Malabon's San Bartolome Church: history set in stone

November 10, 2017

Saint Bartholomew is the patron saint of the city of Malabon and this, the Greco-Roman San Bartolome Church, is erected in his honor, with the first stone structure dating back to 1622. The church did not achieve its current incarnation however until in 1861 when its façade and the transept towers were added, under the term of Fray Martin Ruiz with the supervision of Luciano Oliver. Oliver was one of the architects involved in the evolution of Malacañan Palace's façade; the staircase of the San Agustin Monastery and Basílica de San Martín de Tours in Taal, Batangas are some of his few known surviving works, along with the San Bartolome Church. 


 Supporting the triangular pediment are 8 massive pillars with Ionic capitals. The pediment itself bears the Augustinian symbol. 

 The historical marker. Translated into English, it reads:


"Church of Saint Bartholomew. Established as a visita of Tondo, 21st of May 1599. Became a parish under the patronage of Saint Bartholomew in Tambobong (Malabon today), 17th of May 1614. The church was erected by Fray Diego de Robles in stone, 1622. The façade and the two bell towers were constructed following the design of Luciano Oliver, 1861. In 1896, following the Cry of Pugadlawin (23rd of August), Andres Bonifacio called for a secret and massive gathering of the Katipunan in Balintawak in conjunction with the feast of St. Bartholomew (24th of August) to escape detection of the guardia civil, with the Katipuneros pretending to be peregrines. The right side of the church was damaged by fire, 1898. Repaired, 1906. Destroyed during the Second World War. The façade was restored in 1951, and the campanile and interior, 1958."


To my non-Filipino audiences, Andres Bonifacio is the acclaimed Father of the Philippine Revolution and the Supremo of his brainchild Kataastaasang, Kagalanggalangang, Katipunan ng mga Anak ng Bayan ('Most high, most respectful league of the children of the country', or the KKK, or merely, the Katipunan), which ultimately freed the islands from the shackles of Spain after 333 years. Below is an excerpt from Nick Joaquin's A question of heroes:


"The saint with the knife is the the patron saint of Malabon town, where he has, through the centuries, like all our patron saints, acquired a Filipino look. He carries a native bolo, for one thing, and on his feast day the main street of Malabon becomes two dense rows of impromptu stores where one may buy blades of every size and kind, from small balisongs, to kitchen knives and farm bolos, to enormous butcher's cleavers. Through this chilling display of cutlery rides the bolo-wielding saint, his martyr's robe of crimson the very mood of the month, for August, in Philippine folk culture, is a red month, the amok month, the month of mad heat and madder typhoons and knife-sharp tempers. In the old days Filipino mothers feared to send their children to school on an August first that fell on a Friday. The month was believed to be ominous enough without having to start on an ominous day, too.


These folk beliefs provide the August epiphanies of the Katipunan with the atmosphere of saga and oracle. A school of thought insists that the KKK proclaimed the 1896 revolt on the eve of St. Bartholomew, August 23, and the bolo-wielder of Malabon certainly aided the bolo uprising: Katipuneros from the provinces found it much easier to pass through the Spanish lines and congregate in Balintawak because they had the excuse of being on their way to attend the fiesta of San Bartolome de Malabon."


The old town name is still a matter of contention among historians, but a plausible theory is one that says it was a concatenation of two words: tambo and labong. Tambo is a large coarse grass that frequently grows along river banks and used in the manufacture of stiff brooms. Labong refers to bamboo shoots. It should be noted that Malabon is intersected by numerous tributaries. The current name is thought to have been derived from the Spanish words 'mala' which means 'bad', and 'buen' which translates to 'good'- reflecting the extremes one experiences when in the town's vicinity. Malabon of course is notorious for its floods, but at the same time noted for its delicacies.

 The church's old bells have since been retired and now on display near the entrance. Of note is the maker of these bells: Hilario Sunico. Sunico operated his Fundicion de Hilario Sunico in Binondo and is the real-life inspiration of Jose Rizal's character of Kapitan Tiago in his novel Noli me Tangere. These bells bear the year of their manufacture, 1883, as well as the name of the parish priest who commissioned them, Guillermo Diaz. These relics have not been spared by vandals, regrettably.

 The interior of the church, as seen from its narthex. The paintings on the ceiling are framed in gold leaf:

 This is one of a series of old photos showing how the church and its environs looked like in the old days. 

 The church's dome. 

 Epitaphs such as these are often found on the walls and pillars of old churches, but these do not imply that people were buried there. Rather, these are homages to those who contributed to the church's upkeep and renovations, even repairs.

 At the northern portion of the church is a small necropolis, punctuated by this structure whose purpose escapes me as of this writing.

 Ten years ago the church was extensively renovated by a stubborn and tasteless parish priest, Ricardo Torrefiel, notwithstanding the objections of the residents and heritage advocates. On April 7, 2011- his birthday- this same priest also managed to inaugurate a crematorium right at the church's courtyard, again despite the protestations of the people of Malabon. This crematorium, St. Nathaniel, is said to have begun operations in December 30, 2011.


I have always been of the position that churches from both the Spanish and American occupation periods should neither be renovated nor retouched or repaired by parish priests without the stringent approval of the relevant government agencies and concerned groups, including professional restorers. If you look again at my photo of the historical marker you will notice that the wall was etched with fake brick lines; the interior, however glorious it would seem at first sight, has all but obliterated the structure's dignity and its history. Despite the '1861' on the pediment and the classically derived façade, the church looked too modern on the inside- a dissonance akin to an aging matroness dressing like a lady a fifth of her age, or maybe even someone with a glorious past but has since fallen to the ravages of amnesia and is now existing only on the present time frame, devoid of memory and recollections.

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