AS A Roman Catholic, I’ve heard of Visita Iglesia pilgrimages countless times before especially during Semana Santa but I have never been to one myself. Most of the Visita Iglesia here in the Philippines that I heard of are in Iloilo City, Tagbilaran City or Cebu City, known for the old churches and equally old but strong faith of the Catholic locals.
My recent visit to Cagayan Valley, a familiarization trip spearheaded by the Department of Tourism Cagayan Valley, made an unexpected turn when we visited a number of brick-made Spanish era churches. The itinerary did indicate visit to Catholic churches but little did I expect that a few days after that email invitation, I would be standing in the middle of an 18th century church, an arch with intricate details over me, and a beautiful lighted altar in front of me. The beauty was stunning.
They say that when you visit a city or a town for the first time, make time to pray at a local church. This will not only bring good blessing and safe travels, it will also give the traveler an idea of the place and the faith of the locals outside of the normal tourism picture the place usually sells to tourists.
In my visit to Cagayan November of last year, I was fortunate enough to visit and pray at some of the oldest churches in the Philippines such as the St. Matthias Parish Church (Tumauini Church), Basilica of Our Lady of Piat, and the St. Peter Metropolitan Cathedral (Tuguegarao Cathedral).
1. One of our first stops was in Tumauini Church, a Baroque-styled brick church that is considered a National Church Treasure by the National Museum of the Philippines. Aside from this recognition, it was also regarded as a Unesco World Heritage site along with other Baroque churches in the country.
As I stepped inside, I noticed the aging brick walls and webs on the high ceiling indicating the old age and several generations that the church had been through. It was built in 1783 by Dominican priest Fr. Domingo Forto and was completed in 1805.
A few of us were also lucky (and brave) enough to go try climbing up the belfry tower using the winding staircase. The cylindrical belfry that stands to this day was the original one and was never recast, now with friendly bats living inside.
2. The Basilica of Our Lady of Piat, known as Basilica Menor de Nuestra Señora de Piat in Spanish, is home to the 400-year-old miraculous Black Virgin Mary visited by thousands of devotees especially during its feast days on July 1 and 2. The Basilica is strategically located on top of a hill to avoid flood caused by occasional overflow of the Chico River. As most old churches in Cagayan Valley are, the Basilica of Our Lady of Piat is made out of old bricks as well.
The homage to the Our Lady of Piat started in 1604 when the Dominicans brought to the Philippines from Macau this image of Virgin Mary carrying the infant Jesus to the Philippines. This was already brought to Lal-lo, Cagayan, then in Piat on 1622.
Now, devotees can go through a special entrance by the side of the church leading to a staircase at the back of the altar. Here, the dress of the Lady can be touched and prayed over by the devotees for healing and special intentions.
At the side of the church, a small shop sells religious items where I bought two crucifix necklaces for me and my mother and a rosary bracelet for Anne, a devotee friend.
3. Noted as one of the biggest Catholic churches in Cagayan Valley, the St. Peter Metropolitan Cathedral, also known as the Tuguegarao Cathedral sits on the busy streets of Tuguegarao. It is an 18th-century Baroque brick church built by Dominican friars in 1761 and was completed seven years after. World War II caused physical damage to the church but was later on rebuilt by Monsignor Bishop Constance Jurgens.
As we got off the bus and went inside the church premises, I immediately noticed the church yard beautifully maintained, the red-bricked façade exuded a certain intimidating (in the best way possible) aura.
The front entrance was closed and our guide motioned us to pass through the side entrance where the church office is also located. We were welcomed by life-size images of saints, of Mary, and of Jesus along the office hallways.
I stood on the aisle of the church, marveling at the intricate details on the ceiling and the pillars around me. I took a full turn to appreciate the beautiful architectural design of the old church before I faced the lighted altar to kneel down and pray.