Mindanao's oldest church
CARAGA, Davao Oriental—At the edge of one of the country’s oldest settlements stands an otherwise nondescript edifice of wood, stone and some concrete.
For first-time visitors, the structure could just be shrugged off as an average church for a small town. But upon closer look, as one enters the fenced premises, the town’s rich history—religious and otherwise— lays open in full view.
Built in 1877 and completed seven years later, the San Salvador del Mundo (Savior of the World) Church, has survived natural and manmade calamities for over 130 years, and remained a beacon of faith for the Catholics in Davao Oriental.
The church that was used as a mission house for the Jesuits who had come to spread the faith to eastern Mindanao, stands on a promontory facing the Pacific Ocean. Most residents of the coastal municipality consider the church “a part of our daily lives,” said Antonio dela Peña.
“Whenever its bell peals for the Angelus or for Mass, people on the street would often pause to show their deference,” said the 51-year old Dela Peña, a church worker.
During services, the church is “always fully booked,” according to Dela Peña, with parishioners spilling out of the building and onto the street outside its gates.
“Even teenagers have become devout Catholics, with many youths attending Mass and participating in religious celebrations conducted in the church,” Dela Peña, who heads the parish youth apostolate (PYA), said.
The town of about 40,000 people has at least 32,000 Catholics, according to local government records.
Built during the incumbency of Father Pablo Pastells who had headed the Order of the Society of Jesus when Dr. Jose Rizal was exiled in Dapitan, the church became a significant symbol of Christianity not only in Caraga, but also in the Philippines.
When it was unveiled as a national historical site on July 16, 2012, the National Historical Commission of the Philippines (NHCP) said the church underscored its role as the origin of Christianity “in this part of the country.”
Barely five months later, the church endured its biggest test yet when Typhoon “Pablo” slammed into Davao Oriental with hurricane-force winds and torrential rains, destroying thousands of homes and killing hundreds in the province alone.
Save for about 50 GI sheets that got blown off or torn by the howling winds, the church suffered not a significant damage, said Dela Peña.
“That time we really felt it was a miracle that the church was not destroyed. It gave the people a sense of hope that despite the devastation around, the church was still there standing,” he said.
He said people have become “more optimistic” after that.
“We are proud and it’s a blessing,” said 61-year old Mila, a longtime Caraga resident, as she was making the sign of the Cross near an ancient seashell used as holy water font inside the church. Other churchgoers, mostly old women in veils were starting to trickle in for the Friday 4 p.m. Mass.
The church’s century-old narra hardwood posts can still be seen as one enters. It also has a church bell made in 1802 and a huge baptismal font dating back to the 19th century.
Inscribed on its wooden door is the date of the church’s completion. After the Spaniards were expelled in the country following the defeat of Spain to the United States in 1898, the church was administered by priests of the Foreign Mission of Quebec (PME) in 1939, by the Maryknoll missioners in 1961 and to Filipino priests under the then Diocese of Tagum in 1978. During its centenary in 1984, the church was administered by the newly-created Diocese of Mati.
Dela Peña said the church is also the repository of old religious records, some of them about a century old.
“The church history is almost as old as the town’s,” he said.
Devout Catholics from various parts of Davao Oriental and elsewhere, have made the Sal Salvador del Mundo Church among their most important stops in their regular Panaw-Duaw (pilgrimage), Dela Peña said.
Following its inclusion as one of the country’s heritage sites, the local government has earmarked funds to help preserve and restore the church religious and cultural riches, said Daphney Canete, municipal tourism officer.
She said the local government is also keen on making the San Salvador del Mundo Church included in its tourism draws, due to its cultural and religious significance.
AN ELDERLY churchgoer walks to the San Salvador del Mundo church, the oldest in Mindanao, in Caraga, Davao Oriental
INSIDE Mindanao’s oldest church, the San Salvador del Mundo Church in Caraga, Davao Oriental
ALTAR boy welcomes an elderly churchgoer with a ‘mano’ at the San Salvador del Mundo church in Caraga, Davao Oriental
THE National Historical Commission of the Philippines (NHCP) marker outside the San Salvador del Mundo church