Known as the church of the miraculous Señor Sto. Niño de Cebu, this towering structure was built on the very site where a Spanish expedition led by soldier and explorer Miguel Lopez de Legazpi discovered an image of the Child Jesus some 450 years ago.
Upon their arrival in Zzubu (now Cebu), on April 27, 1565, Legazpi unleashed artillery fire, directing his men to only aim at the shore, after meeting resistance from the locals.
One of the soldiers who went ashore to clear the area, identified as Juan de Camus in church historian Pedro Galende’s book Santo Niño de Cebu, came upon a box containing the image of a young Jesus in a burnt house.
When the image was brought to him, Legazpi was said to have fallen to his knees and wept.
“Legazpi got on his knees, wept copiously and displayed singular acts of devotion, accompanied by the religious with tender sobs of joy, giving thanks to God for this blessing…and promising to dedicate the rest of his life to make the Holy Name known and venerated throughout the islands,” added Galende, citing an entry in Gaspar de San Agustin’s Conquistas de las Islas Filipinas.
Sto. Niño founding
Soon after the finding of the image, which the group viewed as a propitious omen, voyage navigator and spiritual adviser Fr. Andres de Urdaneta founded the convent and Church of the Sto. Niño.
As the Legazpi-Urdaneta expedition started city planning on May 8, 1565, a piece of land was allocated for the convent and church buildings.
San Agustin, in his book Conquistas de las Islas Filipinas, wrote that Legazpi “donated to the Augustinians an ample piece of land for the construction of the first convent and church where the image had been found.”
Fr. Juan de Medina wrote in Historia de la sucesos that the land was “one long block on each side…is the largest in the city and the most beautiful.”
Since its founding, the church of the Santo Niño had been destroyed and rebuilt several times under different priors but always in the place where the Santo Niño was found.
Fr. Diego de Herrera, the first prior of the convent, supervised the construction of the first church and convent buildings made of wood and nipa but these were gutted by a fire that hit the area on Nov. 1, 1566.
It was during the term of Fr. Juan Albarran as prior that the current stone church was constructed. The convent’s statement of accounts stated that Fr. Albarran began construction of the actual church in 1735 while succeeding priors applied the finishing touches.
Fr. Albarran, with the help of San Nicolas prior Fr. Antonio Lopez, laid the foundation of the structure on February 24, 1735. Manual labor was provided by San Nicolas, Talisay, and, for a certain period, Mactan Island.
Five years later, on January 16, 1740, the present church was blessed and the Santo Niño statuette enshrined in its own altar.
Work in progress
Work on the church continued in the succeeding years. Fr. Albarran’s successor, Fr. Pedro Espineyra, finished the ceiling, built a wooden choir, and gilded the retablos. Between 1744-1747, all the retablos or altar pieces were polished and gilded.
In the late 1700s, a new pulpit was constructed and the China bricks of the presbytery were gilded. The crucero was set with inlaid floor and framed with molave wood.
Don Protasio Cabezas, Bishop of Cebu, donated in 1755 the first organ that was later sold to the seminary in 1885 by Fr. Gabriel Alvarez. The pulpit was ordered by Fr. Mateo Diez in the late 1880s and the side altars by Fr. Fernando Maga in 1886.
The original wooden-shell windows were replaced by present ones of iron by Fr. Diez. The chandeliers were bought by Fr. Valerio Rodrigo at the beginning of the century.
Fr. Ambrosio Otero, who became parish priest in 1818, refurbished the entire church ceiling because it was about to collapse. Fr. Gabriel Alvez, who became prior in 1890, bought a new and powerful organ.
In 1964, added the Cebu Archdiocese’s book Balaanong Bahandi, the Basilica was renovated in preparation for the 400th anniversary of the Christianization of the Philippines. It was given the honorific title Basilica Minore in 1965.
Historian Fr. Pedro Galende, in his book Santo Niño de Cebu, said the church blends Arabic, Romanesque, and neoclassical architectural influences at a “high degree of integration.”
Citing historian Rosa Tenazas, Galende said the church’s style is Baroque-Colonial while the main facade adopts the Churriguera style. The Romanesque interior is determined by the four principal arches of the transept, called “a bold piece of architecture” by experts.
The facade is of the typical classical pattern, which has two levels with each divided into three segments by shallow pilasters. A triangular pediment tops off the solid facade. The three-story church of the Santo Niño de Cebu is about 30 meters high
Sto. Niño origin
Ordered by King Philip II, the Legazpi expedition was intended to conquer new lands and spread the Christian faith.
It came some 50 years after Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan’s voyage of discovery to the Far East that laid the groundwork for the physical and spiritual conquest of the islands that came to be known as the Philippines.
The arrival of the Sto. Niño in Cebu via the Magellan exploration was under the aegis of Charles I of Spain with his instruction to the Augustinian order to see to the people’s spiritual conversion vis-a-vis Magellan’s temporal conquest.
The Santo Niño image that Legazpi and his men found is widely believed to be the same one that Magellan gifted to Queen Juana of Cebu in 1521 when she, her husband Datu Humabon, and several of their followers were baptized into the Roman Catholic faith.
Today, the church draws devotees, churchgoers, tourists, pilgrims, and candle and other vendors.
As the church could not accommodate the growing number of people who come to hear mass in the Basilica, a pilgrim center was built within the church compound and priests officiate mass in the open-air, theater-like structure.
GOZOS. Pilgrims pack the basilica as they sing Bato Balani sa Gugma. (Photo by Gerald Serbise used with permission from the Sinulog Foundation)
Candle vendors here are different in any other churches; in the basilica, they dance their prayers in that two-step-forward, one-step-backward rhythm called the “Sinug.”
This same rhythm is believed to have inspired the Sinulog dance, performed on Cebu City’s streets by various groups in the Sinulog Grand Parade held every third Sunday of January. The parade is one of the highlights of the weeklong celebration of the feast every third Sunday of January. One other highlight is the Saturday religious procession of the images of the Santo Niño and Cebu patron saint Lady of Guadalupe.
The Santo Niño image’s reputation as miraculous is buoyed by reports of basilica helpers that it sometimes goes out of its glass case to take long walks at night. They point to grass stains on the hem of its dress as evidence.
The stories are dismissed by some as superstition but they strengthened beliefs of devotees that the Santo Niño de Cebu, “Cebu’s holy child,” watches over Cebu.
Photo of the church taken at about 1915 to 1920. The cathedral’s tower can be seen at the far end. (Cebuano Studies Center of the University of San Carlos)