One of the best and popular ways to observe the Holy Week is by visiting churches, a practice referred to as Visita Iglesia. In plotting one's route, consider the churches rich in history and culture, which make visiting them doubly enriching even for the non-religious.
Despite being an urban sprawl, choked with malls and drab commercial buildings, Manila has quite a number of old churches. One of them is the church of Nuestra Senora de los Desamparados or Our Lady of the Abandoned, or simply Santa Ana Church.
Interest in the Santa Ana Church may have increased because its camarin, or the dressing room, of the image of Our Lady of the Abandoned was declared a National Cultural Treasure by the National Museum. The church received its certificate of declaration last Jan. 23.
Also, a guidebook, Santa Ana Church of Manila,Parish of Our Lady of the Abandoned: A Historical Guidebook, was published by the Cofradia de la Inmaculada Concepcion, written by one of its trustees, Dr. Jaime Laya, businessman and heritage advocate, who was once governor of the Central Bank of the Philippines and the chairman of the National Commission for Culture and the Arts.
The colorful guidebook proves it is not only the camarin that is interesting, but the whole church as well. For first-timers and would-be visitors of the church, the slim volume is a helpful companion, describing the key locations and items of the church and relating their history.
The book tells about the churchfs historical background, its internal and external features, the retablo, the churchfs patroness Nuestra Señora de los Desamparados, the churchfs treasures (the imagefs accessories like trinkets and crowns), the ceiling paintings of the camarin de la Virgen, the convent and patio, the Lady of the Well or El Pozo de la Virgen, the plazas around the church, the town itself, and the connection and significance of Fr. Vicente Ingles, OFM, to the church, and its restoration and conservation.
The words are supplemented by photographs of the present church taken by prominent photographer Wig Tysmans and old prints and photographs from different collections including Layafs own. Many of the old prints and pictures enable readers to see what the Manila district of Santa Ana and life were like before the war.
The Franciscans established their first mission outside Intramuros in Santa Ana, building a small church by a brook in 1578. The place, in the area called Namayan, was called Santa Ana de Sapa, dedicated to the mother of Mary. Eventually, Santa Ana became a favored escape of the elite, who built country homes along the Pasig River. One can still see vestiges of the former grandeur if one were to look closely enough. The present structure of the Santa Ana Church was built beginning 1720, with substantial help from Fr. Vicente Ingles, one of its first parish priests.
"The church is remarkably well-preserved and retains much of its original appearance," Laya wrote.
It was Fr. Ingles who brought the much venerated image of Our Lady of the Abandoned, the patroness of Santa Ana, in 1717, from Spain, traveling across the Atlantic Ocean, then Mexico and the Pacific. It is a replica, carved in 1713, of the original Our Lady of the Abandoned in Valencia, Spain, venerated for almost six centuries. Santa Ana was spared much of the ravages of war, unlike other parts of Manila, and this is attributed to the patronessfs grace.
The image occupies the central niche of the retablo, and its finery is a point of interest. Over the years, devotees and patrons have showered it with gifts including jewels and gowns.
If one wishes to touch the hem of the Virgin’s dress, one goes behind the retablo, to the camarin or antesala. The large room, according to Laya, is unique in the Philippines. Prominent among its features are the ceiling paintings depicting episodes from the lives of Mary and Jesus. Believed to be as old as the church, they are the oldest datable Philippine paintings.
Its location, aside from the church itself, is culturally important because it is an archaeological site. In 1966, graves dating back to the 11th to 14th century were excavated at the convent patio and churchyard, revealing pottery, porcelain and ceramic wares from China, Thailand and Vietnam. This reveals that there was a thriving community in the area. Before the church, this site was first declared a national culture treasure in 1973.
Santa Ana Church indeed deserves attention and celebration. The Cofradia de la Inmaculada Concepcion, formed to intensify devotion to Mary and whose 30th anniversary occasioned the publishing of the guidebook, is also assisting in the restoration and conservation of the church.
For group pilgrimages to the church, one may contact Philip Escudero at telephone number 582-0149.