Baroque Churches of the Philippines: Santa Maria Church

Every August 15, the town of Santa Maria in Ilocos Sur celebrates its fiesta in honor of Apo Baket, the Virgin Mary as Our Lady of the Assumption. The focal point of this celebration is done in their church which is one of the four baroque Philippine churches inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

I recalled that my only visit to this very striking church made of bricks was in 2009 as part of the Ilocos journey which started in Laoag down to Vigan then to Santa Maria and back to Laoag. The church sits on top of a hill. The detached bell tower and the side of the church can already be seen from the first step of the incredibly imposing flight of stairs.

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85 wide steps
(photo credit: SanJosenyongGala)

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Santa Maria Church (ctto)

Being baroque in design, the Santa Maria Church or La Iglesia del Nuestra Senora de la Asuncion, has huge defensive walls, similar to most walls of Spanish-era fortresses. But unlike most churches, it is not situated near the municipio or the town plaza. To reach the church, you need to climb its 85 wide steps of granite. The church is made of bricks and mortar. The brick façade is rather plain but unique with its arches and pilaster elements with circular corner buttresses topped with finials.

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Detached belfry and the fortress-like walls
(photo credit: The Quest Boi – Travel Blog)

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Relief of Apo Baket on a tree
(photo credit: CL Sangoyo)

For the regular traveler, one would notice that the Santa Maria Church is one huge structure made of bricks with thick buttresses on the sides. It is a fine example of an earthquake-baroque type of church, thus it withstood the mighty tremors for almost 300 years.

When climbing the steps towards the church, you’ll notice Apo Baket on the surface of the first buttress after the façade’s circular one. The figure is a relief, in striking color, on the buttress. It depicts Apo Baket on a tree. According to stories, days prior to the construction of the Santa Maria Church, the Virgin Mary was enshrined in a place called Bulala. The Virgin Mary often disappeared from Bulala but only to be found perched on a guava tree, on the spot where the present church was built.

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NHI Marker (Feb2009 visit)

The convent is found in front of the church and is connected by an elevated walkway. At the western side of the church is the pagoda-like bell tower which was constructed separately and is built a few steps away from the church. It is a four story bell tower with a clock.

The east side of the church, is another flight of wide steps leading down to the spot where the old circular cemetery used to stand. Ruins of the cemetery chapel and old graveyard can still be found there. People say that this part of the courtyard was destroyed by a huge earthquake.

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Stairs leading to the old cemetery

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Stone wall and covered-up arch doors

If you wonder about this church’s historical significance, the records and accounts may reveal conflicting dates of the establishment of the town, but Santa Maria used to be a visita of Narvacan. Construction of the church was started in 1767 when the township was already instituted. Through the centuries under Spanish rule, Santa Maria experienced a string of misfortune. From drought and earthquake to devastation of agricultural lands by locusts that lead to famine, to the outbreak of cholera in the late 1800s and the onslaught of the Philippine Revolution against Spain, the Santa Maria Church stood firmly.

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Santa Maria Cemetery, a few hundred meters from the church

How to reach Santa Maria?

From Manila, you may hop into a bus heading to Vigan or Laoag. It is a 6 to 7 hour trip northward. Make Vigan or Laoag you base city for your tour of Ilocandia. Santa Maria is about an hour drive south from Vigan. If coming from Laoag, you may take a bus heading to Manila and get off at Santa Maria. Travel time is about 3hrs.

The visit to Santa Maria Church was part of my Ilocandia trip last 2009. From Manila, I took a flight to Laoag, exploring Ilocos Norte for 2 days before heading down to Vigan and spent 2 days to explore Ilocos Sur. On my first day in Vigan, I visited Crisologo St, the Vigan Cathedral, Bantay Church & Belfry and the Burgos Museum. Day 2 in Vigan, I got on a bus to visit Santa Maria then returned to Vigan to check-out of the hotel by noon time. After check-out, I got on a bus for Laoag to catch my late afternoon flight back to Manila.

I was not able to take as many pictures of Santa Maria Church. My regrets. But being able to visit and see the church with my own eyes was a reward in itself. If opportunity presents itself, I will definitely visit it again.

Include this church in your Ilocandia trip. Visit Santa Maria and tick off Santa Maria Church in your bucketlist. To climb the step towards Apo Baket may be more than just an overwhelming experience.

(featured image, credit to vigattintourism)

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