On a dim, rainy Friday morning recently, I took a Quiapo-bound jeep near my home in Quezon City, handed over the 10-peso fare and tersely announced my destination to the driver: “Santo Domingo.”
I cannot remember the first time I set foot in that magnificent church, but I am quite certain I have always been in awe of its architecture. Outside, the church greets its faithful with the imposing belfry of classical proportions at the eastern corner. Its facade observes a conservation of detail, concentrated in a sculpted band depicting the La Naval above the main doors.
Oh, the La Naval, the glorious Lady. Santo Domingo Church in Quezon City is the Dominican Order’s mother church in the Philippines, but to devotees, it is its other identity which matters—as the Santuario Nacional de Nuestra Señora del Santísimo Rosario de La Naval de Manila. The fearsome string of Spanish titles evokes the legendary battle that earned the Marian image its title. It also possesses echoes of that spine-chilling song, the Despedida a la Virgen, which I used to hear as a wide-eyed, reverent child at a Dominican-run elementary school, during those October novenas anticipating the grand feast of La Naval.
Nick Joaquin, the National Artist, was a devotee himself, and on the topic of this feast he once produced magnificent prose:
In October, a breath of the north stirs Manila, blowing summer’s dust and doves from the tile roofs, freshening the moss of old walls, as the city festoons itself with arches and paper lanterns for its great votive feast to the Virgin. Women hurrying into their finery upstairs, bewhiskered men tapping impatient canes downstairs, children teeming in the doorways, coachmen holding eight ponies in the gay streets, glance up anxiously, fearing the wind’s chill: would it rain this year? (But the eyes that, long ago, had gazed up anxiously, invoking the Virgin, had feared a grimmer rain—of fire and metal; for pirate craft crowded the horizon.) The bells begin to peal again and sound like silver coins showering in the fine air; at the rumor of drums and trumpets as bands march smartly down the cobblestones, a pang of childhood happiness smites every heart. October in Manila!
The present church in Quezon City, built in 1954, is the Santo Domingo’s sixth incarnation. Much praise has been heaped about its predecessor in Intramuros, a neo-Gothic wonder. This fifth church unfortunately perished along with a hundred thousand Manileños in the Second World War, one of its first victims when the Japanese attacked in 1941. By the war’s end four years later only its outer walls and a shadow of its facade remained standing—but there were pictures taken of it, as well as illustrations made, and I have yet to see images of Old Manila that is more haunting, more beautiful or more sorrowful than of this church from another time.
But that is the honor of another church magnified by the lens of history and nostalgia. The present church is no less a wonder of its own, especially in a time when many other destinations have captured the imagination of the faithful.
On that Friday morning, waiting for the Mass, I sat on the pews in silent appreciation of the church’s vast nave. It was a peaceful vastness that imitated creation. And it was good to think that this was a sanctuary in the city that anyone could enjoy, because the Church would not close its doors to anyone seeking to partake in Joy, faithful or not—only God will have to know.