I was walking to a market in Parañaque the other day, having just jumped out of a Jeepney, when, on looking up, my eyes rested on a church tower at the top of which there were bells. Now, anyone who knows your favourite blogger will know that for many years I used to ring church bells back in the UK – a fall out from the time I was responsible for the production of a Radio 4 programme called ‘Bells on Sunday’. I have rung bells in over 580 churches and though I gave up this hobby at the end of the 1990s when I first went to work abroad, I have always had a soft spot for them.
As the day was still young, my companion and I wandered into the church grounds where we discovered that we had stumbled upon the recently renovated Cathedral of St. Andrew. Everything was locked securely shut, save for a back entrance into the church, which was watched over by security guards, and a parish office where parishioners could apply for replacement baptismal certificates and arrange burial plots.
This was hardly surprising. In the past few years it appears a number of churches in the Manila area have had to tighten their security after a spate of thefts of church bells, which have recently become the favoured target of thieves. San Vicente Chapel in Bacolor town lost not just one, but two of its bells to thieves; and there have been many other incidents of bell thefts in the towns of Magalang, Porac and Angeles, together with several parishes in Balagtas, Plaridel, Obando, Guiguinto and San Jose del Monte.
According to reports on the internet, the cost of a church bell here ranges between P17,000 to P40,000 – or between £300-700… one helluva lot cheaper than it would cost in Europe or the US, but still well worthwhile for local thieves.
Well, nothing ventured, nothing gained. We waltzed into the diocesan office and rather cheekily asked if it would be possible to be allowed up inside the church tower to take photographs of the bells. At first they weren’t too sure; but when it was explained that I had come all the way over from England and would dearly love to see their bells, they couldn’t have been nicer – and after a very short wait, one of the staff grabbed a set of keys and we found ourselves being escorted up the tower stairs towards the belfry.
A short aside at this point … the church of Parañaque, with its associated convent, was built between 1638 and 1650. Just over 350 years later, on December 7th, 2002, Pope John Paul II created the diocese of Parañaque from the southernmost parishes of the Archdiocese of Manila. St Andrew's, being the oldest church in the diocese, was chosen as the seat of the bishop. The cathedral's dedication took place on January 25th 2003.
Back to the belfry, inside of which are just three bells. Sadly, they are all in very poor condition. One is mounted on a cartwheel mount – very similar to the way bells are hung in the UK; the other two are hung in the traditional European way – but of this pair, one has obviously not been rung for some time, while the other has a rope attached to the clapper while the bells themselves have little movement left in them.
The belfry thus has a couple of ropes draped carelessly over the floor and it would appear obvious that few ever bother to venture up here.
Wandering over to the tenor bell, one can clearly see that the cartwheel has been tied up while that second rope runs over a pulley and is once again attached simply to the clapper.
Naturally I am curious how old these bells are; but my minder has no idea. All three have the inscription San José on them and leaning around one of the bells – no easy task this – one can clearly read ‘parroco El R.P.José van Bunk…..” Well, ‘parroco’ is a priest, of course. I managed to find a list of parish priests at the church which dates all the way back to 1580; but unfortunately there is none listed which remotely resembles that fraction of name.
What would have been the treble bell finally offered up a clue, though not that I was able to notice it at the time. The bell metal was filthy black and it was practically impossible to make anything out in the tower itself. But thanks to my old friend Photoshop, part of the inscription magically appeared as I played around with the gamma correction of the photograph…
By tweaking the settings to their extreme end stops, you can clearly see it says PARANAQUE ANO 1823. So I guess this means – assuming they were all cast at the same time – that these bells date back a mere 190 years, which is much younger than their appearance would suggest.
Coming back down the stairs once more, there is time to admire some of the new stained glass installed as recently as the 2005 restoration. This window features the official logo of Parañaque parish.
Down below the balcony is the main body of the church itself. Much of the renovation work centred on revamping the altar which has been replaced and altered on numerous occasions over the centuries. In 1994 the altar was enthroned with the image of Nuestra Señora del Buen Suceso in its centre Tabernacle. But this was again replaced in 1997 with a classic baroque style. The image of the parish's patron, St. Andrew the Apostle was placed on the right hand side of the altar, while the image of St. Joseph is found on the left.
In January 2005, it was again renovated with the Crucifix placed at its centre, and the addition of two side chapels (Altar of Saints and Nuestra Señora del Buen Suceso Chapel). It was then that many of the glass windows were fitted out with stained glass, placing new marble stone on the floor and replacing the roof and ceiling of the cathedral, painting the interior walls, and replacing the doors.
The story of the image of Nuestra Senora del Buen Suceso (Our Lady of the Good Event) might be worthy of mention here. It was brought to Parañaque by an Augustinian missionary in 1580 and 45 years later placed in the church. The picture was also acclaimed as 'Abogada de los Navigantes' (Advocate of Sailors) and Patroness of those afflicted with asthma and tuberculosis. In recognition of the more than 350 years of her local followers, Pope JPII ordered her canonical coronation which took place on September 8th, 2000.
So, all in all, this is not a church I would go out of my way to visit – especially for its bells; but if you’re in the area it might still prove worthwhile popping inside to take in a bit of history. And certainly I couldn’t have asked for a warmer reception from the staff when I was there.