Your Boljoon experiences starts once you catch sight of Ili Rock, the distinctive landmark mountain that overlooks this beguiling coastal town 103 kilometers south of Cebu City. Jutting out and facing Bohol Strait, the limestone rock formation shelters the town from the north, like the natural fortress it was against invaders before and during the Spanish era. Now it serves as a towering backdrop to some of Boljoon’s heritage sites.
Coming around the bend brings the postcard-pretty town into full view. Nestled in a cove looking over the placid azure waters is the serene Nuestra Señora Patrocinio de Maria church. Listed as a National Historical Landmark, it is the only church in Cebu declared as a National Cultural Treasure – the highest honor given to a heritage structure by the National Museum of the Philippines.
Established as a visita in 1599, the Boljoon church is the oldest remaining original stone church in the country. Built of coral bricks with clay tile roofing in 1783, its walls are two-meters thick, as massive as the 26 pillars that support them. Behind the austere facade with bas-reliefs of biblical characters, the interior features gilded relief sculptures and colorful scenes painted on its vaulted ceiling. Constructed as a place of worship, the simple structure also had defense in mind to give the townspeople a safe refuge from the constant and merciless Moro raids.
Father Julian Bermejo, the Augustinian priest finally completed the church in 1841. Hailed as “el padre capitan,” he fortified the church perimeter with stone walls and started a watchtower defense strategy to alert the town of impending pirate attacks. Signaling with flags and gas lamps at night, the warning system was effectively carried out across the network of baluartes or watchtowers he initiated to be built along the coastal towns from Carcar to the southernmost Santander, a stretch of 96 kilometers. El Gran Baluarte, the largest of Boljoon’s four watchtowers, is a solid two-level structure which was both a weapons and ammunition storeroom and a prison. Standing today as the church belfry, the old mounted cannons have been silenced and replaced by cast iron church bells.
Nuestra Señora Patrocinio de Maria Church was built as a fortress church with two meter-thick walls, giving the townsfolk a place of refuge against Moro raids. The only remaining original stone church in the country, it has been declared a National Cultural Treasure.
The nearby Escuela Catolica was a school erected in 1940 for religious teachings. At times serving as a dormitory, girls and boys who were required to stay overnight before taking their first Holy Communion entered the school separately through a pair of concrete staircases. The old wooden building still remains in use today as a meeting center for the parish’s religious groups.
Recent excavations around the church grounds unearthed skeletons, gold jewelry and artifacts including antique Japanese plates, confirming that Boljoon was a thriving trade settlement in pre-Spanish times. The archeological finds are on display at the Boljoon Museum at the church complex. In spite of pillaging and repeated looting in the past – a communion rail with ornate silver works was even stolen from the church – the parish museum is a treasure trove of old church records, religious icons and historic ornaments.
Guided tours around the church complex and museum are handled by the community-based Asosasyon sa mga Boljoanon nga Magpakabana sa Turismo (ASBOMATU). Its Bygone Boljoon Tours package includes lunch at the historic bell tower. A chunk of the scenic Ili Rock was lost to a slope benching project following Cebu’s 2013 earthquake. The necessary, albeit painful, measure was an engineering remedy to prevent further landslides and to ensure public safety. All is not lost, however, as the quaint town of Boljoon still delivers as being a priceless heritage gem.
Originally published in Postcards from Cebu