When it comes to Catholic Icon Shrines, few countries top the Philippines. With nearly two dozen designated shrines dedicated to the Virgin Mary alone, the Philippines boasts the most home-grown Icon sites of any nation outside of Europe. Half of these are considered major shrines, where miraculous events are said to have occurred, the highest number for any country in the world. With so many, it is difficult to say which one is the most important, either religiously or historically; but the oldest and most popular, surprisingly, is not dedicated to the Virgin Mary, but directly to Jesus. It is the Basilica of the Black Nazarene, more commonly known as the Quiapo Church. Located in a suburb of the national capital of Manila, this church is one of the most prominent, and visited, Catholic sites in the country, and among the most popular and visited Christian destinations in the entire Far East.
The Black Nazarene, the most revered Christian icon in the Philippines, was actually created by an unknown Mexican woodworker around the turn of the 17th century. According to tradition, there was a fire on board a Spanish galleon that was transporting Augustinian missionaries across the Pacific Ocean. Although the image was blackened by the smoke, it miraculously survived both the fire and the voyage.
Upon arrival in the Philippines, the wooden statue was placed in an early mission church in the newly founded capital of Manila, where it became an overnight success with the Christians there. It became such a popular place of pilgrimage for locals that a newer and larger church was built to accommodate the crowds just a few years later.
The Quiapo Church where the Black Nazarene eventually found its permanent home was actually established by Franciscan missionaries in 1586, two decades before the icon’s arrival in the Philippines. It would be a further two centuries before the Black Nazarene was moved here. The Quiapo Church itself had quite a colorful history in and of itself. It was destroyed by fire and rebuilt in the 17th century; badly damaged by an earthquake in the 19th century; and destroyed by fire again in the 20th century.
Throughout these disasters, the Black Nazarene miraculously survived. The statue would later be honored for protecting the church during the Japanese occupation of World War II, when much of the rest of the surrounding area was destroyed. In 1975, a dark tragedy stained the church when two of its priests were murdered, apparently in a bungled robbery attempt. Fortunately, this did not effect the popularity of the church, which was designated a basilica in 1988. With millions of visitors annually, Quipo Church with the image of the Black Nazarene is by far the most popular religious site in the Philippines.
The Basilica of the Black Nazarene is the fourth church to stand on the site. The current structure largely dates from the 1920s, with a considerable expansion in the 1980s to accommodate the constant stream of visitors and pilgrims. Despite being built in the 20th century, it is an excellent homage to Spanish colonial architecture. This is particularly reflected in the beautiful neo-baroque façade and flanking belltowers. The plaza in front of the church can accommodate tens of thousands of enthusiasts, which gather in huge numbers several times per year.
Following the remodel in the 1980s, the church interior was transformed into a largely modern affair, with no columns and minimal obstructions in order to maximize the number of visitors that can be accommodated. The most interesting feature is the quasi-baroque niche behind the altar which houses the Black Nazarene. Interestingly, the icon that is on display is the original body of the statue with a replica of the head. The original head rests upon a replica body which is kept beneath the altar.
The Basilica of the Black Nazarene is located in the suburb of Quiapo on the north side of Manila’s old city center. As of this writing no visitor information was available. Web: www.quiapochurch.com (official website – not currently functioning)
As capital of one of the world’s largest Catholic countries, Manila is home to the greatest collections of churches in the Pacific Rim. The oldest and most important is the Manila Metropolitan Cathedral Basilica, which is the main church in the Philippines. Also of note are the National Shrine of Our Mother of Perpetual Help, the city’s major Marian shrine; and the Basilica de San Sebastian, which is architecturally famous as the world’s only pre-fabricated steel church.