This church dedicated to Our Lady of China developed from a lowly Quonset hut into the imposing structure you see today.
There are two beginnings to its story: in 1953, when Mexican missionary Padre Miguel Pardenas came to Iloilo for a retreat and, about a decade earlier, when the rise of atheism led to the expulsion of the Jesuits from mainland China.
Fr. Pardenas, among the Jesuit missionaries expelled from China, was pastor of the newly created personal parish for the Chinese and Chinese-Filipino Catholics in Cebu City when he came to Iloilo City in 1953 for an Ignatian retreat at Assumption.
The Mother Superior, herself Mexican, told him there was also a need to minister to the big Chinese and Chinese-Filipino population in Iloilo.
The idea to create a personal parish for the community got strong support from then Jaro Archbishop Msgr. Jose Ma. Cuenco, and Jesuit China mission superior Fr. O’Brien that same year gave the task to 39-year-old Italian missionary Fr. Guerrino Marsecano.
Marsecano was expelled from Mengkuang, China in December 1952 after four years of hard work in communal farms.
He spent a few months studying the work of Fr. Pardenas in Cebu before going to Iloilo with only 30 pesos in his pocket and with nothing arranged in advance for accommodations.
Marsecano arrived on March 1, 1953 to a warm welcome from the leaders of the Iloilo Catholic Chinese Association (ICCA) and a sizeable crowd of Chinese-Filipino Catholics.
Pope Pius XII decree
On July 5, 1953, during the Holy Mass in Assumption chapel, Msgr. Cuenco read the decree from Pope Pius XII authorizing the creation of a personal parish for Chinese and Chinese-Filipino Catholics in Iloilo City.
Fr. Marsecano became the first priest of the parish dedicated to the apparition of the Blessed Virgin Mary that first appeared in Donglu, China in the 1900. Although Archbishop Cuenco had given him leave to use any church in the city, Fr. Marsecano had taken to regularly using the Assumption chapel for services.
After a year of services in various churches, Fr. Marsecano and the community realized the need for the Santa Maria Parish to have its own church.
With money raised by ICCA and the Propaganda Fide, Fr. Marsecano bought a lot by the strait of Guimaras not far from the city center with two Quonset huts that housed hospital services during the Second World War and became later on as repair shops for buses.
Quonset huts for chapel, convent
One Quonset hut became the convent and the other was renovated into a chapel under the supervision of the Italian Jesuit missionary Bro. Schiatti. The new chapel was inaugurated on July 25, 1954.
With the parish growing and attendance at church services increasing, plans were made for a bigger structure as the chapel could only sit around a hundred.
Fr. Marsenaco oversaw the initial preparations for a new church but this was cut short when he was transferred to Formosa, the present Taiwan, to work among the French Canadian Jesuits in the Kuangshi district in 1956.
A French Jesuit missionary, Fr. Andre Joliet, who was pulled out of the Chinese apostolate in East Malaya, took his place. The 60-year-old priest spoke English with a heavy accent and had problems with the languages spoken by the Chinese and Ilonggos but he made up for it with his evangelizing zeal. Helping him out beginning in June of 1956 was assistant parish priest Fr. Santiago Leon, who completed a course in the Xiamen language Amoy.
First church mass
When Msgr. Juan Velasco, a Dominican bishop of Amoy and national director of the Chinese mission in the Philippines, came for a pastoral visit in November 1956, he discussed with the Parish Board and ICCA the need for a bigger and more permanent church.
This refreshed efforts to put up a new structure, estimated at 80,000 pesos, and work immediately started with the money left over from Fr. Marsecano’s tenure and donation of 25,000 pesos from Swiss Catholics. A committee chaired by Trinidad Chu organized fund-raising activities to come up with the rest of the funds.
Work on the new church was primed by a donation of 2,000 hollow blocks from the Lopez family. The building design was conceptualized by Benjamin Hilado, dean of the College of Architecture of the University of San Agustin. Construction was undertaken by Oriental Lumber.
Christmas Day of 1957 became a significant milestone for the Santa Maria Parish when it celebrated the first mass in the new church.
The Santa Maria Parish Church was solemnly blessed by Msgr. Teofilo Camomot, D.D., auxiliary bishop of Jaro, on April 27, 1958.
After five years, the Chinese-Filipino community finally had a church to call its own. With the donation of a lot and house to serve as parish rectory by Mr. and Mrs. Eduardo Lopez, the physical structure was strengthened for an evangelized and evangelizing Chinese-Filipino community in the city.
Then dean of the College of Fine Arts of the University of Santo Tomas in Manila, Francisco Ricardo Monti, sculpted the bas relief of Our Lady of China that dominates the facade of the church. He based his work on Chinese artist John Lu Hungnien’s drawing.
Miraculous cross replica
On the wall of the altar in the sanctuary is a cross inspired by the miraculous crucifix of Limpias in the Church of St. Peter in Santander, Spain.
Its Chinese inscription in stained glass is the work of sinologist Fr. John Wang Chang Chi. It reads: Offering-Sacrifice (above the cross beam); The world has been saved by the instrument of torture (under the cross beam, right side); and To feed your soul, you must have spiritual food (under the cross beam, left side).
The statues of the Sacred Heart and the Holy Family are also from Spain. The bell was made by the makers of America’s Liberty Bell.