Its towering facade blends Muslim, Romanesque, and neo-classical architecture, this church of the Señor Santo Niño de Cebu–which translates literally as “holy child of Cebu.”
Cebu’s oldest Roman Catholic Church, the Basilica Minore del Santo Niño, also still retains the original stone texture and natural color it had in 1735. (Click on photos to view larger images.)
The structure, located right in the heart of downtown Cebu City, is way, way older–it is the Philippines’s oldest church, but it was made out of hard wood, mud, and nipa when it was first built by the Spaniards in 1566 on the very spot where the image of the Santo Niño, left behind by Portuguese and Spanish explorers in 1521, was found preserved in a burned wooden box.
Led by Miguel Lopez de Legazpi and Augustinian priest Andres de Urdaneta, the Spaniards who discovered the image in 1565 called it miraculous, for it survived the fire that gutted the structure that housed it but had totally blackened it in the process.
The image also survived the fire that hit the church on November 1, 1568. The church was rebuilt in 1602 and in 1735, then Cebu Governor Fernando Valdes y Tamon ordered that it be constructed out of hard stone-the materials were quarried from Capiz and Panay on wooden boats–on the same spot where the wooden one had stood. Work on the church was completed in 1739.
As the church could not accommodate the growing number of people who come to hear mass in the basilica, a pilgrim center was built within the church compound and priests officiate mass in the open-air, theater-like structure.
Candle vendors here are different in any other churches; in the basilica, they dance their prayers in that two-step-forward, one-step-backward rhythm called the “Sinug”.
This same rhythm is believed to have inspired the Sinulog dance, performed on Cebu City’s streets by various groups in the Sinulog Grand Parade held every third Sunday of January. The parade is one of the highlights of the weeklong celebration of the feast of Cebu’s patron saint. One other highlight is the Saturday religious procession of the images of the Santo Niño and Cebu patron saint Lady of Guadalupe.
It is widely believed that the Santo Niño image is the same one given by Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan to Queen Juana of Cebu in 1521, that same year when she, her husband Datu Humabon, and several of their followers where baptized into the Roman Catholic faith. When it was found, it was burnt so bad it was hardly recognizable and its survival was considered as nothing short of a miracle.
The Santo Niño image’s reputation as miraculous is buoyed by reports of basilica helpers that it sometimes goes out of its glass case to take long walks at night. They point to grass stains on the hem of its dress as evidence. The stories are dismissed as superstition but they strengthened beliefs of devotees that the Santo Niño de Cebu, “Cebu’s holy child”, watches over Cebu.
How to get there
The easiest way to go to the church is by taking a taxi. If you come from the uptown area, the place is just a P70-taxi ride away. If you feel adventurous, you can take a jeepney with “Plaza” or “City Hall” printed on its route signboard. Below is a map to the place. You can zoom into the map by using its navigation buttons.