The Church in the Philippines

Philippine Church history began on Easter Sunday, March 31, 1521 when the Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan landed in the tiny island of Limasawa and there they celebrated the very first mass in Philippine soil. On Jubilate Sunday (third Sunday of Easter) April 14 of the same year, Fr. Pedro Valderrama, the chaplain of Magellan, baptized Rajah Humabon and more than 500 natives after reaching the island of Zubu (Cebu). By the early Filipinos’ profession of faith in Christ, united with the Spanish voyagers in the same belief, and celebration of the Lord’s Supper,[1] they became the first Christian community thereby laying the foundation of the Church. Queen Juana, the wife of Humabon, was presented with the statue of the Sto. Niño (the Child Jesus) as a baptismal gift which prompted her deep reverence, thus, she became its first devotee. High-spirited were the first Filipino Christians in their newly found faith and with the miraculous healing of a sickly man cemented their conviction of its efficacy over their idols and promised to burn every pagan shrines they could find.[2]

Sadly, the Christian victory in Southeast Asia and the Philippines was met with an obstacle. Venerable Fulton J. Sheen once said that whenever there is an outpouring of the Holy Spirit, “there is always an extra show of force by the anti-Spirit or the demonic,” especially in ecumenical councils.[3] During Pentecost when the Universal Church was born (Acts 2:1-4), what came after was the persecution marked by the death of St. Stephen (Acts 7:55-59). Just few weeks after the Holy Spirit first touched the Filipino Christians in Cebu, there would be an unforeseen conflict in the nearby island of Mactan where Magellan would die and the rest of the Spanish survivors flee. Without pastors to enforce the faith, the early Cebuanos focused their sight on the Sto. Niño while others reverted, though not of their own fault. Patiently, the Holy Child stayed with natives for 44 years as if He refused to give up on another child, the infant Philippine Church. Indeed, the Child Jesus never abandoned the Filipinos as Miguel Lopez de Legazpi and Rev. Andres de Urdaneta, in the galleon San Pedro, would later anchor in the same island in April of 1565.

After a minor naval to shore skirmish with the natives, a soldier named Juan de Camuz discovered the miraculously unscathed Holy Icon from the burnt ruin of a house and encouraged the explorers to re-Christianize the island. Hence, the recovery of the Sto. Niño symbolized the recovery of a once lost and dying Christian community. By this time Tupas, the nephew of Humabon, was the rajah. He was one of the remnants of the church being previously baptized and would serve as the continuity after made friendship with the Spaniards and being re-admitted to the Catholic fold.

This local church community would flourish and again precede in Christian tradition: after the finding of the Holy Image the first procession in the Philippines occurred, and later the territory became the first Christian city (Santissimo Nombre de Jesus) in the Far East dedicated to the blessed name of Jesus.[4] The first Christian marriage in the country transpired that of Isabel (the newly baptized niece of Rajah Tupas) and Andres (the Greek caulker of Legazpi), their children then baptized representing the first infant baptisms.[5] The very first Christian church was built near the fort (later reconstructed and elevated as the Metropolitan Cathedral of St. Vitales) and a second church, also the first monastery, built on the site where the image of the Child Jesus was found (today’s Basilica del Sto. Niño).[6] The Spaniards and the Cebuano natives celebrated the first distinctly Asian Christian feast dedicated the Holy Child on April 28, 1565.[7] There was also the first confession and the last rites of an inhabitant.[8] Undoubtedly, the first Christmas, Holy Week, and All Saints Day were observed in the island. It was here the Scripture was first read; also the first resistance against the Mohammedan advance from the south.[9] The list of precedence would go on.

The First Apostles of the Philippines

The great navigator Rev. Andres de Urdaneta, O.S.A., heralded the formal evangelization. A solider from Guipúzcoa, Spain and later chose to serve God as he entered the Augustinian Order, Fr. Urdaneta was assigned to for the Philippine expedition by King Philip II of Spain “for the service of God, our Lord.”[10] The Augustinian superior accepted to accompany even his old age and frail health, though rejected the offer as commander.[11] Along with him were Frays Diego de Herrera, Andrés de Aguirre, Martin de Rada, and Pedro de Gamboa—all from the same order. Fr. Urdaneta revitalized and shepherded the Cebuano Christian community and because of his treatment of the natives, the pious father was called “protector of the Indians” and the first Prelate of the Philippines (pre-diocesan).[12]

Fr. Urdaneta sailed from Cebu in July of 1565 back to Spain to report the expedition and suffered much that fourteen of his crew died.[13] After all the hardship, he resolved to return to the Philippines for the faith, but friends deterred the father as his age couldn’t withstand an expedition back. He worked tirelessly in Mexico as under his watch, second wave of apostles dispatched for Cebu. Indeed, Fr. Urdaneta and the rest of these pioneering evangelists—in their suffering, labor, and death which the fruits the Philippine Church now enjoy—are worthy causes for sainthood.

Fr. Deigo de Herrera, the first prior of the country, succeeded Fr. Urdaneta in pastoring the natives. Later, the remaining Philippine apostles were forced westwards temporarily due to conflict with the Portuguese and laid the foundations of the Christian community in the Panay Island in 1569. A year later, the second batch of missionaries reached Cebu. The island became the center for evangelization for its strategic location. A notable missionary was Fr. Alfonso Jimenez, O.S.A., who travelled and penetrated the Camarines region through the islands of Masbate, Leyte, Samar, and Burias. He was called the first apostle of the region. By 1571, Fr. Herrera who was assigned as chaplain of Legazpi, from Panay advanced further north and founded the local Church community in Manila. It is said that the good father thereafter voyaged in the Espiritu Santo and shipwrecked in Catanduanes; there he attempted to convert the natives and later martyred for the faith. On 1574 the Spaniards lead by Juan de Salcedo marched from Manila further north with the Augustinian missionaries and pioneered the evangelization in the Ilocos (starting with Vigan) and the Cagayan regions.

The Oldest Sees in the Country

As the years go by, the particular churches would flourish and later be made dioceses and the five oldest in the country: Santissimo Nombre de Jesus (Church of Cebu), Manilla (Church of Manila), Nueva Caceres (Church of Camarines),[14] Nueva Segovia (Church of Cagayan),[15] and much later from the Cebu bishopric, Santa Isabel de Jaro (Church of Panay). Manila was the first to be made diocese in 1578 and raised archdiocese in 1595 when the territory was made the second center of the Spanish colonial government (before the conquest of Manila, the first capital of the country was Cebu).

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© International Eucharistic Congress-Cebu 2016


  1. Antonio Pigafetta, Magellan’s Voyage Around the World, vol. 1, trans. James A. Robertson (Cleveland: The Arthur H. Clark Company, 1906), 139 -157 [Hereafter cited as Magellan’s Voyage].
  2. Magellan’s Voyage, 165.
  3. Fulton J. Sheen, Treasures in Clay, (The Doubleday Religious Publishing Group: 1982), 292-293.
  4. “Résumé of contemporaneous documents,” in The Philippine Islands, 1493-1803, vol. 2, eds. Emma H. Blair, James A. Robertson (Cleveland: The Arthur H. Clark Company, 1903), 121 [Hereafter cited as Résumé of Documents].
  5. 5.Résumé of Documents, 140-141.
  6. Astrid Sala-Boza, “The Contested Site of the Finding of the Holy Child: Villa San Miguel or San Nicolas (Cebu El Viejo),” Philippine Quarterly of Culture Society 34, (2006): 232.; Juan de Medina, OSA, “Historia de la Orden de San Agustin de estas Islas Filipinas,” in The Philippine Islands 1493-1803, vol. 23, eds. Emma H. Blair, James A. Robertson (Cleveland: The Arthur H. Clark Company, 1903), 159 & 170 [Hereafter cited as Medina’s Historia].
  7. Résumé of Documents, 121.
  8. Ibid., 153.
  9. Medina’s Historia, 185.
  10. Résumé of Documents, 82.
  11. Ibid., 81
  12. Résumé of Documents, 33, note 5; Bartolomé de Letona, OSF, “Description of the Filipinas Islands” in The Philippine Islands, 1493-1803, vol. 36, eds. Emma H. Blair, James A. Robertson (Cleveland: The Arthur H. Clark Company, 1906), 210.
  13. Camillus Crivelli, “Andrés Urdaneta,” in The Catholic Encyclopedia, vol. 15, (New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1912) 223.
  14. Ygnacio de Paz, “Description of the Philipinas Islands,” in The Philippine Islands, 1493-1803, vol. 36, eds. Emma H. Blair, James A. Robertson (Cleveland: The Arthur H. Clark Company, 1906), 98.
  15. Ibid., 99.



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