To put into context the many Spanish colonial era fortifications that can still be seen around the coasts of Luzon and the Visayas, I’ve written a more detailed 3-part post at simbahan.net. A summarized version can also be found in this blog.
This is the 15th of a series I have been looking forward to see for myself the fortress-church of Agutaya ever since I learned about it while I was in Cuyo. In no time, I’ve set out to go to this place even if the trip was rather scary. Come to think of it, these very remote islands harbor architectural gems that is historically and culturally significant. A monument to the struggles and determination to defend these people from the scourge of slave raiders and pirates. As I was already in the area, why not visit it than wait for another schedule that I really don’t know when?
Like the fortress-church of Cuyo, the Baluarte de San Juan Bautista, as what the one here in Agutaya is called, were constructed by the Augustinian Recollects who were given the task to spiritually administer these islands. The edifice was first built in 1683 but it wasn’t known if it was already a fort made of stone. What is known is that in the 18th century, with the help of the townspeople and their encomendero, Antonio de Rojas who delineated the plans, it was remodelled and was completed in 1748. This date can be found on one of the walls beside a seal of the religious order (photo below). During World War II, it was the town’s emergency and evacuation center.
The morning after I arrived at this island, I walked up to the fortress-church. It is smaller than the one in Cuyo. Modest and plain, one can easily mistake it as nothing but a fort. The belfry that once stood is already gone except for a small wooden frame, badly worn by the elements, where a lone bell hangs that, from a distance, is not discernible.
One bastion, where stone steps lead to the bell is badly degraded with portions having crumbled already. It is disheartening. After more than 200 years, a once proud structure that sheltered and shielded the town from invaders is now in danger of disintegrating.
There are two openings: a side entrance to the church, facing the town and the other, at the perpendicular side. Upon entering the latter, a quadrangle greets the visitor. At the left side is the church and opposite is the kumbento, or parochial house.
Stairs inside the kumbento lead to the promontory where one can have a commanding view of the sea. On a clear day, outlying islands can be seen as well as any approaching vessel. At one corner, a garita, or sentry box can be found.
Looking at the sea, I can’t help but wonder how it would have been when the Muslim slave raiders were sighted, their prahus scattered at the waters. It is estimated that an average raiding party consists of 40-50 of these light but fast vessels that have a total of 2,500 – 3,000 armed men. Those numbers are intimidating! How might have the sentries reacted? How was the town evacuated and sheltered inside the walls? Did the townspeople also formed their own defending forces?
The church, again, like the one in Cuyo is narrow. Its walls more than a meter thick. Originally covered with brick tiles, or known as tejado, for its roofing, it is now capped with galvanized iron sheets. Inside, is a choirloft but the decorations are sparse. Not much images except those found at the altar with its still original wooden retablo.
What directly caught my attention were the presence of half shells of giant clams of the genus Tridacna that were used as holy water fonts. The images here are also decorated using shells found at the coasts and are utilized as pedestals for the icon as well as formed into florettes.
The fortress-church of Agutaya, while modest, is an achievement. The island isn’t really that rich and resources can be sparse at times but the people were able to build this massive structure. It is the first building that greets the visitor to the island and upon leaving, the last that bades farewell. Unfortunately, its state is bad and I just hope that it will be restored and maintained well for future generations.