Undiluted devotion: Exploring Manila’s centuries-old tradition of Visita Iglesia

By: April 05, 2023

For more than three centuries of Spanish colonial rule in the Philippines, it is no surprise that its cultural and belief systems have remained undiluted. Through the years, the Filipinos’ undying devotion and their unwavering pursuit of tradition have made the country a stronghold of Christianity in Asia, and even the world.

According to the latest census of the Philippine Statistics Authority, more than 85 million Filipinos are Roman Catholics, which account to nearly 79 percent of the household population. It’s followed by Islam with 6.98 million followers and the Iglesia ni Cristo with 2.80 million followers.

This enduring impact of Catholicism — and Christianity in general — has indeed been entrenched across the archipelago. And though the world’s biggest Christian denomination has had its fair share of challenges and controversies, Filipino Catholics remain steadfast in their belief through thick and thin.

In fact, true to its commitment to the faith, the Philippines was named among the most religious countries in the world based on a 2017 study by Gallup International, a global polling group.

Should there be an example of this relentless reverence, the observation of the Lenten season would be a fitting point of reference. This week-long commemoration provides an overview of how Filipinos express their pious vows — one of the most popular of which is the Visita Iglesia, the visitation of the seven churches.

Centuries-old tradition

Churches cover the images during the Lenten season as a sign of mourning and reflection. This centuries-old practice is done to commemorate the death of Jesus Christ and to remind the faithful of the solemnity and gravity of the Passion. It is usually covered with a cloth in either purple or violet color, a hue that symbolizes penance and sacrifice. (Photo by JOSEPH GARIBAY /

As the annual observance of the Holy Week seeks to relive the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, devotees flock to several churches as a time for penance and reflection. Some visit at least seven, some go to see 14. There are no strict rules for this matter; however, how did Catholics determine the number of churches to visit?

Visita Iglesia started in Rome in the 16th century as a tradition that involves visiting and praying in seven churches on Maundy Thursday. This custom was said to be popularized by Italian priest Philip Neri in 1553, where he started visiting seven churches to share a common religious encounter with his friends.

Neri, who started this custom as a way of visiting the early saints’ heritages, became a saint himself in 1622.

baclaran station of the cross

A marker shows the 12th station of the 14 Stations of the Cross, a Catholic devotion that commemorates Jesus Christ’s last day on Earth as a man. Each station depicts an event or scene leading to his crucifixion, from his condemnation to death to his burial in the tomb. (Photo by MARIE FARO /

In the Philippines, devotees often associate the seven churches with the seven last words of Jesus Christ. Some devotees also believe that completing this specific number would be a form of repentance from their sins. It is a way for the faithful to express their devotion and faith, as well as to reflect on the suffering and sacrifice of Jesus Christ.

Must-visit churches in Metro Manila

A lot of historic Catholic churches in the country are found in the National Capital Region, the seat of the Spanish colonial era. Dating back to as early as the 16th century, many of these religious halls have stood the test of time and have witnessed the ever-evolving landscape of the nation.

As Visita Iglesia literally means “church visit,” let’s take a closer look at some of the most iconic churches in the metro; discuss their relevance in the cultural context of the society; and make a retrospect of their impact on the course of the country’s history.

San Felipe Neri Parish

A.T. Reyes St., Boni Avenue Corner, Mandaluyong

The San Felipe Neri Parish Church was established in 1863 in present-day Mandaluyong City, which was formerly called as its namesake: San Felipe Neri. It was a small barrio in Sta. Ana de Sapa under the then province of Tondo. Its patron is Saint Philip Neri, the Italian priest who popularized the Visita Iglesia, and founder of the Congregation of the Oratory.

Around seven years after it was separated from Sta. Ana de Sapa, the incumbent parish priest, Fr. Gavino Ruiz, was given permission to buy a one-hectare land for a new church site. He acquired it from the Augustinian fathers for P475.35 only. Its cornerstone was then blessed on March 25, 1870, under the name ‘La Purisima Concepcion,’ according to the accounts of Fathers Cavada, Perez, and Marin y Morales.

Because of its historical significance, it is considered to be the “mother church” of the city. Its present structure is known for its Neo-Gothic architectural design.

The church is also known for its vibrant community and its active participation in social and cultural events in Mandaluyong City. It has a strong tradition of organizing outreach programs and community services for the less fortunate, such as feeding programs, medical missions, and educational programs.


Manila Cathedral

Beaterio St., Cabildo St., Intramuros, Manila

Officially named as the Minor Basilica of Metropolitan Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, the Manila Cathedral is considered to be the mother of all churches in the entire archipelago. It became the country’s very first cathedral after the Philippines was separated from the Archdiocese of Mexico in 1581, resulting in the creation of a new diocese and an episcopal seat for its own archbishop.

Prior to its status as a cathedral, it was first established as a parish church inside Intramuros by secular priest Juan de Vivero in 1571. It was then elevated into a minor basilica — a higher designation conferred by Pope John Paul II in April 1981, two months after his first visit to the Philippines. This is the only church in the Philippines that was granted a basilica status through a pope’s own motion so far; meanwhile, others had to go through a petition process.

The cathedral has undergone eight major reconstructions since its first establishment. Its current architecture style is described to be Neo-Romanesque based on its features. It also has a cruciform floor plan, with its main nave and transept intersecting at the center.

Some prominent personalities who became part of its colorful history include former ‘80s couple Sharon Cuneta and Gabby Concepcion, who tied the knot there in 1984. It was also in this church that three former presidents had their lying-in-state, namely Emilio Aguinaldo, Carlos Garcia, and Corazon Aquino.


San Agustin Church

General Luna St., Intramuros, Manila

San Agustin Church is considered to be the oldest stone church in the country, which was completed in 1607. Located inside the walled city of Intramuros, it was first established with nipa and bamboo structures in 1571 under the Augustinian friars. However, it was burnt down a couple of times due to unfortunate circumstances, prompting the church officials to reconstruct what is today’s structure, which is made primarily of adobe stones.

Its present shape is a fine example of Baroque architecture with ornate details and intricate designs. In addition, the facade features a mix of Baroque and Neoclassical styles.

The church is an important cultural and historical landmark in the Philippines, having survived wars, natural disasters, and centuries of change. In fact, it served as the final resting place for well-known figures from history such as painter Juan Luna, historian Teodoro Agoncillo, and Miguel Lopez de Legazpi, the first governor-general of the Philippines during the colonial era.

In 1993, the church was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, along with three other Baroque churches in the Philippines. This recognition further cemented its significance not just to the Philippines, but to the world.


Binondo Church

Plaza L. Ruiz, Binondo, Manila

Also known as the Minor Basilica of Saint Lorenzo Ruiz and Our Lady of the Most Holy Rosary Parish, Binondo Church was built under the Dominican order in 1596. It is one of the oldest churches in the Philippines and an important landmark of the country’s Chinese-Filipino heritage at the heart of the world’s oldest Chinatown.

Two years before the church’s establishment, then Governor-General Luis Perez Dasmariñas created the village where it stands today, the district of Binondo. The area was given as a present for the Chinese Sangleys who converted to Christianity, with the church as its central point. It then served as their sanctuary during the Spanish colonial period, when they were discriminated against and persecuted.

It was also in this church that Lorenzo Ruiz, the first Filipino martyr, developed his Christian faith while working as a sacristan before his tragic journey to and death in Japan in 1637. He became the first Filipino saint after his canonization in 1987.

Binondo Church’s altar table is adorned with sculpted figures of San Lorenzo Ruiz and other companion martyrs, who were tortured for spreading Christianity in Japan in 1637. (Photo by JOSEPH GARIBAY /

The church’s present-day appearance was finished in 1985 after decades of postwar reconstruction. It has a mixed architecture of Baroque and Chinese styles, with intricate carvings and ornaments. Aside from its iconic look, it is also home to the replica of Santo Cristo de Longos, a revered religious relic, which is believed to be miraculous by many devotees.

Binondo Church gained its minor basilica status in 1992, making it the fourth church in Metro Manila to obtain such designation. One of the most notable personalities attached to its rich history is Andres Bonifacio, who had a wedding with his second wife Gregoria de Jesus in 1893.


Baclaran Church

Redemptorist Rd., Baclaran, Parañaque

Baclaran Church is the biggest shrine in the world dedicated to Our Mother of Perpetual Help. Its founders, the Redemptorist missionaries, brought the image to the Philippines in 1906 and permanently settled in 1932 in Baclaran, a small and barren village situated near the sea. The church is formally known as the National Shrine of Our Mother of Perpetual Help, which is located in Parañaque City.

At the time when they set foot in the area, they could not have foreseen that the wooden chapel they built would one day evolve into the largest shrine in the world devoted to the icon. Because right from the very beginning, their intention was only to be a mission station for conducting missions in far-off villages, and not to establish a parish. It was also only meant to serve the local community living around the convent.

Its significance as a church started to fully spread when the Redemptorists initiated the novena in 1948, where devotees began to multiply exponentially. It has since become a pilgrim site attracting millions of Marian devotees, both domestic and foreign followers.

Devotees of Our Mother of Perpetual Help touch the huge framed image in Baclaran after lighting their candles and offering prayers in the chapel. (Photo by MARIE FARO /

Baclaran Church’s present structure, which was completed in the 1950s, is described to be modern Romanesque. It was originally planned to be taller with a bell tower; however, it was changed due to its proximity to the Ninoy Aquino International Airport.

Due to its unique style and prominence, it was featured in a number of movies and TV shows — one of these was the 1979 film “Ina Ka ng Anak Mo,” which was directed by National Artist Lino Brocka.


Santa Ana Church

New Panaderos St., Santa Ana, Manila

Also known as the Parish of Our Lady of the Abandoned, the Santa Ana Church is a Catholic church located in the protected heritage zone of Santa Ana district in Manila. It was first established as a parish church following the arrival of Franciscan missionaries in 1578. In 2020, it was elevated into a national shrine by the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP); hence, it is also referred to as the National Shrine of Our Lady of the Abandoned.

The current stone structure, which features a Baroque-style facade, was constructed in the 1720s. Since then, the church became a popular pilgrimage site for devotees of Our Lady of the Abandoned, a revered image of the Virgin Mary enshrined in the church.

Moreover, Santa Ana Church is renowned for being the home of two declared National Cultural Treasures of the country — the Camarin de la Virgen and the Sta. Ana Site Museum. It is also notable for its extensive use of windowpane oysters, or popularly known as capiz, in its windows.

In 1936, the precursor of the National Historical Commission of the Philippines declared the church as a historical building as it played a crucial role in the Philippine-American war. Through the years, it has become a testament not only to the enduring faith and devotion of the Filipino people, but also to the cultural heritage of the country.


Guadalupe Church

Bernardino St., Guadalupe Viejo, Makati

The Guadalupe Church, also known as the Nuestra Señora de Gracia Church, is a historic church located in Makati City. Its history goes back centuries ago when it became a house for the Augustinian order in 1601, the same year the foundations of the church and monastery were laid. Three years later, the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe arrived from Badajos, Spain. By 1629, the structure of the church was finally completed.

In 1639, thousands of Chinese from Calamba, Laguna rose up arms against colonial Spain and marched to Manila. Records of the church say that the icon was brought to the battle scene, averting possible bloodshed. It was after this miraculous moment that the church became a pilgrim for both Chinese and Spaniards.

Its design can be characterized with a mix of Baroque, Neoclassical, and Gothic styles, featuring intricate carvings, arches, and stained glass windows. The church is known for its beautiful interior, which features a marble altar with gold-plated details and intricate carvings. The church also has several stained-glass windows, which depict scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary.

It became a crucial part of history during the Philippine revolution when Gen. Pio del Pilar occupied the church with his troops. Today, the Guadalupe Church remains an important landmark and cultural heritage site in Makati City, attracting both locals and tourists who come to admire its unique architecture and rich history.


National Shrine of the Sacred Heart

Sacred Heart St, Makati

Canonically inaugurated as a shrine in 1976, the National Shrine and Parish of the Sacred Heart is located in the bustling city of Makati. Its foundation began in the 1950s and was the result of a community’s aspiration to have a place where members can express their religious beliefs. This was also made possible through the pioneering work of two Jesuit priests who were committed to spreading the devotion to the Sacred Heart.

For more than three decades, the location of the church has changed three times, starting from its humble beginnings as a community chapel and eventually finding a permanent location on Sacred Heart Street, which was named in honor of the church. The structure, with a design combination of Byzantine and Romanesque architecture, has undergone two significant renovations and has transformed into a suitable place of worship and homage to the devotion.

The church has emerged as a hub for the deep and sincere devotion to the Sacred Heart, attracting people from all over the country and around the world. It receives regular visits from thousands of individuals who seek to connect with the Sacred Heart in a more intimate manner. Additionally, pilgrims and devotees from abroad like those from Canada, the United States, France, and other Asian countries also visit this renowned shrine to pay their respects.

The Sacred Heart devotion was first introduced to Filipinos by the Jesuits in the 18th century. It is deeply ingrained in Filipino culture and has led to the establishment of numerous churches throughout the country, many of which are named after the Sacred Heart of Jesus and feature an image of the Sacred Heart within their parish.


San Sebastian Church

Plaza del Carmen, Manila
Photo: San Sebastian FB page

The San Sebastian Church, also called the Minor Basilica of San Sebastian, is the only all-steel church in Asia since its construction in the 1880s. Its distinctive structure makes it one of the most iconic churches in the country, and even on the world stage. In 1973, the church was declared as a National Historical Landmark through a presidential decree.

Its predecessor structure was established by the Augustinian Recollects in 1621, but was destroyed by major earthquakes over the years. Hence, to prevent further damage from tremors, a proposal of an all-steel basilica was realized. The plan was designed by Spanish architect Genaro Palacios in the late 19th century; however, some rumors claim that its supposed designer was actually Gustave Eiffel, the civil engineer behind the iconic Eiffel Tower in Paris, France.

Although the church has undergone frequent repairs and repainting, its current exterior appearance has remained faithful to the original design, which is considered to be a revival of Gothic-style architecture in the country. Its interiors, meanwhile, have mostly remained untouched except for a painting restoration in 2001.

Due to the nature of its structure, the San Sebastian Church became inevitably vulnerable to “structural threats and decorative losses” through the years. This is why it was included in the 1998 and 2010 World Monuments Watch, an independent organization devoted to protect the most treasured places in the world.

Quiapo Church

Quezon Blvd., Quiapo, Manila
Photo: AFP

The Minor Basilica of the Black Nazarene, more colloquially known as Quiapo Church, is a Roman Catholic church in the district of Quiapo in Manila. It is home to the Black Nazarene, a dark-colored life-size statue of Jesus Christ carrying the cross that is believed to have miraculous powers.

With a strong connection with the masses, it is considered to be one of the most popular churches in the country. The first church was established in nipa and bamboo materials by Franciscan friars in 1588. It has since undergone numerous renovations and expansions throughout its history. The church’s facade features a mixture of Baroque and Neoclassical styles, with intricate carvings and sculptures.

Augustinian Recollect priests brought the image of Jesus the Black Nazarene to the Church of San Juan Bautista in Bagumbayan, the present-day Luneta, on May 31, 1606. Two years later, in 1608, the statue was transferred to San Nicolas de Tolentino Church in Intramuros. Finally, on January 9, 1787, the icon was transported to its current home at the Parish of Saint John the Baptist, the canonical name of Quiapo Church.

The aforementioned series of transfers inspired the “Traslacion” during the feast of the Black Nazarene, an annual tradition that attracts millions of devotees here and abroad. Most, if not all, of the attendees walk barefoot and jostle with each other for the chance to touch the image. Because they believe that touching or being near the statue can heal illnesses and bring blessings. This strong religious devotion, among other reasons, has put Quiapo at the spotlight of one of the most iconic traditions in the world.

Other Basilicas in Metro Manila

Aside from the four basilicas in the city of Manila, namely the Manila Cathedral, Binondo Church, Quiapo Church, and San Sebastian Church, there are three other churches in Metro Manila that have been elevated into the status of a minor basilica.

National Shrine of Our Lady of Mount Carmel

4th St, New Manila, Quezon City
Photo: Mount Carmel Church FB

The Basilica of the National Shrine of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, or simply Mt. Carmel, is a Roman Catholic basilica located in the Cubao district of Quezon City. It is dedicated to Our Lady of Mount Carmel, a title of the Blessed Virgin Mary. In 2018, it was added to the highly revered list of minor basilicas in the country, and was recognized as the first in the Diocese of Cubao.

Mt. Carmel was established as a parish church in 1975 and has since undergone numerous renovations and expansions throughout its relatively young history. Prior to its basilica status, it was declared as a National Shrine in 2015, which means that it will now be elevating its responsibilities as well.

Basilica Minore de San Pedro Bautista

San Francisco del Monte, Quezon City
Photo: San Pedro Bautista Church FB

Located in the San Francisco del Monte district of Quezon City, the Basilica Minore de San Pedro Bautista is a Roman Catholic basilica dedicated to Saint Peter the Baptist. The historical roots of the church can be traced as a convent and chapel in 1590. Made of bamboo and nipa, its location was granted to the Franciscan missionaries and was originally dedicated to Our Lady of Montecelli.

It was then reconstructed with wooden materials in 1593, and then replaced by a stone structure in 1599. However, the new church was damaged during the uprisings in the 1600s. It was only in 1699 that the church was restored in a Baroque style, and named after Pedro Bautista, the newly beatified martyr at that time.

Basilica Shrine of St. Anne

Liwayway Street, Santa Ana, Taguig
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The Minor Basilica and Archdiocesan Shrine of St. Anne is a Catholic church located in the city of Taguig. It is dedicated to Saint Anne, the mother of the Virgin Mary and the grandmother of Jesus Christ. It became a basilica in July 2022, the first under the diocese of Pasig’s jurisdiction.

The church was first established by Augustinian friars in 1587. Since then, it has gone through a lot of destruction from quakes, yet continuously rehabilitated over time. Its present structure features a Baroque style of architecture. Because of its significance in the country’s history, it was declared as a cultural property by the National Commission for Culture and the Arts.

Story by: Samuel Yap
UX Lead: Joseph Garibay
Creative Producer: Marie Faro
Video Team Lead: Ram Nabong
Videographer: Arnel Tacson
Video editor: Catherine Miranda