The Manila Cathedral: 15 Highlights of Its History of Destruction, Restoration, And How It Ended

Last Updated: November 27th, 2018


Manila Cathedral History

The Manila Cathedral


Manila Cathedral History

A close look at the green dome of Manila Cathedral


Home to some of the oldest landmarks of Old Manila, the walled city of Intramuros is the site of perhaps one of the most storied cathedral in the Philippines, Manila Cathedral. Formally known as the Minor Basilica and Metropolitan Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, the long and often tumultuous history of this structure is something that every Filipino Catholic should revisit.


1. Manila Cathedral was originally the “Church of Manila”. Back then, it was a simple structure made of nipa and bamboo, materials which were readily available at that time.

Juan de Vivero established the “Church of Manila” in 1571 and also served as the chaplain on the galleon of San Gerónimo. He was sent by the Archbishop of Mexico, Alonso de Montúfar, to establish the spiritual administration of the new Spanish colony. Later, Vivero would become the first vicar-general and the first ecclesiastical judge of Manila.


2. The church was raised into a cathedral in 1579, and a new structure made from nipa, wood, and bamboo was constructed by Domingo de Salazar, the first bishop of Manila.

The expenses for the new structure were divided among the natives, Royal Treasury, and the encomenderos. However, the new cathedral was destroyed by a fire in 1583 when a candle fell on the catafalque during the funeral mass for Governor General Gonzalo Ronquillo de Peñalosa at San Agustin Church. The fire spread all over Manila, destroying many houses and structures of the same simple materials. Along with the Cathedral of Manila, the Bishop’s palace was destroyed including all important church papers and records. The cathedral was eventually rebuilt using the same materials.


3. Built in 1592, the second cathedral which was made of stone lasted for only a few years. It was damaged during an earthquake in 1599 and, still unfinished, experienced another strong earthquake the following year which almost completely destroyed the structure.


4. Another cathedral consisting of three naves, seven chapels, and ten altars was built in 1614.

It was not long after when an earthquake on August 1, 1621, caused serious structural damages. And on the feast of St. Andrew on November 30, 1645, the cathedral fell victim to another earthquake. The earthquake hit Manila at 8 in the evening with the bells of the cathedral pealing loudly with the intensity of the quake. The cathedral easily fell in ruins, its bell tower collapsed to the ground, and its walls reduced to their foundations. An estimated 600 residents were buried underneath the rubble and debris.


5. Under Archbishop Miguel de Poblete, the process of reconstructing Manila Cathedral started in 1653. He arrived from Acapulco, Mexico, and personally went on foot around Manila to solicit donations for the cathedral project. And in spite of the relative poverty of the city folks at that time, he was able to collect 3,000 pesos in contributions.

Although only partially completed with some finishing works still to be done, the cathedral was blessed on June 7, 1662. The new cathedral was a made of stone, with many altars and chapels.


6. In 1747, Italian architect Juan de Uguccioni reconstructed Manila Cathedral as requested by Archbishop Pedro de la Santisima Trinidad. By December 8, 1760, a new cathedral that closely resembled the Church of Il Gesu in Rome, was inaugurated.

On the night of September 16, 1852, an earthquake struck and severely damaged Manila Cathedral. Out of the six pear-like ornaments that crowned the façade, two were destroyed, and so much danger was posed by the deteriorated façade which had begun to crumble down.


Manila Cathedral History

An illustration of the Manila Cathedral which drew inspiration from the Church of Il Gesu in Rome (image credit: Vistas de las Islas Filipinas on Flickr)


7. The cathedral was reconstructed again under the command of Don Nicolas Valdes. The restored cathedral possessed an entirely new façade and a new dome. However, many defects were observed in the restored cathedral. To correct these, the cathedral underwent another restoration, which amounted to 9,000 pesos. Valdes’ corps of engineers also replaced the bell tower’s dome with a lanterned dome and spire.


8. On the night of June 3, 1863, another earthquake struck Manila and destroyed the cathedral. Because of the earthquake, Manila Cathedral became a massive heap of rubble that buried members of the Cathedral Chapter, choir boys, and an undetermined number of the faithful who attended the rites.


9. On May 12, 1868, Vicente Serrano y Salaverri, a government architect, was commissioned to inspect and to undertake a study of the ruins. Serrano’s report dated July 31, 1868, recommended for the cathedral’s ruins to be demolished and cleared.

In 1870, the clearing and demolition of the walls and ruins of the cathedral were done. The clearing of debris and rubble lasted for 56 days at a total cost of 3,000 pesos. After which, the restoration of the Manila Cathedral commenced.


Manila Cathedral History

The historical marker from the National Historical Commission of the Philippines in the entrance of the church


10. On June 15, 1870, Governor de la Torre issued an ordinance creating the Junta Consultativa para los Restauraciones de las Yglesias or Consultative Committee for the Restoration of Churches. Formed specifically to restore Intramuros churches, the committee would assist in the restoration of the Manila Cathedral.


11. Designed by Don Vicente Serrano y Salaverri, the cathedral was cruciform in plan, with a central nave and two collateral ones. Architect Serrano also adapted a Romanesque Byzantine style in his design of the cathedral, characterized by semicircular arches, thick walls, sturdy pillars, groin vaults, large towers and decorative arcading. The new Manila Cathedral was finally inaugurated during a two-day festivity on December 7, 1879.

Like many other buildings in Manila, this incarnation of the cathedral led by Serrano was reduced to rubble by the Allied bombardment during the Battle of Manila in 1945. An estimated 100,000 to 240,000 Filipino civilians were also killed.


The Manila Cathedral: Things To Know about its history

The Manila Cathedral in 1879


The Manila Cathedral: Things To Know about its history

The Manila Cathedral before the Battle of Manila


12. The present Manila Cathedral was constructed from 1954 to 1958 under the supervision of renowned Filipino architect Fernando H. Ocampo.

Ocampo deliberately avoided duplicating the previous design and instead came up with a new and modern cathedral with an appearance similar to its predecessor but with a more functional use of space. Among Ocampo’s well-known works include the famous landmarks in Escolta, the Calvo Building, and the Regina Building that both survived the Battle of Manila.


The Manila Cathedral: Things To Know about its history

Undated photo of Fernando Hizon Ocampo (image credit: Lou Gopal)


The Manila Cathedral: Things To Know about its history

The ruins of Manila Cathedral after World War II


13. Manila Cathedral earned the title of Basilica of the Immaculate Conception by virtue of a Papal bull (decree) issued by Pope John Paul II on April 27, 1981. It was also granted the right to bear the Coat of Arms of the Vatican City on its façade and the crossed keys of St. Peter on all its furniture, liturgical vestments and linen, and to adopt its own logo or seal. Churches elevated to the rank of Minor Basilica are, in many instances, outstanding for their architectural and artistic preeminence.


14. Interestingly, two former Philippine presidents were permitted to lie in state under the cathedral’s dome. First was Carlos P. García, the 8th President of the Philippines. And Corazón C. Aquino, the 11th President of the Philippines. This broke with centuries of tradition that reserved the right of lying-in-state beneath the dome to Archbishops of Manila.


15. A total of three popes –Pope Paul VI, Pope John Paul II, and Pope Francis all led a holy mass in Manila Cathedral.


Manila Cathedral History

People heading home after the Holy Week mass


The details of the semicircular arches

The details of the semicircular arches


Manila Cathedral History

The nave of the Manila Cathedral


Manila Cathedral


Plaza de Roma

Plaza de Roma


Manila Cathedral (left) and Palacio del Gobernador (right) as seen from Fort Santiago

Manila Cathedral (left) and Palacio del Gobernador (right) as seen from Fort Santiago



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Historical References:

  1. Manila Cathedral Official Website
  2. Other news articles



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