To the people living in the settlement of Boljoon in the 19th century, this church of the Nuestra Señora del Patrocinio served a dual purpose: that of worship and, at the same time, refuge.
The settlement’s location along a wide bay made it a prime target for Moro raids in the early 17th up to the 19th century, and a particularly vicious attack in 1782 reduced the town to ashes, its houses and church burned, and a big number of the population taken captive.
In the absence of clear written records, it is probable the current Boljoon Church was rebuilt on the ruins of its burnt-down predecessor a year after that disastrous raid, Paul Gerschwiler wrote in his book “Bolhoon: A Cultural Sketch.”
It may be that Fr. Ambrosio Otero, the parish priest, used the remaining foundations and charred walls by having them cleaned and repaired and replaced the parts destroyed by the fire, he added.
What’s clear is this edifice of stone in Boljoon, the only church in Cebu honored with the distinctions of being a National Historical Landmark by the National Historical Institute in 1999 as well as a National Cultural Treasure by the National Museum in 2001, was considered finished during the term of warrior priest Fr. Julian Bermejo in 1841, according to the Cebu Archdiocese book “Balaanong Bahandi.”
When Fr. Bermejo started supervising the parish in October 1802 and hearing stories about the vicious attacks, he saw the need for a proper defense against the Moros.
He directed the construction of a quadrangle fort complete with bulwarks that enclosed the important settlement structures and turned the church into a fortress where people could seek refuge during the Moro raids, said Ronald Villanueva, the town’s heritage and tourism officer.
Gerschwiler, in his book, cited that the church’s high walls were fashioned from thick coral stone slabs stacked on top of the other and glued together by local mortar, and reinforced with 26 massive buttresses.
In Fr. Bermejo’s time, daylight entered the church through rows of very high windows on the side walls. The semi-circular windows underneath were cut out much later.
Villanueva said this allowed the people of Boljoon to find refuge within the church where the Moros could not get to them.
He added that 90 percent of the edifice is originally of the 19th century construction, and it is the only one in the country with an almost intact enclosure.
Although the pipe organ doesn’t work anymore, it has been preserved and is displayed at the original choir loft.
Although the church has been tagged as Baroque-Rococo, it is not really of a particular style but a blend of different influences – medieval, classic, baroque, Moorish, and other elements modified by local and Chinese motifs, explained Gerschwiler.
He contends that the rebuilt church was completed in 1829, after which Fr. Bermejo modified it by constructing a crucero (transept) that considerably enlarged the floor area.
The surface of the transept walls is noticeably finer than that of the side walls, and this difference can be seen as well in a comparison of the original buttresses and the cover stones of the side portals, he notes, adding this shows the 1783 reconstruction of the church had most likely involved the reuse of the previous church walls.
Gerschwiler said the facade of the Boljoon Church, rather austere when compared to the lavishly decorated San Miguel Arcangel Church in Argao, may seem to be a mystery since the structures are only a few kilometers apart and built at around the same time.
This, according to him, is proof that the walls were of the previous structure set ablaze during the Moro raid in the late 18th century.
He said the Boljoon Church is one of five built by the Augustinians with a unique facade pattern: “two horizontal levels topped by a pediment, divided vertically into three segments by pilasters, which results in a total of nice facade panels.”
Carvings and artwork that can be found on the church facade include:
- A niche in the center panel of the second level that carries the statue of the Patrocinio de Maria, patroness of Boljoon. This niche has a trefoil arch and is framed by decorative carvings.
- The intricately carved pilasters flanking the niche decorated with floral and fruit motifs.
- Other pilasters on the facade repeating the carvings of flowers and hanging fruits with the biblical snake at the bottom.
- The Augustinian symbol carved on the topmost part of the pediment; Spanish coat-of-arms beneath the niche.
- The bas reliefs on the side segments of the facade’s first level: at right is San Juan de Sagun with his left arm crossed over the chest and the right arm holding a chalice while on the left is San Nicolas de Tolentino with bread on his left hand and a palm on the right.
Entrance to the church is through a semi-circular portal with a massive wooden double door.
Gerschwiler said the main nave plus the transept measures 65 meters long, 12 meters wide, and 12 meters high. On the buttresses by the side walls are the 14 stations of the passion of Christ.
The centerpiece of the interior is the retablo in the main altar which is made up of nine niches. It has five niches on the first level, three on the second, and one on the third.
Flanked by symmetric columns crowned by Corinthian capitals, the niches used to hold nine wooden statues of different saints but all except three were looted and sold. The three left are the images of Santo Tomas Villanueva, San Agustin de Hippo, and San Nicolas de Tolentino, and these are now displayed at the Boljoon Parish Museum.
Painted ceilings were quite the rage in the 1920s, and in Boljoon the parish priest commissioned not the well-known artists but a local one by the name of Mariano Villareal.
A replica of the original image of Boljoon patroness Patrocinio de la Nuestra Señora or Patrocinio de la Santisima Virgen is displayed inside a glass case at a side annex of the church.