Holy Week is drawing near, and and for Catholics, that means a one-week break to step back from daily life and reflect. It’s almost as if the world slows down: restaurants are closed, your work inbox is blessedly empty, and travel plans are announced from all corners. One favorite tradition is the Visita Iglesia, where you make a low-key pilgrimage to 7 or 14 churches, covering all the 14 Stations of the Cross.
As part of our comprehensive travel guide, we’ve come up with 9 churches in Central Luzon for you to include in your Visita Iglesia for Holy Week 2018. These are diverse on purpose–look out for a Korean-Catholic shrine, a church famed for the oldest image of the Virgin Mary in Asia, and more.
Church of Baler, Aurora
Where: Poblacion, Baler, Aurora
What Makes It Unique: The last stronghold of the Spaniards
Baler is most popularly known as a surfing spot, but there’s another dimension to this coastal town beyond gigantic waves and tourist-filled beaches. You can actually go here during Holy Week as part of your Visita Iglesia. Proclaimed as a historical landmark, the Church was the site of the Baler Siege, the last resistance of the Spaniards before they surrendered completely to the katipuneros and American soldiers (after 11 months of starvation!). While it was rebuilt in 1939, the Church still contains century-old details, such as the Campana de Baler, a 17th century bell that rang out over the surrounding cities.
Where: Samal, Bataan
What Makes It Unique: A 400-year-old image of St. Catherine of Siena
Also known as Samal Church, this 500-year-old church has been through a lot–and that’s not just because of its age. It has been burned down twice, first by Dutch invaders and then by Katipunero rebels. The fact that it’s still standing regally is a testament to its resilience. What’s even more inspiring is that it has preserved the past so well. Go inside, and you’ll find very, very old images of Saint Catherine of Siena, with one supposedly being more than 400 years old. Despite its age, it remains luminous and sturdy–just like the faith of the pilgrims who visit every year.
Where: Obando, Bulacan
What Makes It Unique: Yearly fertility rites, as mentioned in Noli Me Tangere
If you feel like you’re seeing a suspicious amount of couples in this church, then that’s just not in your imagination. The church is well-known for Obando fertility rites every May, where couples around the country flock here to dance and pray for a child. San Pascual Baylon is the main patron saint, with Baylon literally meaning “one who likes dancing,” and he shares the altar with St. Claire of Assisi and Our Lady of Salambao. Here’s how far back it goes–the so-called Obando fertility dance even gets a special mention in Noli Me Tangere.
What Makes It Unique: Built in honor of a Korean Catholic priest
This looks like it came straight from an imperial palace drama, and upon entering the large complex, you could almost believe that you’re in South Korea–but nope, this is still in the Philippines. Not surprisingly, the shrine was built in honor of St. Andrew, who might have been the first ever Catholic priest from Korea. He studied at a convent in Bulacan but met a tragic end in his return to Seoul, where he got beheaded for his faith. The complex is great for praying and relaxing in, containing a chapel, a meditation area room, and lush gardens and flowering trees.
Barasaoin Church, Bulacan
What Makes It Unique: Birthplace of the Philippine Republic
This church is such an iconic national landmark that it has appeared in coins and bills. It has been dubbed as “the most important religious building in the Philippines,” which lands it a top spot in the lists of Visita Iglesia devotees–and it’s a must-see if you consider yourself a traveler. The Malolos Congress had their meetings here, and they officially declared the establishment of the Philippine Republic within its walls. One more reason why it’s a great pilgrimage destination: a relic of Pope John Paul II (his blood sample in a vial!) lies on one of its altars.
What Makes It Unique: Antique image of the Divina Pastora or Virgin Mary
Churches in Nueva Ecija have a unique signature: one way or another, they have an image of their patroness, the Virgin Mary–also called Divina Pastora, or “Divine Shepherdess.” This shrine is the oldest and most magnificent, going strong at more than 400 years old. What makes it especially valuable is its antique image of the Divine Pastora, which was transported from Spain through the Galleon trade (trading ships from long ago that we only know now because of history classes). It’s also a pilgrimage site for the Three Kings. An especially beautiful feature of the shrine is the hand-painted mural on its domed ceiling, the perfect image to accompany prayer.
Monasterio de Tarlac, Tarlac
What Makes It Unique: 30-foot statue of Christ and a relic of the True Cross
Craving to spend some time in nature or looking for that breathtaking view that only a mountain can offer? You can multitask during your Visita Iglesia by visiting this monastery, which proves that mountains can really have a whiff of the divine. The stunning view is complemented by a 30-foot statue of Christ that seems to be holding its arms out to embrace the world. Artfully maintained gardens wind around the chapel, which is also famous for having a relic of the True Cross–a splinter of the original cross to which Jesus was crucified.
Betis Church, Pampanga
Where: Guagua, Pampanga
What Makes It Unique: Sistine Chapel of the Philippines
Art afficionados, you’ll want to pay extra attention. This 17th century church has been declared as a National Cultural Treasure, but here’s an even more impressive title: the Sistine Chapel of the Philippines. The resemblance seems dubious when you view its facade–grand, yes, but no different from the other colonial churches in this culture-rich country. But the magic happens once you get past the intricate main doors depicting paradise: an awe-inspiring interior that has been described as overwhelming, with vibrant frescoes and carvings and richly decorated walls, vivid enough that you’ll need a few minutes to take in the beauty.
Where: Botolan, Zambales
What Makes It Unique: Possibly the oldest image of Virgin Mary in Asia
Crowds flock here on January, and what draws them year after year is the Ina Poon Bato, the wooden image of the Virgin Mary that’s said to be the oldest in Asia. Unlike other religious images, which were brought in with the Spaniards, the Ina Poon Bato was here even before. As the story goes, she was discovered by an Aeta chieftain, and when the Spanish missionaries came to Zambales, they were amazed that the Virgin Mary had arrived before them. During the Mt. Pinatubo eruption, the village–including the church itself–was devastated, but Ina Poon remained intact and undamaged, even when buried to the chest in lahar.
In the midst of these churches that carry centuries’ worth of history, Visita Iglesia can be a humbling experience. No two churches are ever the same, and it’s rewarding to dig deeper and get to know what makes each church unique–or, rather, what they mean for the people who built them and continue to pray in them. If you’re looking for a pilgrimage, an adventure, and a historical eye-opener all in one, then we heartily recommend that you embark on your own Visita Iglesia this Holy Week 2018!