General History · History of the Augustinians · Iloilo · Philippines

The early Augustinians in Panay


Miag-ao Church, Iloilo

The Spanish colonizers in the late 16th century not only brought their culture with them but also the seeds of the Catholic faith. The missionaries who went with the expeditions of the would-be Spanish colonizers were the Augustinian friars. They accomplished many significant firsts in the history of the Philippines. It was an Augustinian who officiated the first Catholic mass in Limasawa (Mazua). It was also an Augustinian who baptized the first native converts of Catholicism upon their arrival in Cebu. It was, furthermore, the Augustinians who built the Santo Niño Church in Cebu. It was they who fanned out from Cebu to the other islands of the archipelago, including Panay.

Th Augustinian missionaries, Fr. Martin de Rada and Father Diego de Herrera, laid the foundation of Catholicism in Panay in 1569. These two servants of God went with the Spanish expedition to the islands to look for a safer place due to the danger of the Dutch attacking them in Cebu. Upon their arrival in Panay, the two missionaries took in the whole island as their religious mission. Despite the initial suspicion and indifference of the Panayanons, gradually the two priests were able to stay long in Panay due to the demand for their presence in the other parts of the archipelago.

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History of the Augustinians · Philippines

The Augustinians and Arevalo

Sometime ago, there was a blog article posted on the net by a history geek that caught my attention. The article, with matching pictures, is entitled “Sto. Niño de Arevalo of Iloilo: Miraculous, Historical But Uncelebrated.” As a Villahanon, I did not waste time to read the write up with more interest than simply browse over it like what I did when I chanced upon a similar article last January, month in which the Sto. Niño feast used to be celebrated. I was all the while thinking that the link I followed on the net would lead me to a substantial material about the history of our district which was once in a limelight of the glorious past.

Iglesia de Arevalo

After reading the article, I had more questions in my mind than answers. There were a lot of claims but few sources of facts. Most of the claims were based on a long standing tradition. There were no means of proving theirtruth because I cannot trace any written document which supports them. Thus, I crossed my fingers again hoping that someday I can see documents that can lead me to the primitive historical development of Arevalo.

Nevertheless, I realized that Arevalo was foundationally ministered also by the Augustinians in their early mission on these islands. So, it is a sure thing that the Augustinians had written something about the pueblo. I tried my best to painstakingly find chapters concerning Arevalo and, indeed, I found noteworthy albeit only bits of information about the town and the parish.

What I am going to share in this article is more of exploratory thinking and an attempt to join together fragments of history. There are no pretensions of completeness. Some of the sources which I found referred me to other probable sources but, unfortunately, they are either untranslated or unavailable in the library. Thus, this is just an attempt to describe a history which is more of a frame rather than a substantial research.

The Foundation

Arevalo was originally founded as an extension of the original Oton settlement by the third Governor General, Don Gonzalo Ronquillo de Peñalosa of the newly established Spanish colony on the Philippine Islands. Oton at that time was one of the earlier Spanish settlements after Cebu, the Villa Santo Niño. Notably, the establishement of the present day Panay Island led to the foundation of two important Spanish settlements: that of Pan-ay, Capiz and of Oton in the present day Iloilo. These places were consequentially founded because of food shortage and for safety reason since Portuguese attacks of Cebu settlement were rather frequent then. Initially visited by Mateo de Saz and Juan de la Isla in 1566, the Spaniards settled in these two places sometime between 1569 and 1570 after a series of Portuguese incursions.

However, Arevalo was not founded until 1581 as an extension of the Spanish settlement of Oton. The reason for its foundation is not really very clear except that it was to be an annex of the Oton Spanish settlement. The founder himself named it after the original Arevalo town in Spain. This was  done to honor his hometown and place of birth in Castilla la Vieja.1  Arevalo then, perhaps is the first town in the Philippines to be named after a foreign place. Indeed, because of this, as Fr. Juan Fernandez, OSA ,would put it, Arevalo was considered a very privileged town. Peñaloza, in fact, named the town as La Villa Rica de Arevalo to demonstrate its richness, glory and privilege that captivated the heart of the Governor General. Writing to the King of Spain in 1581, Peñalosa informed the king that Arevalo had a fertile land and rich inhabitants. Perhaps the Governor awarded it with great accord and the privilege of becoming an independent town from Oton because of his high personal regard and as a memento of his distant native land in Spain.

Arevalo’s older site is not seemingly the present center of the poblacion where the parish church stands. According to Fr. Policarpo Hernandez, OSA, an Augustinian historian, Arevalo’s center was located in the present-day Brgy. Santa Cruz.2  This is in harmony with some claims in Arevalo. Santa Cruz’s foundation was earlier than that of Arevalo (indicating that it used to be the very center of the poblacion). Santa Cruz is also strategically located nearer Oton town and is supported by the claim of Fray San Agustin that it was “almost in front of the convent of Ogtong”3.

The glory of the old La Villa Rica de Arevalo was decorated by many significant decisions of the Spanish authorities. Arevalo, after its foundation, was made the residence of the alcaldia of Oton.4  Earlier, Panay Island was simply divided into two provinces: Oton and Panay. Oton at that time covered the whole of the present day Iloilo and Antique Provinces while Panay covered the present day Capiz and Aklan Provinces. Thus, Arevalo was privileged to be a town where the alcalde mayores or the provincial governors used to reside. Moreover, it was also the residence of a purveyor of Oton who bore the title of “Senior Justice.”5  By his orders, Ronquillo also transferred the residences of other Spanish officials residing in Oton. By this, Arevalo bore the prestige of and link to the history of Iloilo itself.

The Augustinians and the Decadence of Arevalo

Arevalo had its own independent parish since 1582. From its foundation, it was first annexed to Oton and probably, Fr. Mateo Mendoza, OSA, with his companion, Fr. Manuel Siquenza, OSA, took the shepherding on the first year from its foundation since, at that time, they were the Augustinians assigned to the place. In 1582, as the parish was established independently, the secular Don Diego Velasquez became its first parish priest. Then, the Augustinians took over the curacy in 1584 with Fr. Juan Montoya, OSA, as the first Augustinian the next parish priest of Arevalo.

The Augustinian mission in Arevalo was not that long and well-recorded unlike most of the parishes handled by Augustinians in the Province of Oton. Their mission of taking care of the souls was covered by much controversy between them and the Jesuits who arrived in the country in 1581 as part of the patronato real. All this started with the order of Governor General Hurtado de Curcuera requiring that the residents of La Villa had to be transferred to La Punta on February 2, 1637 when he passed by Arevalo on his way to Mindanao during his campaign against Sultan Kudarat.6  Initially, it was not obeyed by the local residents and by the Alcalde Mayor Don Andres Briones. The Governor General’s order could have been motivated by many existing reasons that time. First, for safety  reason due to the frequent incursions of Dutch and Mindanao Muslims. La Punta (the present Port San Pedro in Iloilo City) at that time was a mere wooden fort built in 1602 upon the order of Pedro Bravo de Acuña.7   He also stationed two companies of soldiers there for defense. Second, Corcuera wanted also to move the Chinese populace residing in Pariancillo (the present day Molo) of Arevalo. He said that if the Chinese wanted to revolt against the government, they would have to face first the cannons of the fortress.8  When Corcuera reappeared in Arevalo after the Mindanao expedition, he reminded the people of his previous order. Don Dionisio Sarria, who was the new Alcalde then, followed the order and, one day, left Arevalo at  the sound of trumpets followed by a demolition team.9  Arevalo was depopulated and, at the time of Gaspar de San Agustin’s testimony in the Conquistas, it was said to hold “nothing more than the name with very few Spaniards maintaining it, together with a column of stone.”10

What complicates the stability of the Augustinian presence in Arevalo was the abandonment of the place in 1587 because of the lack of friars to manage the curacy. However, Fr. Antonio Porras, OSA, ministered back Arevalo in 1607. Porras was noted for his efforts against the Dutch national Van Noort who attacked Arevalo in 1600.11  Yet, another problem was already brewing far north of Arevalo. In 1628, years before Corcuera’s order of vacating Arevalo, the Jesuits were asking for the curacy of the Cota of La Punta. Niño de Tavora was persuaded by their request and, thus, the curacy was given to them. But long before that, there were secular clerics who ministered to the soldiers of La Punta through the effort of General Alonso Fajardo. As claimed by Fr. Fernandez, OSA, the problem started with the claims of the Jesuits to minister La Punta as parish priests.12  Contrary to the Jesuit claims, Fr. Fernandez said that they could not minister as parish priests and put up a parish when they only preached “to a few people who were there.”13  The parish priests of Arevalo, apprehensive about the motive of the Jesuits, built a church in La Punta and understandably annexed it to Arevalo for its administration. Moreover, consequent to Corcuera’s order of vacating Arevalo, the population in La Punta began to increase in spite of the refusal of some Spaniards to settle there. For these reasons Arevalo began to suffer loss.

For awhile Arevalo’s curacy was handled by a secular Don Lazaro Vaqzuez who died with sadness over the fate of the once popular town. Again, it was annexed to Oton in 1647 following the last wave of migration of Spanish settlers to La Punta as ordered by Gov. Gen. Alonso Fajardo.14  During that the time, Fr. Juan Borja, OSA, parish priest of Oton and Arevalo, ceded to the Jesuits the whole curacy of the local church, from La Villa to La Punta – that is, from the “Salinas (saltwaters) of Arevalo to the end of La Punta.”15  Thus, the Jesuits handled the whole of Iloilo’s pastoral work while the Augustinians were concentrated in Oton. There is a mention that the Augustinians still maintained a monastery in Arevalo.16  But in 1653, “Arevalo was able to separate (from Ogtong) and, with the Royal decree, the residents gained back their rights to the palm trees, large vegetable gardens and lands.”17  It followed that the old Arevalo parish had freed itself from the jurisdiction of the Oton Parish. Don Gregorio Bruno, a secular, became the parish priest of Arevalo for twenty-five years. Don Bruno questioned the validity of the cession of Borja to the Jesuits and throughout his pastoral administration fought for Arevalo’s rights now that it had restored its autonomy from Oton. But, in the end, the senile priest towards the end of his administration, too weak to fight against the Jesuits, recognized the cession of Borja twenty-five years after the “Concordia agreement.” However, it was not the end of the dispute since Don Bruno’s successors, religious or secular clergy, did not accepted the “Concordia.” The Augustinians gave back Arevalo to the bishop because of the continuing lack of personnel from the Order in 1734. Fr. Domingo Concepcion, OSA, was the last noted parish priest of Arevalo until its turn over to the diocese. Again, Arevalo was annexed to Molo until 1826 when the Principales asked General Ricafort to grant the separation.18  The Augustinians wanted to return to Arevalo in 1859, but their request was protested by Bishop Jimeno – a motion which the Queen of Spain approved. From that time on, Arevalo was given to the secular clergy who administered its curacy.

The Augustinian Mission in Arevalo

There must be a lot of readings to do. What is presented in this short artcile does not present the whole picture. There were a lot of gaps and many explanations to seek out. Arevalo, for me, remains a mystery, yet it also bears a significan historical link to the birth of Iloilo City as we have it now. It was my task, as a Villahanon, to reveal whatever is yet concealed and to explain the glorious past of Arevalo and how it survived and came to be what it is at present.

The Augustinian presence in the town also has something more to say. The roughly 150 years of Arevalo under the Augustinian missions cannot be void and meaningless. It is foolish to say that Arevalo was simply a subject of jurisdictional dispute between the sons of Saint Augustine and of Saint Ignatius. The presence of an Augustinian monastery in Arevalo at some time before 1734 really meant something to the lives of Villahanons. Perhaps one testimony to this is the growing devotion of Santo Niño in Villa. It is the priceless gift of the Augustinians to Arevalo. Fr. Fernandez, OSA, noted that the titular of the parish at the time he was writing the Monografias was, indeed, the Santo Niño.19  The Augustinians have been taking of care and propagating the devotion since 1565 in Cebu and in Arevalo.

Unfortunately, Arevalo was one of the towns deeply devastated by the second Word War. The municipal hall had been razed down; the Church’s original structure was destroyed. What can be seen as remnants of the past today are the crown pillar of Arevalo, which was believed to be constructed in the 17th century; the 19th century parish rectory, and some houses of old around the plaza. These monuments are important keys, along with lost or burned parish documents, to the further reading of its history.

Arevalo was dear to the Augustinians of old. They called it as “patria de varios hombres celebres” (or “home of several renowned men”), as Fr. Fernandez, OSA, put it.20  Indeed, it had been close to their hearts not only for reasons of greatness. It was dear to them also because Arevalo was a symbol of the legacy of the conquerors to propagate Jesus Christ by serving its people to the best of their ability through mission and life witnessing. Ronquillo de Peñalosa must have been providentially right in founding La Villa Rica de Arevalo. fray ric anthony reyes, osa.

  1 Gaspar de San Agustin, OSA, Conquistas de las Islas Filipinas, (Manila: San Agustin Museum, 2006), 611.
  2 Policarpo Hernandez, OSA, Iloilo: The Most Noble City: History and Development 1566-1898, (Quezon City: New Day Publisher, 2008), 29.
  3 Conquistas, 611.
  4 Iloilo: Most Noble City,   27.
  5 Conquistas, 851.
  6 Iloilo: The Most Noble City, 30.
  7 Fr. Juan Fernandez, OSA, Monografias de los Pueblos de Iloilo, (Iloilo: University of San Agustin Publishing House, 2006), 116.
  8 Iloilo: The Most Noble City, 30.
  9 Monografias, 124.
  10 Conquistas, 63.
  11 Morales Maza, The Augustinians in Panay, 137.
  12 See Monografias, 116.
  13 Monografias, 116.
  14 Iloilo: The Most Noble City, 30.
  15 Monografias, 117.
  16 Sucesos de las Islas Filipinas (concluded). Antonio de Morga; Mexico, 1609, The Philippine Islands vol. XVI, 149
  17 Monografias, 124.
  18 Monografias, 124.
  19 Monografias, 125.
  20 Monografias, 125.
NOTE: This article was published in the “In Deum”, the San Agustin Center of Studies’ official journal magazine.