CEBU’S 1730 JESUIT HOUSE
by Cecilia Manguerra Brainard
Published in Zee Lifestyle, October 2009
I first learned about the eighteenth century Jesuit House in historic Cebu from Concepcion Briones’ book, Life in Old Parian. Intrigued by their history of the Jesuits, I also read The Jesuits in the Philippines 1581-1768 by H. de la Costa.
The Jesuits, also known as the Black Robes, came to the Manila in 1581. By 1595 they were in Cebu. The Jesuits went on to administer a free primary school teaching Spanish, Visayan, and Chinese students Christian doctrine, reading, writing, arthimetic, and deportment, grammar.
After 1605, the Jesuits appointed a Vice Provincial who acted as an overseer, a roving supervisor of missions, and who acted as a liaison among the mission stations and the provincial superior and civil government. The Vice Provincial had his own residence, and the 1730 Jesuit House, located between Zulueta and Binacayan, near Mabini, was such a house.
When the Jesuits were expelled from the Philippines in 1768, the 1730 Jesuit House ended up in the hands of others. In its 279 years of existence, the Jesuit House has been used for different purposes: it was the residence of the Vice Provincial of the Jesuits; it became the headquarters of the Japanese military during World War II; it was a private nightclub in the 1950s; it was used as a hospital by the Americans; and it was also the residence of the Alvarez family who sold the place to Nicanor Sy in the mid-1960s.
Sy converted the premises into the Ho Tong warehouse and for some forty years the Jesuit House took on the guise of a bodega. Sometime after the Sy family acquired the property, they placed an iron gate to protect the antique wood gate and three medallions above the gate with the emblems of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph; and so thankfully, the sixteenth buildings, gate, and coral wall are still there.
Three years ago, I dared enter the Ho Tong Hardware bodega and asked a woman if I could visit the Jesuit House. She graciously asked some workers to lead me to the middle of the enclosed compound where two adjoining buildings stood. I had to be careful not to trip over metal cables and piles of stuff stockpiled all around the buildings as well as within the buildings. The first building I encountered was smaller; it had stairs that led to a dark rectangular space, like a huge hallway, cluttered with more hardware stuff, but I could see huge antique foundation posts — huge tree trunks painted red. From this first structure I crossed a covered bridge to get to a larger building — still dark and cluttered but this building had a sign above a doorway that said, “1730.” In the darkness and clutter, and I realized that this was the sign that made this building the oldest recorded building in the entire Philippines. I was led through a huge room, like a sala, to the other end of this bigger building with wide wooden stairs that led to the ground floor. Briones had written that the original stairs had been removed by the Alvarez family and brought to Bohol. These then were the replacement stairs. But it was dark and difficult to catch details of the stairs and of the buildings. I would have to wait three years before I would see the Jesuit House again, this time with more light and without the warehouse clutter, and in fact this time the Jesuit House would be a musuem.
Jimmy Sy, son of Nicanor Sy now the head of the Sy family decided sometime in June 2009 to turn the Jesuit House into a museum. How a businessman like Jimmy, who for most of his life had lived with the Jesuit House buried underneath the Ho Tong bodega, got the inspiration to turn the place into a museum is a story in itself. Jimmy attended Sacred Heart School and the Ateneo de Manila University – schools run by Jesuits. While he was in the Ateneo library, he pulled out a 1936 pictorial book by Father Repetti, a seismologist whose hobby was taking pictures of old religious structures in the Philippines. When Jimmy flipped the pages, he saw an image that looked familiar – it was the Jesuit House in the Ho Tong Hardware bodega. Jimmy made a copy of the picture and showed it to his father. His father filed it away and for the moment the story ended there, but in fact Jimmy kept that information in his head, information that very well could have been the seed of his decision to develop the Ho Tong bodega into the Jesuit House Museum. Looking forward to this retirement, Jimmy welcomed the idea of becoming the steward of this oldest documented building in the entire Philippines. He felt the urge to share the place with others.
I revisited the Jesuit House Museum in August 2009, and since it was only a two-three month project, the warehouse clutter was still around. Jimmy explained that he is still building a bodega and it will take time to develop the Jesuit House Museum. However, the two building structures have been cleared and are being spruced up. Jimmy has decorated some areas with antique furniture and oil lamps so that visitors can have an idea of what the Jesuit House looked almost three hundred years ago. I could now see that the first structure was a large covered azotea. A covered bridge connected this to the main building, which had been the house of the Jesuit Vice Provincial in the sixteenth century. Both structures had two stories, and I only visited the upper floor. The main structure, that is the actual residence of the Vice Provincial, has a large central room, with rooms surrounding this space. These rooms have not been developed and are closed to the public.
Jimmy has also decorated this large space with furniture, an altar, lamps. He has likewise fixed up the original entrance to the building from Binacayan road. Plants, antique angel wood carvings, antique oil lamps, and wrought iron grills on windows give one a good idea of how the place looked like in the past.
According to Jimmy and his conservation architect Anthony Abelgas research must first be done. They are working with Jesuit Father Rene Javellana who is providing them with the historical aspect. In fact, Father Javellana has already written about the Jesuit House and Jimmy generously provided me with a copy of Javellana’s 1987 article, “The Jesuit House of 1730” published in Philippine Studies.
Jimmy Sy sounds like a religious convert, brimming with fervor and enthusiasm, when he talks about the Jesuit House. In the bigger building, he explains that the first original door had faced Binacayan Street, the tiny winding street close to Colon Street. Once upon a time there had been a gate and stairs on the Binacayan side. Jimmy excitedly pointed at the wood planks on the floor, pointing out where another kind of wood had patched up stud-holes. He showed me a square space to the right of the main stairs where a painting must have hung. He pointed out ancient carved wood beams through ceiling holes and showed off windows in the first floor area underneath the azotea, wondering why windows should be in a now-enclosed space. He pointed out a cemented area near the stairs that he says was a burial spot.
And the best part was when this business man started talking about the spirits in the place. Apparently Jimmy had invited a Jesuit classmate who is psychic to the place. The man said he felt the presence of so many spirits in the place. A ritual was done to ask permission from the spirits to do work on the place. There are still bits and pieces of red offerings on top of the burial spot near the stairs.
Jimmy also talked about a local oral legend about a sacristan who murdered seven Jesuits. Feeling remorseful, he carved a Cross on the coral stone wall outside. Jimmy searched for the Cross and found it, on the Binacayan side, near an area of the wall that looked like it had been enclosed. There had once been a gateway there, but it had been sealed. A new gateway was transferred to where the current opening is.
News that the Jesuit House is now finally a museum is a source of great delight to historians, heritage-lovers, tourists, and media. The new Jesuit House Museum already has a steady stream of visitors: guests from Manila, America, Europe, Australia, Korea, Cebuanos themselves (some of whom had never even heard of the Jesuit House), and many more. The 1730 Jesuit House always had visitors, even when it was buried underneath the Ho Tong Hardware, but now, the public is clearly anxious to see the eighteenth century Jesuit House properly restored and offered for public view. It is after all one of the treasures of the Philippines
Side Bar: The Jesuits in Cebu
It was the Jesuit superior, Antonio Sedeño himself who founded a house in Cebu on what is today M. J. Cuenco Avenue. Sedeño was a veteran missionary who like St. Ignatius had been in the military when he was young. He had gone to England as a page of the Duke of Feria when Mary Tudor was queen. On March 13, 1568, he sailed for Florida with a group of Jesuits headed by Juan Bautista de Segura. In 1572, Sedeño was the first Jesuit sent to Mexico, and it was while he was acting Rector of the college there that he was informed he was chosen as superior of the first Philippine Mission. Traveling with three companions, he sailed from Acapulco on the galleon San Martin on March 29 and arrived Manila in July. There Sedeño and his company learned Tagalog. After much hemming and hawing as to whether the Manila Jesuits would head the entire Far East or the Philippines, and as to what type of work they would actually do there, the King of Spain sent an order for the Jesuits to establish a Jesuit College where they would teach not only Spanish boys but also mestizos and sons of the ruling class.
Cebu, the site of the first Spanish settlement was not forgotten, and by June 30, 1595 Sedeño himself headed a small group composed of Alonso de Humanes, Mateo Sanchez, and a lay brother to sail to Cebu for the purpose of founding a Jesuit house there. The people received them warmly and donated 500 pesos, which the Jesuits used to buy a house near the beach. The city corporation donated adjacent land for a yard and garden. The trip to Cebu had been on an uncovered sailboat, exposing the Jesuit passengers to the stormy weather for three weeks. Sedeño became ill and passed away in Cebu on September 2, 1595. They buried him in the domestic chapel on the ground floor of their first house, but three years later, Father Pedro Chirino transferred Sedeño’s remains to the new Jesuit church.
Life in Parian Now
Cebu's 1730 Jesuit House
The Secret Hall of Angels
A Story of Hope
Finding Jose Rizal in Cebu
Lola Remedios and her Sayas
Lunch with F. Sionil Jose
Pre-Colonial Gold in Cebu
tags: Cebu, Philippines, Jesuits,. history, Cebuano, 1730 Jesuit House, Spanish Colonial