Before you now stands a strong and regal church, with its squat form and thick walls and trefoil-shaped pediment decorated with carvings of phoenixes, leaves and flowers, clamshell medallion, and images of two saints.
The Cebu Metropolitan Cathedral, as it is called, is a fitting ecclesiastical seat of the Archdiocese of Cebu.
It didn’t always look this way, though.
For years, it was in various states of disrepair, historian Resil B. Mojares wrote in his book “Casa Gorordo in Cebu, Urban Residence in a Philippine Province.”
The church, dedicated to early Christian martyr St. Vitalis,was established as the seat of the Bishop when Cebu became one of the suffragan dioceses of or dioceses overseen by the Archdiocese of Manila on August 14, 1595 and, like others built during the period, started out as a structure of wood and nipa, according to the “Balaanong Bahandi, a book on the Sacred Treasures of the Archdiocese of Cebu.”
Church in ruins
In 1665, when Fray Juan Lopez took over, and up to 1741, there was still no decent church, only a tabique barn covered with palm leaves, said Mojares, adding that one was substantially finished in 1786 but by 1829 it was in ruins.
A renovation in 1865 was not completed and plans to build another by Bishop Martin Garcia Alcocer, Cebu’s last Spanish bishop, were overtaken by the 1898 revolution.
According to the Balaanong Bahandi, a stone church was successfully completed during the latter part of first Cebuano Bishop Juan Bautista Gorordo’s term from 1862 to 1934.
This structure was renovated by Gorordo’s successor, Archbishop Gabriel Reyes, and consecrated in 1940 but it was destroyed by American bombings during World War II and all that remained of it was the facade.
It was not clear what year he saw the Cathedral but Felipe Redondo, in a book published in 1886, described the church as having thick and strong walls made of mamposteria (rubblework) of three yards in thickness with a cross vault measuring 75.91 meters.
He said the roofing was made of clay tiles and there was a spacious sacristy where paintings of the Bishops of the Diocese were kept, a wide ante-sacristy with a room on the upper portion for religious vessels, and a 28 meters-high, three-level belfry made of mamposteria and decorated with a clock.
When Cebu Archbishop emeritus Ricardo Cardinal Vidal was appointed parish priest of the Cathedral in 1981, it was already the current structure minus the two side extensions.
“When I came, the structure was narrow. It was just the middle part of the current church and could only accommodate 200,” he explained.
The cardinal recalled asking the National Historical Commission in 1990 for permission to expand the church and being told he could go to prison if he would touch any part of the structure.
Cardinal Vidal said they were preparing to celebrate Cebu’s 400th anniversary as a diocese in 1995 and he didn’t have any choice but to renovate the Cebu Metropolitan Cathedral.
“On its side near the belfry, the structure had a little side extension for baptistry services. There was nothing on the other side. It had no symmetry,” he explained, adding he had the architecture of the original structure followed in the construction of the sides.
Aside from the new exterior paint, other changes he introduced include the construction of another level as a meeting place of the clergy, addition of a pipe organ from Holland costing only P3 million, and improvement of the plaza in front of the church.
“After finishing the renovation, nobody could tell me that I didn’t do anything here to meet the growing needs of the diocese,” Cardinal Vidal pointed out.
The Cathedral, under the leadership of newly appointed parish priest Msgr. Roberto Alesna, underwent another renovation in 2009 in preparation for the opening salvo marking the Diamond Jubilee of Cebu as an Archdiocese.
Improvement involved the redevelopment of the perimeter sidewalk of the plaza, restoration of 19th century fence, creation of new courtyard, and putting in of a 21-bell digital carillon that incorporated three old ones. A big clock was installed at the belfry.
Changes to the main church structure included the installation of a new wooden retablo made of Philippine mahogany and a fresh coat of interior paint to match it and two other wooden retablos flanking the main one, replacement of new chandeliers and lamps, new wooden canopy above the cathedra or the seat of the Archbishop, refurnishing of pews, repair of pipe organ, putting in of three air-conditioned confessional boxes and new stained glass windows, upgrading and rewiring of electrical lines, and all-steel retrofitting of wooden trusses infested with termites.