Miag-ao Church: Iloilo’s Heritage Site

Spending a day at Iloilo City before our journey to the Gigantes Islands, we didn’t think twice about how to spend our time. Right after exploring and dining at the La Paz district – famous for the original La Paz batchoy (a tasty noodle soup) – we immediately took off for Miag-ao town and its iconic Roman Catholic church building.

the Sto. Tomas de Villanueva Church in Miag-ao
The Sto. Tomas de Villanueva Church or simply the Miag-ao Church

The Sto. Tomas de Villanueva Church, more popularly known as the Mig-ao Church, was completed in 1797 at the highest elevation in Miag-ao town. It was initially designed to serve as a defensive watchtower against Muslim raiders which had been ravaging the town in the 1750s. Severely damaged several times it has recovered every time and was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1993 along with three other Spanish-era Baroque architecture churches in the Philippines.

the southeastern wing of Miag-ao Church
The southeastern wing of the church with the bell fry

Arriving at the town center after a one-and-a-half hour commute from Iloilo City we spotted the church across the street from the town plaza and municipal hall. Immediately apparent was the intricately designed façade – the one thing that easily makes Miag-ao Church stand out among other Baroque Romanesque churches in the country.

Miag-ao Church Facade
Bas-relief carvings and sculptures on the façade of Miag-ao Church

The bas-relief carvings are a mixture of Spanish, Oriental and local elements. The biblical tree of life is depicted as a coconut tree with papaya and guava trees flanking its side. Images of Roman Catholic saints (St. Thomas of Villanueva, St. Cristopher and St. Henry of Bavaria) and Pope Pius VI along with their coat of arms complete the façade’s art work.

sculpture of Pope Pius VI
A sculpture of Pope Pius Vi with coat of arms above

Another unique feature of the Miag-ao Church is its ochre color. This is a result of the construction materials used namely adobe rock, corals, limestone and – it is claimed – eggs. Egg whites were said to have been used as ingredients for mortar, which was used as a binder centuries ago before cement was invented. (A local research done on actual samples of masonry from Spanish-era churches turned out inconclusive findings but did not necessarily disprove this claim.)

1.5 meter-thick walls of Miag-ao Church
Flying buttresses reinforce the 1.5 meter-thick walls

The church’s substructure or foundation is 6 meters deep and its stone walls a massive 1.5 meters thick. To strengthen the walls further, 4 meter-thick flying buttresses were added to the walls – obviously for resisting earthquake forces. It is similar in principle to the massive buttresses of the Paoay Church in Ilocos Norte, although the latter is much thicker and more densely-spaced for added protection, something that aroused Leo’s curiosity (he used to work as a structural engineer).

northwestern wing of Miag-ao Church
The northwestern wing showing the shorter tower
wooden main entrance at Miag-ao Church
Wooden door at the main entrance
Getting There

The Miag-ao Church is 40 kilometers away from downtown Iloilo City, along the southern coastline of the province. To get there we first headed for the Iloilo Terminal Market near Robinson’s Place. Locals refer to this market as “Super” which is what you tell the jeepney or taxi driver. At “Super” get a jeepney bound for either Miag-ao or San Joaquin. The fare is P50. In about 1.5 hours you get off at the Miag-ao town plaza and the municipal hall with the church just across the street. (This also happens to be the last stop for Miag-ao-bound jeepneys from Iloilo.)

the interior of the Miag-ao Church
Inside the Miag-ao Church

A more convenient ride is via a Ceres Bus bound for San Jose, Antique. In this case head out for the Mohon Termiinal at Molo District. Both air-conditioned and non air-conditioned buses ply this route. Going back you simply ride a jeepney or bus bound for Iloilo at the town plaza.

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