Named for the Holy Child
Basilica Is Oldest Church in Philippines
On April 28, 1565, the Legaspi-Urdanita Spanish expedition led by Miguel de Legazpi arrived on the island of Cebu in what is now the Philippines — and on the very same day, the Santo Niño (Holy Child) Church was established by Father Andres de Urdaneta, an Augustinian friar who accompanied the expedition.
The Spanish settlers established a plan for the urbanization of the city and set aside a place for a new church and convent of St. Augustine.
It is an apt time to consider Filipino-Catholic history, as Pope Francis is visiting the Philippines Jan. 15-19.
The Holy Child
The new church was built on the very same place where the Santo Niño statue (referring to the Holy Child, Jesus) was found by the Spanish in a wooden box within a building that had been burned to the ground years before.
The Santo Niño statue has been considered miraculous for having survived the fire. The wooden statue, turned black in the fire, is believed to have been left behind in 1521, when Ferdinand Magellan was the first European explorer to reach the islands now called the Philippines.
One origin story is that, 44 years previous, Magellan, who with the Augustinian friars, initially introduced Christianity to the natives of Cebu.
He subsequently gave the Santo Niño statue as a baptismal gift to the queen of Cebu on the day of her baptism, April 14, 1521.
In 1836, a special pavilion for Magellan’s cross was built by the then-bishop of Cebu to commemorate the Portuguese navigator’s success in reaching the Philippines by crossing the Pacific Ocean. It is made of coral stone, and its white roof is made of clay tiles.
The design is a landmark of Cebu City, which uses it as its corporate seal and is a reminder that, five centuries ago, the Christian faith was brought to Cebu and from there spread throughout all of the islands of the Philippines.
Ever since the founding by the friars, Santo Niño Church has been in the custody of the religious order of St. Augustine. In fact, the sanctuary has statues of Augustinian saints.
It is a lovely place to house the Santo Niño statue — and a lovely place to worship its namesake.
Taking 27 years to build, it was completed in 1571; the first church was built of wood, with palm leaves used for thatching, on the very site where the Santo Niño statue had been found.
Alas, on May 8, 1628, the first church, along with the convent, was burned to the ground and had to be rebuilt. Miraculously, the Santo Niño statue also survived this second fire.
However, in 1730, construction of the present stone church was begun; it has been described as Baroque-Colonial, with the façade adopting the Churriguerra style of architecture.
The bell tower serves as a counterbalance to the convent that is located on the opposite far end. A bulbous dome of Muslim influence crowns the tower.
The façade is preserved in its original stone texture and natural color. It conveys an air of simplicity of line and overall elegance.
In 1965, Blessed Paul VI elevated the Santo Niño Church to the rank of minor basilica. Then-Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos also declared the basilica a national landmark, for it is the oldest church in the Philippines.
The Santo Niño Basilica serves as a shrine, not as a parish. Thus, neither baptisms nor funeral and wedding Masses are held here.
There is a steady stream of worshippers who pray before the Santo Niño statue. Daily, worshippers fall in line to kiss and venerate the Santo Niño statue.
On every third Sunday of each January, thousands of pilgrims from all walks of life and even from foreign countries flock to the basilica to attend the Sinulog Fiesta, which is held in honor of the Santo Niño. A nine-day Santo Niño novena precedes the feast day.
The Sinulog Fiesta is celebrated at the church and with a citywide festival that includes a parade.
In 1965, the Basilica del Santo Niño Museum was opened for the fourth centenary of the Christianization of the Philippines. The museum was established to store, preserve and exhibit the religious artifacts of the local Augustinian community.
One of the missions of the museum is to continue to evangelize the faithful so that they will have a good knowledge and appreciation of their Catholic heritage.
The Santo Niño statue continues to be the most venerated image throughout the Philippines, and Santo Niño statues are found in most Catholic homes.
Santo Niño, pray for us!
Joseph Albino writes from
Syracuse, New York.
Basilica del Santo Niño
- Jan. 11-24, 2015