in the Visayas region. The retablo is the tallest in the province of Iloílo. The church was considered the “Iglesia Primera En El Centro de Iloílo”during the 1800s. Its red-brick finish is one of the community’s crowning achievements. It is the only existing Spanish colonial church with three facades, six belfries, and a massive convent. For all these wonderful things, one man deserves to be credited: Fray Ramón Alquezar, who, in his three decades of leadership, also built roads and other valuable infrastructure around Cabatúan. The friar also introduced brick making in the town, possibly to supply the materials needed for his church. During the Japanese invasion, the Japs burned the convent and utilized the bricks for their landing field (the site of the new Iloílo airport). It gives you a picture of how vast the place was that mile long air strips was built using its red bricks. The next town’s church in Janíuay was not as fortunate because their church was completely destroyed and was never rebuilt.

The Cabatuanon's Spanish era cemetery
One of the many gates of the Cabatuan cemetery

The Romanesque cemetery of Cabatúan is another interesting structure in this “pilgrimage town”. A visit to Cabatúan is never complete without a casual walk, no matter how eerie or strange it may feel. Like all the other major projects of the colonial government, it was built with the highest quality and artistic design at that time. The camposanto once had a dome similar to San Joaquín’s Catholic cemetery but now only has a flat top – they probably repaired it. The gateway arch is beautifully designed. The native limestone and wrought-iron grills gives it an ancient-like appeal.

The town celebrates its feast every 10th day of September. A distinctive practice during the celebration among the Cabatuanons is the distribution of bread that has been “blessed”. These breads are known to have miraculous healing benefits. I’m curious to know if these breads are similar to the panecillos of Pampanga which also honors Saint Nicholas. While this bread ritual has lost its popularity here in our country, there are still many who still clings to this tradition. All around the country, even in old towns, traditions are slowly giving ground to modernity. Most of what is retained are tied with religious celebrations, like the fiesta and pascó for example, and with the problems confronting the Catholic church (and people losing interest in their relationship with the Church), it makes you wonder if one day we’ll have to be contented with reading our ancestral traditions only through books. Like what we are doing with the extinct Catholic celebrations and parades that once gave life and sound to the whole of Intramuros.

2 Comment threads
0 Thread replies
Most reacted comment
Hottest comment thread
2 Comment authors
juanlu68josé miguel Recent comment authors
newest oldest most voted
Notify of
josé miguel

According to some information and observations of some, which needs confirmation, people of the southern part of Panay Island are the more industrious and cleaner in their ways with their environment, compared to those of the northern part. This is a brotherly comment which hopefully will be taken in a positive way. I personally identify myself with the nation so that this comment is a concern of a brother towards his own family. A common response of filipinos among us in general and political leaders in particular including the so called more pragmatic, scientific, and materialistic, is that the solution… Read more »


es una pena ver todo el potencial legado por los españoles se va perdiendo poco a poco, en una lenta letanía y que las autoridades y el pueblo filipino no hacen nada por su preservacion. Es como si un hijo olvidase primero a sus abuelos y luego a sus padres… Un padre educa a su hijo con conocimientos, con cuidados, le riñe, le protege,,, pero el hijo decide que quiere olvidar a su padre porque ha encontrado un padre substitutivo que no le grita y le dice que puede jugar todos los dias…