In the heart of downtown Cebu, the city’s oldest church stands tall. Its history precedes itself, rising from the ashes many times throughout the years. For almost half a millennium, it has kept the image of the Santo Niño in safe hands. The iconic open space has hosted many major masses, and is the backdrop of the biggest festival on the entire island.
The Basilica Minore del Santo Niño is one of the oldest churches in the Philippines, dating back to when the Spaniards arrived to spread Christianity among the Filipino people. Under the supervision of the Augustinian convent, it has stored the original image of the island’s patron for half a millennium.
History and Construction
The convent was established during Miguel Lopez de Legaspi’s arrival in the Philippines on April 28, 1565. His expedition companion Fr. Andres Urdaneta became the first leader. With plans to urbanize the city, they sought a place to store the miraculous image of the child Jesus.
A chapel made out of wood and nipa became its first temporary resting place. A church and monastery made out of the same light materials was made in its place six years later. However, a strong fire destroyed the structure, prompting the convent to make a more robust reconstruction.
The use of heavier materials gave hope for the church’s comeback in 1575. With the help of devoted volunteers, the new structure was up and running, but eventually, tragedy struck the convent again. Another huge fire in the neighborhood on March 8, 1628 razed the structure.
The third structure finally replaced the light materials with stones and bricks. Its construction was halted when the roof of the facade collapsed. It turns out that the building was defective as the roof “melted” when it was exposed to the open air.
With the help of the neighboring towns, the new structure of the church was finally finished on February 29, 1735. This fully stone structure has held strong for so many years and is arguably the pinnacle of all the many churches in Cebu.
However, the Basilica dealt with tragedy again in 2013. A strong earthquake rocked Central Visayas and collapsed the church’s bell tower. The structure was rebuilt a few months later, and soon it was welcoming faithful Cebuanos back again.
Its longevity has made it in consideration for the oldest church in the Philippines, let alone Cebu. It has hosted many special Catholic moments in the country. Its official website calls it “the center of pilgrimages, the symbol of faith of the Filipino people,” as well as “the place of birth and socio-political development of our nation.”
The facade of the church is a blend of multiple architectural features, such as Muslim, Romanesque, and Neo-Classical. It is preserved in its natural color and original stone texture, conveying an air of simplicity.
You can visit the Basilica to see the patron’s original image. This 12-inch image depicting the Child Jesus is very familiar to avid travelers and locals in Cebu. It is said to have survived a large fire when Legaspi and Urdaneta arrived on the island. Its miraculous history has made it an avenue for many faithful Catholics to pray and light candles. A Santo Niño prayer can also be found on their official website.
The church is one of the most famous heritage sites in the city. Situated right in front of it is the equally famous Magellan’s Cross. Here, you can find the Christian cross that Magellan and his companions planted to signify the Cebuanos’ conversion to Catholicism.
This is also the venue for most of the events of the Fiesta Señor, the church-related activities of the renowned Sinulog Festival. This makes January one of the busiest times for the church with all the activities that they hold.
This starts with a procession at dawn, followed by a nine-day novena. During this time, churchgoers perform the Sinulog dance and scream, “Viva Pit Señor!” after every mass. Other activities include a foot procession, where the image is brought to the streets, usually welcoming thousands of devotees who have come to participate.
Another event is the Traslacion, wherein the image is being transported on the road from the Basilica to the National Shrine of St. Joseph in Mandaue City and the Birhen sa Regla Parish in Mactan Island. The image is then brought back to Cebu City through a fluvial procession the day before the main festival.
On normal days, there are many devotees that attend the church masses. Whether it is within the church or the wide open space of the quadrangle, it continues to welcome hundreds of devotees every day. Both tourists and locals try to find time to visit the image within the church and touch it to pray for blessings.
Public transport is a good option to get here. Downtown Cebu is one of the busiest areas, with jeepney routes going all around the city. You might even get the chance to travel to other tourist destinations after visiting the Basilica.
The Basilica del Santo Niño is arguably one of the most famous Catholic churches in Cebu because of its history and grandeur. Many visitors come to witness the miraculous image, while others attend the many festivities during the Fiesta Señor. After everything that the church went through, it currently stands as one of the most famous tourist spots in the Philippines.
Indeed, the oldest church on the island will continue to welcome faithful believers for years to come.