Tuesday, October 27, 2015

The Pillar of Dupax del Sur: The Church of Saint Vincent Ferrer of Nueva Vizcaya

In the southern part of Nueva Vizcaya, a sprawling province about 200 kilometers northeast of Metro Manila, one arrives at Dupax del Sur. Being off the Cagayan Valley Road, where one frequently travels from Central Luzon into the Cagayan Valley and vice-versa, the town doesn’t see much traffic of passers-by and visitors, remaining sleepy and almost frozen in time. Its leafy quietness proves to be soothing, beguiling.
The poblacion or town center is immediately a collection of small buildings, houses and makeshift stalls serving as stores, surrounded by rice fields, green-golden in that season, and in turn surrounded by a chain of hills and mountains in varying shades of bluish or brownish green. The covered court or plaza is perhaps the biggest structure with its arching iron roof in dark red and a big sign on the front “Welcome (to) Dupax del Sur.” In the afternoon, a few boys were playing basketball, making the only noise in the poblacion.   
Behind the court, the municipal hall sits quietly. Its front yard is adorned with a dead tree stump and a couple of curious statues lying around it, painted in dark red and wearing native G-strings. A sign says, “Monument depicting historical origin of the name of the town Dupax. It evolved from the Isinay word dopaj, which means to lie down in complete relaxation, a customary diversion of the natives after their hunting spree.”
Dopaj is actually the name now of the poblacion barangay in Dupax del Sur. Taking or doing a “dopaj” is said to be once a common activity seen in the place after hunting and heavy meals. Folk stories tell that the place was a sort of encampment or stopover of natives in the area after days hunting in nearby mountains, where they celebrate after hard work and feast on their catch. Here, they would rest fully before returning to their homes.
The early settlers of Dupax is said to be of Cordilleran origin, particularly the Isinai, formerly called Malaats or Imalaats, although some contend the Malaats were a different group. The group, mostly farmers, fishermen and hunters, are also known as Inmeas.
The Isinai population is at 5,624 (1980), most of them (5,003) can be found in the province of Nueva Vizcaya, and the town of Dupax del Sur has the highest concentration at 2,865, out of the town’s population of 18,146 people (2010). Other Nueva Vizcaya towns that have Isinai populations are Bambang (1,856) and Aritao (300). The three towns comprised the Isinai settlement called Ituy. These towns now are predominantly Ilocano, a result of later migrations and settlings, with sprinklings of other ethnic groups such as the Tagalog, being near the predominantly Tagalog Central Luzon. Over time, the Isinai have integrated into the “mainstream” culture that there are little traces of their traditional culture left.
The Christianization of the area is said to have begun in June 1726 with the arrival of Agustinian missionaries led by Fathers Nicolas Norbante and Agustin San Juan, converting the natives and organizing them into a settlement now known as Dupax. Dominican priests though are said to attempt Christianization from 1602 to 1704. Records also tell that Dominican and Franciscan missionaries arrived in the area in 1632. Because of lack of personnel, the missions were turned over to the Augustinians. In 1740, the missions in Nueva Vizcaya were returned to the administration of the Dominicans. The founding of Dupax is accepted to be on April 22, 1731, with Fathers Norbante and San Juan planting a cross in honor of Nuestra Señora del Socorro in a little chapel on a spot near the present church. Dupax was once the largest town in Nueva Vizcaya until it was divided into Dupax del Norte and Dupax del Sur in 1974.
In present-day Dupax del Sur, there are little traces of the old colonial settlement. Three are well-known.
At one corner of the plaza is the often inconspicuous flag pole stand made of bricks. Used to hold the Spanish flag, it was constructed in 1878 under then parish priest Fr. Antonio Xabet. Also inconspicuous is the earlier Dampol Bridge, an arch bridge of bricks and single arch, spanning the Abanatan Creek. From the barangay of Dumang, one crosses it on the way to Dopaj. Dampol Bridge is said to be constructed by the natives—from making the bricks to building whole structure—under Dominican priest Manuel Corripio, facilitating the movement of people and products from those times until now. The first bridge was constructed in 1773, but it collapsed on August 17, 1812, and was rebuilt in 1819. Other reports credit Dominican Fray Francisco Rocamora for the bridge, which is said to be built in 1818, and local kapitan Dionicio Telmo in 1778. Earthquakes in 1880 and 1881 brought minor damages to the bridge.
Of recent, the old bridge was perceived to face a new threat. In 2014, the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH) began a reconstruction of the Dampol Bridge after cracks were observed underneath it. However, the repair was said to threaten the integrity of the heritage structure, and heritage advocates as well as the Isinai community voiced out their concerns. The retrofitting and widening were halted after the DPWH met with the NCCA. Instead, a bypass road was proposed. Once completed, this road can accommodate bigger vehicles while only lighter ones will be allowed on Dampol Bridge.
But the most promiment and perhaps the oldest of the Spanish colonial structures in Dupax del Sur is the Church of Saint Vicent Ferrer. It may be not as grand as many churches in the country but it is charming in its size and picturesque. In fact, the 18th-century Baroque church, under the jurisdiction of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Bayombong, was declared a National Cultural Treasure (NCT) by the National Museum of the Philippines (NM) in July 2001.
The church is made of bricks, a common building material for the churches in the Cagayan Valley Region, with river stones, covered with traditional plastering. It stands on an area of 7,200 square meters. The grassy church yard is expansive, surrounded by a low wall, and has a concrete cross, said to once crown the church until it was toppled down by the 7.8-intensity earthquake of July 16, 1990.
The design of the Saint Vicent Ferrer Chuch, particularly its façade, resembles the Saints Peter and Paul Metropolitan Cathedral of Tuguegarao in the province of Cagayan, although less ornate, and the Catholic churches of Bayombong and Bambang.
Presently in cream paint, the façade is refreshingly austere, and the only major ornamentations are the arched main door and the two windows, and its crown of finials. Also, decorative moldings seem to divide the facade into four horizontal sections or levels.
Terracotta bricks, with embossed symbols of the Dominican Order, crown the main door, and on its sides are embossed symbols of the Holy Eucharist. Right above the door is a niche bearing the statue of the Holy Infant, flanked by the arched windows, framed and decorated with embossed bricks. Above the niche is a deeply recessed oculus, and above it an embossed cross. The facade ends with seven finials with the center one topped with a cross.
At the church’s left stands a rectangular bell tower with four levels and narrow arched windows. Also made of bricks, it is without plaster covering. On its top is a parapet, a small cupola and a cross.
On the other side is the two-story convent, which now houses the parish office and a small makeshift museum displaying church materials as well as Isinai crafts. Interestingly, the convent’s walls have slits, said to be for archers to defend against attacks.
The Saint Vincent Ferrer Church is said to be built in 1773 under Father Manuel Corripio. A sacristy behind the convent was built in 1771, and the convent completed in 1776. On the other hand, the bell tower was erected in stages for fifteen years—the first level in 1773, the second in 1776, the third in 1786, and the fourth in 1788. During the construction of the church, two kilns were made near the church complex, one for firing the bricks and the other for preparing lime.
Some accounts tell that the present church is the second in the area. When Fathers Nogrante and San Juan planted a cross at the foot of a hill, which was called Cudus (“cross” in Isinai), they also built a chapel in honor of Nuestra Señora de Socorro or Our Lady of Perpetual Help. A local lore tells why a second church was built near the chapel. While the chapel was being constructed, the legend says, the parish priest and some parishioners frequently obeserved amorseco seeds clinging to the robe of the image of the Holy Infant enshrined at the chapel. Some villagers also reported seeing the image in a particular area, where amorseco grew. They concluded that the image preferred the spot for the new church. This story though is similar with stories told in many areas of the Philippines on the construction of churches. The original titular patron the Nuestra Señora del Socorro of the Augustinians was replaced by Saint Vicent Ferrer by the Dominicans.
The church was damaged during World War II, and was reconstructed from 1946 to 1947 through the efforts of Belgian missionary Father Jose Anseew. It also underwent repair and rehabilitation from 1978 to 1979 under Fr. Paul Bollen. In July 1990, a strong earthquake severely damaged the church, but it was repaired and restored.
Perhaps more interesting than the exterior of the church is what are inside it. The wooded retablo or altarpiece and the pulpit are said to be original. The original images, whose heads and hands were made of ivory, are said to have been stolen in different occassions and were replaced with replicas. A small sanctuary has relief sculptures and an altar. But the most important features of the church are the pillars and the baptistry.
At the narthex, two massive pillars, supporting the choir loft, welcome visitors. The cylindrical pillars are made of clay bricks and is hollow, filled with brick fragments, rubble and stones. But they are ornate, covered with reliefs of angels, shells, flowers and arabesques. Lime-sand stucco was used as extension coating for the building and surfacing of ornamental details on the pillars.
On the other hand, the baptistery, located near the entrance, is also decorated with the same stucco carvings. The walls and ceilings are of clay bricks plastered with lime-sand mixture. The wall relief sculpture depicts a Bibilical scene—the baptism of Jesus Christ by John the Baptist at the Jordan River—surrounded with floral designs. The domed ceiling has a dove and light rays.
These pieces of heritage treasures also suffered damages and deterioration over time. According to NM, most of these are from atmosphere, surface erosion, internal moisture and biodeterioration.
The pillars were applied with inappropriate paint. Paint layers have become soft and powdery due to disintegration of the stucco and clay. Also, water accelerated the decomposition of calcium carbonate in the building material. During heavy rains, it was found out water entered through the broken glass of the oculus. Water seeped from the choir loft as well as rose from the base of the pillars.
In the baptistery, sculptures were also severely damaged because of water accumulating from the ceiling and the ground. There were no apt water drainage system, and aggravating the situation was a reservoir directly above the baptistery, which overflowed from time to time, with water seeping through the concrete ceiling. Also, the baptistery was painted over with several layers of industrial paint, sealing off the porous materials.
In 2005, NM and the NCCA, with support from the United States Department of State through its Ambassador’s Fund for Cultural Preservation Projects, embarked on a conservation effort to prevent further deterioration of the relief sculptures of the two pillars and baptistery.
For the pillars, NM technicians and experts gingerly stripped off layers of industrial paint with appropriate stripper and applied the surface with the more apt water-based acrylic paint. For the baptistery, the roofing was repaired as well as the windows. The paint was removed, and exposed bricks and plaster were consolidated. Cracks were filled with a mixture of hydrated lime and sand with small amount of white cement, and the missing portions of the scultures were replaced with similarly looking parts made of materials close to the original
The pillars and baptistery though are still constant threats after treatment such as exposure to extreme weather. The NM regularly conducts inspections, and at the same time is still studying to find better conservation treatement of stucco in a tropical climate such as ours.
While there are more to be done to fully rehabilitate and repair Saint Vincent Ferrer Church, these are important steps in conserving the heritage structures that have become important part of the life and culture of Dupax del Sur.
“Due to its influential role, historic past, and being the most prominent image in Dupax del Sur, this cultural heritage site is the de facto heart of Dupax Isinay country,” said Charles P. Castro, a forester from Dupax del Sur, who writes about his childhood in the town and as part-Isinay. 

The baptistery with its carved walls and ceiling


The church in 1954
The Santo Entierro inside the baptistery
A bell in the belltower

Inside the church
The church's massive pillars holding the choir loft

The town proper
View from the bell tower

The municipal hall

All photos by Roel Hoang Manipon

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