Auxillary Bishop Pablo David leads the recent blessings of the antique bells of the San Guillermo Church in Bacolor, Pampanga. Photo by Ric Gonzales
CITY OF SAN FERNANDO – The old churches of Pampanga, including the 440-year-old St. Augustine in Lubao town, are fast becoming major destinations for tourists from both home and abroad.
There are at least 10 old churches promoted by Gov. Lilia Pineda, including the one in her hometown of Lubao, plus Sta. Rita, Bacolor and San Luis towns.
“Our old churches, culture and traditions and food are and will always be the prime tourism destination in Pampanga,” said Pineda.
The Department of Tourism (DOT ) and the host churches have not kept a record of visitors but Gilda Padua, president of the Alliance of Travel and Tours Agencies of Pampanga (ATTAP), said “the number of tourists who visited the old churches had significantly increased over the past few years.”
She added that her group composed of prominent travel agencies in Angeles City and Pampanga have recently offered tour packages on visit to the churches after demands grew.
The interest to see the centuries-old churches, especially for Roman Catholics, has jumped higher following the declaration of the Santa Monica Parish Church in Minalin town, as a National Cultural Treasure in 2011. The first to be declared as such was the Baroque-inspired Betis Church in Guagua town.
But the bells of the churches, notably in Bacolor, San Luis and Sta. Rita, are equally interesting and are symbols of Christmas not just in Pampanga but in the country and the rest of the world.
Fr. Jess Manabat, parish priest of the Bacolor Church, said the bells played a role in reminding people activities related to the church and the community.
“But the bells also remind people that Christmas is about gathering not just among families but as groups,” said Manabat.
He said four of their six bells are working. He said these were repaired and restored late last year, including the oldest which is about 200 years old.
“The oldest is the smallest and it’s still working. The biggest was named after San Guillermo,” added Manabat, who hosted on December 23 the golden anniversary of the priesthood of the Most Rev. Paciano B. Aniceto, archbishop of San Fernando.
Manabat said they were “amazed” after learning that one of their bells was more than two centuries old. The bells could be seen by passing the narrow staircase path to the belfry, he added.
Manabat said the removal of “harmful metals” in the four working bells will allow their longer survival.
“We removed the metal that frequently touches the other parts of the bells. It destroys the bell,” he added.
Msgr. Eugene Reyes, parish priest of Sta. Rita, which hosts two “working” old bells said the campana mayor called Santa Rita was made in 1911 while the campana menor known as Dolorosa is more than 120 years old.
Reyes said they have three bells that are not working anymore and are displayed in the church dedicated to Sta. Rita de Cascia.
Asked about the significance of bells to Christmas, Reyes said “bells have been integral parts of our Catholic churches.”
“In fact there should be no churches without bells. A call to worship is the roll of the bells. Thus on Christmas the bells take on an added significant role which is to joyfully proclaim with more intensity the importance of the Lord’s birth,” said Reyes.
“The bells become a vibrant invitation to express that joy in our lives and relationship with one another.
They wake us up, so to speak, to the reality of God’s loving presence in our midst. In a way, bells add color and music to the spirit of the season,” he added.
For her part, Pineda said the San Luis church and its bells are one of the five oldest in the country at about 300 years old.
Pineda said the bells “have distinct sounds and very enchanting.”
Pineda, a devout Catholic, said the San Luis Church “is one of the most beautiful churches in the Philippines because it has two belfries.”
“Seldom do we see churches with more than one belfry,” she added.
Francis Musni of the Holy Angel University (HAU) Center for Kapampangan Studies said the bells “were used to warn residents of impending danger.” He added that they were even used in the past to announce “deaths and people who are very sick.”
Musni said the bells in Lubao “are old but no records say which among them are the oldest and how old they are.”
Pineda said the promotion of bells will tremendously add tourists and devotees to Pampanga’s “God-made” treasures.
“And it will always be the symbol of Christmas in any part of the world,” she added.