Frequent pirate raids, bountiful seas, and a people of strong faith define Bantayan Island.
Bantayan is the first parish to be established in Cebu. It was founded by Augustinians in a gathering in Manila on June 11, 1580 as the Convento de la Asuncion de Nuestra Señora or Our Lady of the Assumption. It was established 4 years before the Parish of San Nicolas in Cebu City.
The parish served as mission station for friars doing outreach in nearby islands. It was the center of church activities in northern Cebu and acted as the matriz of the parishes of Bogo and Daanbantayan, according to a document at the Bantayan Parish Museum.
History of Bantayan
Bantayan is one of the oldest settlements in Cebu, as proven by archeological findings. It was populated by people from Samar and Leyte, who were attracted to the bounty of fish in the area. Bantayan was so teeming with fish that during the Spanish era, it was referred to as the “Mother of Fish.”
Although Iloilo is closer, the migration by Ilonggos came later in the 17th and 18th centuries. This is why Bantayanons speak a mix of Cebuano, Ilonggo and Waray.
When the Spaniards came, Bantayan already had a large population. Early Spanish missionaries in the 1570s and 1580s already reported that there were many people in the island.
What’s in the name?
Traditional belief held that the name came from the bantayan sa hari or the watchtowers that ringed the island during the Spanish occupation. The watchtowers were built to secure the island from the frequent pirate raids.
Historian Trizer Mansueto said in an interview, however, that even before the Spaniards built the watchtowers or the bantayan, the place was already called Bantayan. He said the name may have come from “puó nga gibantayan” or guarded island because either the pirates were always on the lookout to strike anytime or that the islanders were guarding their island to avert frequent pirate incursions.
Bantayan was a favorite raiding target because it was flat and heavily populated thus the pirates were assured of captives. A 17th century historical document also indicated that the island was a favored target because Bantayanons were good looking.
Frequent Moro raids marked the island’s history. A raid in 1628 almost wiped out Bantayan’s population when 800 residents were captured. A 1630 account by Juan de Medina said the parish priest and several Spanish residents attempted to fight off the raiders but ran out of ammunition and had to flee and hide.
The pirate raids prompted the Spanish government to relocate Bantayan residents to the mainland, which was easier to defend and had mountains to hide in time of danger. Bantayanons, however, refused to abandon the island.
In 1754, Bantayan was again raided by pirates. The raid, according to historical accounts, left the church and community in ashes.
When Fr. Doroteo Andrada del Rosario was assigned to administer the parish in 1834, he set about to build a church that could also serve as refuge.
About the Bantayan church
The present stone church was built by Fr. del Rosario in 1839 and completed in 1863. The church is distinguished by its thick walls, likely the thickest in Cebu, and rich embellishments.
The church has very thick walls both to provide stability as the ground it is built on isn’t as solid and to serve as fortress where islanders can take refugeduring pirate raids. Although by then less frequent, there were still pirate raids when the church was built.
The church is heavily embellished with reliefs of angels and saints both inside and outside the church.
Bantayan church facade
The church facade contains various beautiful reliefs, according to the book Balaanong Bahandi. The features in the facade are described in the book as:
“The topmost pediment occupied by low relief of the Holy Trinity. Directly below it is a high relief of Nuestra Señora del Santisimo Rosario.
San Pedro occupies the niche just below the relief of the Holy Trinity. The lower niche found on the left side of the facade is dedicated to Sta. Ana and the other niche is occupied by San Roque.
A cartouche found below the pediment commemorates in Spanish the construction of the church. Directly above the main door and under the cartouche is a seal that has reference to San Pedro consisting of a papal tiara, two crossed keys and two palm fronds.”
Inside the church is a wooden cartouche in Latin. In English, it says “When Doroteo Del Rosario was parish priest and in his memory, this church was began in 1839 and finished by him in 1863. Have mercy and pray for him.”
Throughout the church are religious reliefs. One of them is this image of San Antonio de Padua who is traditionally shown with the Holy Child. In the relief on the church’s walls, Saint Anthony is shown with the Santo Niño.
The retablo is another treasure of the parish. On top is the life-sized statue of Saint Peter. In it are images of La Virgen del Santisimo Rosario, San Jose with the Child Jesus, San Damaso, and San Roque.
Dibuho sa Kisame
In 2018, the bare ceiling was transformed into a visual Biblical spectacle with the Dibuho Sa Kisame, which tells the story of the Creation, Fall of Man, and Redemption. It also weaves the story of how the church, the local community, and a group of talented artists came together to undertake a momentous project.
Saints Peter and Paul
When it was established, the parish was under the patronage of Saint Peter the Apostle and was known as such for centuries. Saint Paul was added only in the 80s and the parish became known since then as the Parish of Saints Peter and Paul.
Is Holy Week the town fiesta?
No. Bantayan’s fiesta is on June 29 in honor of Saints Peter and Paul. The fiesta, however, isn’t as well attended and celebrated as the Holy Week.
The island is known for its Semana Santa or Holy Week observance, with the parade of elaborately decorated carriages with religious icons. It is an annual religious event that draws in thousands of tourists and returning residents.
Many residents join the procession as a religious offering. People often take the flowers that decorate the carriages believing them to be miraculous and having a way to grant their prayers.
A Papal indult issued by the Office of the Holy Inquisition in Madrid allowed Bantayan parishioners to eat meat during the Holy Week. Mansueto said it was issued upon the request of Fr. del Rosario who told the Vatican that parishioners did not go out to sea during the Holy Week. The indult, however, required that the parishioners abstain from meat on other days.
A copy of the indult can be found at the Parish Museum.
Fr. Danao, in an interview with local newspaper The Freeman, also pointed out that the indult has long expired.
Bantayan became the first parish to be secularized. On 1603, it was handed over to Fray Pedro de Agurto, OSA, the first Bishop of Cebu.
Don Pedro de Arce, the third bishop of Cebu, installed Fr. Garcia Jacome as parish priest in 1614, according to a document at the parish museum. The bishop also placed Daanbantayan and its suburbs under the administration of the parish. The following year, the island of Maripipi was also handed to the parish.
Bantayan served as the matriz of the parishes of Bogo and Daanbantayan. Bogo became a separate parish on May 31, 1850 and Daanbantayan in 1855. Santa Fe separated from the parish in 1881.
In 1903, the parish priest defected to the Aglipays. “Although the new church took root in Santa Fe, it did not survive in Bantayan town,” according to the museum document. The parish played a crucial role in the reestablishment of Catholic faith in Santa Fe when Fr. Faviano Abrau officiated baptism in the town.
The parish of Madridejos was formed in 1914. It was named after Fray Benito Romero de Madridejos, the first Spanish bishop to visit the island. It is also the name of a town in Spain.
Fr. Emilio Bataclan, now a bishop, became administrator of the parish in the early 70s. It was through the efforts of Bishop Bataclan, a son of Bantayan, that the parish of Doong, an islet, was established in 1974. He was at the helm when the parish celebrated the 4th centenary of its foundation in 1980.
“Because of his devoted service to the church, Fr. Bataclan was invested with the miter. Another Bantayanon would follow Bishop Bataclan’s footsteps, Monsignor John Forrosuelo Du, now the Archbishop of Palo, Leyte.”
In 1998, Fr. Camilo Alia became the parish priest and was credited with restoring its former glory. In his term, the parish received relics in the form of the bones of its patrons – Saints Peter and Paul. It was in his term that the parish celebrated its 425th anniversary and opened the Parish Museum.
On May 15, 2004, Cebu Archbishop Ricardo Cardinal Vidal consecrated the church to God.
Under Msgr. Boboy Romanillos, church restoration by the National Historical Commission of the Philippines started.
In 2018 and 2019, restoration of the church was completed and its ceiling painted under the Dibuho Kisame Project, undertaken during the term of Fr. Joselito Danao.
(Based on interviews with historian Trizer Mansueto and documents provided by the Saints Peter and Paul Parish Church and Museum).