San Agustin Church: Manila’s Only UNESCO World Heritage Site

Last Updated: May 31st, 2018

San Agustin Church Unesco History

One of the challenges is taking a good photo of the church without cars blocking the view


San Agustin Church Unesco History

The bride ready to walk down the aisle


Located at the heart of Intramuros, seemingly nondescript compared to the equally imposing Manila Cathedral is San Agustin Church. This centuries-old edifice serves as a true witness to Manila’s history–from the Spanish occupation to the British then to the Japanese, and eventually the Americans. Now recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, here are 15 things you should know about its history and the people behind this imposing stone edifice.


1. Originally built in 1571, San Agustin Church was the first place of worship built by the Spaniards in Luzon. The first structure which is said to have been made from locally sourced bamboo and nipa was destroyed by fire a few years after it was constructed. It was rebuilt after a few years–but was again, damaged by fire.


2. Plans for the third and final iteration of San Agustin Church were approved in 1586 and construction started in 1587.


3. Juan Macias served as the architect under the supervision of Augustinian Fathers Francisco de Bustos, Ildefonso Perez, Diego de Avila, and Brother Alonso de Perea.


4. The ceiling paintings in the tromp l’oeil style were done by Italian painters Giovanni Dibella and Cesare Alberoni and is said to have taken fifteen months to complete.


5. Isabelo Tampinco, a Filipino master sculptor is responsible for the woodcarvings in San Agustin Church. Having studied at the Ateneo Municipal de Manila, Tampinco recounted in his 1928 biographical sketch with Fernando D’Ayot that he studied in the same arts class with Jose Rizal.

Although seemingly unknown to many Filipinos, Tampinco is one of the most underrated Filipino artists of his generation. Some of his works include the façade of the Manila Cathedral, the high relief of the Santo Domingo Church in Quezon City, and the main altars of the Laoag Cathedral. Most of his works are now on display at the National Museum of Fine Arts.


San Agustin Church Unesco History

A couple driving past the side entrance


6. Now considered as the oldest stone church in the country, the construction of the third San Agustin Church took 20 years to complete–from 1587 to 1607.


7. While most of Manila’s structures were seriously damaged due to calamities and conflicts, San Agustin Church remained resilient for more than four centuries. It has since survived the following:

  • Earthquakes that struck Manila–among the major ones include the 1645 and 1880 Luzon Earthquakes
  • The British invasion in 1762
  • The Spanish-American War in 1898
  • The Japanese Invasion in 1942 and the subsequent aerial bombardment during the Battle of Manila


8. When the British forces invaded Manila in 1762, the church and its graves were profaned. Valuables inside the church are said to have been looted and the images of saints desecrated. Such is the case when the British forces occupied churches to serve as their military headquarters.


9. The church also houses the ashes of early Spanish conquistadores–Miguel López de Legazpi, Guido de Lavezaris, Juan de Salcedo and Martín de Goiti.


10. The terms for the American occupation of Manila towards the end of the Spanish-American War were prepared in the vestry of the church in 1898. Fermin Jaudenes, then acting as the Governor General of the Philippines prepared the terms of surrender.


11. While most of the heritage structures in Intramuros and much of Manila were seriously damaged or completely flattened by the aerial bombardment in 1945, San Agustin Church only suffered minor damage. The adjacent monastery, however, was completely destroyed and had to be rebuilt after the war.


San Agustin Church after the Battle of Manila (image credit: John Tewell on Flickr)

San Agustin Church after the Battle of Manila (image credit: John Tewell on Flickr)


12. With the occupation by the Japanese forces during World War II, the church soon became a concentration camp for captured enemy forces. It is said that in the final days of the Battle of Manila, residents of Intramuros and clergy were held hostage with many of them killed after the battle that lasted for three weeks.


13. Unknown to many, the remains of renowned Filipino painter and political activist, Juan Luna, was transferred to San Agustin Church after it were exhumed in Hong Kong in 1920.


14. San Agustin Church was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1993 along with three other Spanish-era Baroque churches in the country. This includes the Santa Maria Church in Santa Maria, Ilocos Sur, Paoay Church in Paoay, Ilocos Norte, and the Miagao Church in Miagao, Iloilo.

Among the criteria for including these four churches in the UNESCO World Heritage List are:

  • “The group of churches established a style of building and design that was adapted to the physical conditions in the Philippines which had an important influence on later church architecture in the region.”
  • “The Baroque Churches of the Philippines represent the fusion of European church design and construction using local materials and decorative motifs to form a new church-building tradition.”


San Agustin Church Unesco History



15. Prior to being recognized by UNESCO, San Agustin Church was declared as a National Historical Landmark in 1976 by the National Historical Commission of the Philippines.


San Agustin Church Unesco History

The historical marker from the National Historical Commission of the Philippines


San Agustin Church Unesco History

The wave of people at the San Agustin Church during Holy Week


San Agustin Church - A close look at the wood carvings of the main entrance

A close look at the wood carvings of the main entrance


San Agustin Church - One of the statues in the main entrance

One of the statues in the main entrance


San Agustin Church Unesco History

The back of the church as seen from General Luna Street


The Manila Project

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Historical references:

  2. Visitacion de la Torre: Landmarks of Manila
  3. Other news articles



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