She stubbornly refuses to bid time goodbye. Proudly, she stood there in all her glory and magnificence as a mute witness to a colorful and checkered past. Inside its brick and riverstone walls intricately executed to reveal an awesome work of art, the San Pablo Church in San Pablo, Isabela never fails to entice even the non-religious to pause and take peep into its aesthetic offerings.
Inside, one is transported back in time when Spanish priests subjugated the lowly and humble Cagayanos through their faith. Silence can be deafening in this part of town as one tries to visualize the daily activities of the people vis-à-vis their faith.
Outside, a group of high school students were laughing and the laughter echoes into the interiors and boomeranged like a transported scenario when girls their age wear estampitas, long jusi skirts topped by an inabel kimono and were obedient to the religious powers that be. Such noise can also be likened to the sounds of hurried sapatonas as the church service was about to start.
Undoubtedly an architectural masterpiece, the San Pablo church was built in 1624 by the Spanish friars and tribal Ybanag craftsmen using bricks baked at nearby Tuguegarao central horno (kiln), mixed with sturdy riverstones seasoned by the wild and turbulent waters of the Rio Grande De Cagayan.
Listed as the oldest church in the Queen Province of Cagayan Valley, Isabela, the church is also made of locally available adobe and coral stone materials. The church’s elegant wall surrounding its atrium is decorated with clay insets of rosettes and sun emblems. These are just few of the various Pontifical symbols in and around the entire edifice.
Its lofty bell tower of six layers including the circular apex, also made of adobe with carved coral stone, is the tallest in the entire Cagayan Valley region.
Mistakes of War
Sheltering the nameless and faceless unsung heroes and heroines during the last World War, the church was heavily damaged by kamikazes (Japanese Imperial suicide bombers) which left the façade, the belfry and other sections of the church in near-dilapidation state. Only recently did the National Historical Institute restore the church to its original design. Ever religious, the people of San Pablo, too, raised funds to assist their church.
As the most prominent historical landmark in Northern Isabela, the church has continuously stood as a sentinel to the history of the people of San Pablo and nearby towns- the destructive droughts and killer epidemics, natural catastrophic events, the never-ending resistance of the Ibanags against their colonizers, the celebrated victories which, ironically, tested their acquired Christian faith amidst the claws of poverty.
For all its historical and architectural worth, the church is a priceless cultural heritage. Its magnificent structure, both interior and exterior, is a stunning sight to behold, then and now. Already included in the Heritage Conservation Society of the Philippines as a site, the church is actually one of the country’s historical treasures. Added to its majestic edifice is the National Historical Landmark signage revealing to all and sundry of how many centuries it has tolerated the passage of time to maintain its priceless relics and original features.
Today, cracked walls, dilapidated ceilings and misty atmosphere never hinder the church from performing its role to the hilt as it defies time for the town’s faithful parishioners even after more than 300 years.
As decades passed, the church witnessed magnificent changes in the socio-political and economic aspect of development- how San Pablo town was transformed from a 3rd class municipality to 2nd class, the governance of volatile political administrations, the various festivals and activities in honor of Saint Paul and the religious transformation of those who may or may not professed their faith.
Today, the church’s current state calls for a unified restoration effort as did other colonial churches these past decades. In fact, residents should be proud for such antiquated edifice in their own background, which of late, has become the center of interests among foreign cultural writers.
As the church continuously battle numerous calamities since its construction and most probably in the future as a result of global warming, its ancient structure gradually succumbed to devastation, its protection and conservation is not only the responsibility of both the church and the state but of the entire religious society whether they come from San Pablo or not.
It was in these sacred grounds that a friend accepted her other half when she wedded the man she vowed to love come hell or high waters.
It’s now near twilight. The last bird which calls the church its home had fed the young with the last available delicious Ybanag insects. As I left the cobbled patio, the San Pablo church once again stands witness to another footprint of my own personal religiosity. TNF