In the south of Cebu City, towards the water, lies the Basilica Santo Nino; and this building’s history parallels that of Catholicism in the Philippines.
Many travelers can make the argument that houses of worship do not make great tourist destinations; but to those that want to learn about the culture they are visiting, there is no doubt that learning about the local religion is an intimate look into people’s lives.
Overview and Significance
The two hundred and eighty (280) year old Basilica Santo Nino is one of the oldest and largest structures in all of Cebu City. This stone building’s beautiful façade was most recently restored in 1965 and it is said that the original exterior surface still displays its natural coloring.
The Basilica Santo Nino’s architecture is said to have a touch of Muslim, Romanesque, and Neo-Classical features; a blend in styles that creates something uniquely Filipino. This is quite true for many of the older churches in the Philippines, such as the Earthquake Baroque style of the Paoay church, over one thousand two hundred (1,200) kilometers to the north in Illocos Norte Province which was built around the same era.
The only real disappointment about visiting this building is the lack of space to get a shot of the whole church. It is quite unfortunate that the plaza adjacent to the church is very narrow, which makes it is difficult to admire the grand entirety of the building from a distance. The surrounding neighborhood is equally as tight and restrictive, with many overhead power lines obstructing the line of sight of the basilica from nearby streets.
Despite the limited views limiting the perfect wide angle photograph of this complex, the grounds are quite inviting and beautiful to inspect up close. The colorful and decorative stone floor of the exterior plaza is quite ornate. The complex patterns are kind of lost when standing directly on top of them, but one can imagine the grandeur of this mosaic when viewed from above. Unfortunately, the circumstances did not allow for drone shots of this location on this particular day. Flying over such a crowded area full of people is not very responsible, plus the abundance of overhead power lines would make the required (constant) communication with the drone very difficult.
While standing in the middle of the grounds’ exterior plaza, it is also easy to imagine this place being electric with energy and excitement; packed with pilgrims during a mass on a high Catholic Holiday such as Christmas or Easter. Many first time visitors to the Philippines do not realize how popular the Christmas holiday is here, and often forget that the weather is typically very mild during December and January. Those are two big reasons why the holiday season is an excellent time to be in the Philippines.
Tucked away into a quiet corner of the walled facility, there is a small courtyard full of prayer candles with a central stone fountain is a respite from the busy city life outside of the compound walls. Even though this small area is directly adjacent to the large plaza, it feels isolated. People here are deep in thought and prayer, and are respectfully quiet to others there. Even on a regular Saturday in Cebu, there are many visitors to these sacred grounds.
The sale and sponsored lighting of these prayer candles seem to be the dominant activity for most visitors to the church, therefore making them a significant income for the upkeep of the church. The female caretakers, the Augustinian Nuns, are often selling handheld prayer candles near the monument for Magellan’s Cross and offering kind words to visitors.
There is a regular schedule of Catholic masses as well, for those wishing to attend. The building’s interior, particularly the altar which is visible from the main entrance, is drastically colorful and ornate. This is quite the contrast to the plain stone exterior.
Here is a brief history to shed some light onto the significance of this building.
This basilica in the heart of Cebu City has been under the care of Augustinian Friars since the 16th century. The building’s grounds are a pilgrimage site, and its staff are the caretakers of two historical religious artifacts: Magellan’s Cross and the statuette of the Santo Nino.
Magellan’s Cross is said to be the very artifact that explorer Ferdinand Magellan brought to the Philippines, a symbol of the arrival of Catholicism to the archipelago. The Santo Nino is a small but highly decorative figure of the baby Jesus Christ, which was also brought to Cebu by Ferdinand Magellan.
Important Dates in the Church’s History
1521 – Magellan gifts Santo Nino statue
1572 – Church of Santo Nino founded
1740 – Present day church construction completed
1941 – Church and Covenant of Santo Nino Declared a National Historic Landmark
1965 – Pope Paul VI declares church of Santo Nino a minor basilica
The legacy of the Santo Nino or ‘Holy Child’ in Cebu dates back to April of 1521. That was the date that the Portuguese explorer who was sailing under the Spanish flag, Ferdinand Magellan gifted the Santo Nino to the consort of the Rajah Humabon and his wife; the King and Queen of Cebu. It was a few days later, during their baptism into the Roman Catholic faith that the statuette was actually gifted to the Queen. The history of its care went dark for nearly 40 years, until the day that it was recovered by a Spanish soldier in a partially burnt down house. It was on that spot that the present-day basilica stands.
For a history on Ferdinand Magellan’s brief, but highly influential time in the Philippines, you may refer to Unofficial Guide’s article on Magellan’s Cross which also happens to be on the grounds of the Basilica Santo Nino. That is a not-to-miss destination in Cebu, even if the basilica itself does not interest you.
Just Outside The Basilica
Outside of the grounds, on the streets surrounding the building, the walkways are lined with local vendors. These temporary stands made of mostly repurposed materials are overflowing with Santo Nino related artifacts such as statues, prayer cards, rosary beads and candles. It is important to note that none of these souvenirs are sanctioned by the church, but are equally as cherished by visitors to this location. Those that wish to support the church can donate directly to them via collection boxes, or purchase artifacts from the Augustinian caretakers themselves.
In comparison to the many destinations outside of the city, there are not too many tourist attractions inside the city limits of Cebu. Museo Sugbo is a great place to see, but the combination of the City Hall Plaza, Magellan’s Cross and the Basilica Santo Nino, is one that every tourist in Cebu should visit. It is in an area that has many shopping and food options, and it’s all within walking distance. This part of the city is very flat, and lined with sidewalks therefore it is quite easy to navigate. Google maps is up to date in this area and serves as a reliable guide. This old part of Cebu City is also photogenic and packed with lots of things to see, therefore it is worth spending time wandering around town. Grab taxi service is available and abundant as well. It is important to note that this location can be quite congested at times, so plan accordingly!
Enjoy Cebu, make sure to get some CnT Lechon!