The Nuestra Señora dela Asuncion Church also known as “Santa Maria Asunta Church”, “Shrine of Asuncion de Santa Maria” and” Santa Maria Church”, is one of the four baroque churches inscribed in the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage List in 1993 located on a top of a freestanding hill surrounded by a stone retaining wall which gives it a citadel appearance at Poblacion Sur, Santa Maria, Ilocos Sur, north of Manila, Philippines. The World Heritage inscription described the church as follows: “Unlike other town churches in the Philippines, which conform to the Spanish tradition of siting them on the central plaza, the Church of Nuestra Señora dela Asuncion in Santa Maria with its convento are on a hill surrounded by a defensive wall. Also unusual are the siting of the convento parallel to the facade of the church and that of the separate bell tower (characteristic of Philippine-Hispanic architecture) at the midpoint of the nave wall. This was dictated by the hill on which it is located. The brick church follows the standard Philippine layout, with a monumental facade masking a straight roof-line covering a long rectangular building. It is alleged to be built on a solid raft as a precaution against earthquake damage. The walls are devoid of ornament but have delicately carved side entrances and strong buttresses.” (whc.unesco.org)
This baroque church was inscribed as a World Heritage Site on the basis of:
Criterion (ii): The group of churches established a style of building and design that was adapted to the physical conditions in the Philippines which had an important influence on later church architecture in the region.
Criterion (iv): The Baroque Churches of the Philippines represent the fusion of European church design and construction using local materials and decorative motifs to form a new church-building tradition.
The church has been declared as a national historical landmark in the Philippines by virtue of the provisions of the Presidential Decree No. 260, dated August 1, 1973, as amended by Presidential Decree No. 375, dated January 14, 1974 and Presidential Decree No. 1515, dated June 11, 1978.
The massive octagonal tower of decreasing diameter is crowned by a small dome and detached from the church proper. It is situated about midpoint of the lateral view of the whole church which makes it unique from the traditional church-tower arrangement in the region that is aligned with the church façade or forward of it like in the other churches in the region. The tower was constructed in 1810 by Fr. Jose Cardaño. Its bells arrived in 1811.
In 1819, the church was initially constructed but left unfinished during the time of its parish priest Fr. Jose Cardaño. The work resumed in 1857 and lasted till 1880 during the time of its parish priest Fr. Benigno Fernandez. The Santa Maria Church has three stone stairways that were constructed during the time of parish priest Fr. Lorenzo Rodriguez. Two stairways were constructed in the western side. The main stairway consisting of 85 steps was divided into four flights that lead to the church-convento complex comfortably. The stairway’s first and second flight have 20 steps each, 22 steps on third and 21 steps on the fourth flight. Two steps were added to complete 85. A 54 steps stairway was erected in the western side. On the eastern side, a 73 steps stairway was also constructed. One can view an old cemetery with neglected century old chapel. During the time of parish priest Fr. Lorenzo Rodriguez, an 8-meter retaining wall surrounding the hill where the church, convent and tower were situated was constructed on 1859. In 1863, the church was remodeled. The construction lasted on 1871. The convent was constructed on 1880. In 1889, Fr. Juan Zallo finished the church construction.
The church–convent-atrium complex became a center of religious missionary activities in the area. The hugeness of the convent and church could explain it. The church has two side altars inside the church. The church measures 81 meters from front door to the back of the altar and 16 meters on its interior width. The church was built of brick. It has a monumental façade. It shows solidity in construction. The simplicity of its geometric forms, and its location, makes this an outstanding example of Peripheral Baroque architecture. The thick side buttresses are devoid with ornamentation, but have delicately carved side entrances which on both longitudinal side of the structure. The buttresses served as structural reinforcement for earthquake protection. A stucco of heart with a hat and tassels, an Augustinian symbol was placed at the entrance of the convent. The convent is situated in front of the church.
It is important to safeguard and restore the Nuestra Señora dela Asuncion Church because it established a style of building and design that was adapted to the physical conditions in the Philippines which had an important influence on later church architecture in the region and represent the fusion of European church design and construction using local materials and decorative motifs to form a new church-building tradition.
The Shrine of Asuncion de Sta. Maria (Sta. Maria Church) is one of the pilgrimage sites in Ilocos Sur.
At present, though the structures continue to draw attraction from tourists, local and foreign, they are already deteriorating. Its restoration will bring about increased social awareness of the structures’ historical value and likewise promote tourism in the locality.
The project deals on the documentation, restoration and introducing compatible developments to the Nuestra Señora dela Asuncion church-convento-atrium complex. The researcher intends to provide electronic recording of the most original plan of the church, convent and bell tower, restore the missing elements of the church, and introduce developments to improve the church-convento-atrium complex to respond to the anticipated needs of local and international cultural tourists and the people of the town. Moreover, it would be an instrument for further development of the locality, by promoting the Nuestra Señora dela Asuncion Church as a National Historical Landmark and UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The proponent of the project is the Archdiocese of Nueva Segovia through the Our Lady of the Assumption Parish represented by Rev. Fr. Jerry Avisa, the Parish Priest. The lot is owned by Roman Catholic Bishop of Nueva Segovia.
The Nuestra Señora dela Asuncion Church lot (Lot 1, Plan II-2100 A) located on top of a hill at Brgy. Poblacion Sur, Santa Maria, Ilocos Sur contains an area of 34,990 square meters. The lot has an irregular shape. The Nuestra Señora de la Asuncion Church is approximately 39 kilometers away from Vigan City and 366 kilometers away from Manila.
The project provides a comprehensive documentation of the church and convent so that in case the church-convento complex collapses or is destroyed due to a man-made or natural calamity, it can be conserved (restored, rehabilitated, and reconstructed) based from its proper documentation. Furthermore, it can retain its recognition as a World Heritage Site and National Historical Landmark.
It is assumed that if the deteriorated portions of the church structures are restored, its significance, integrity and authenticity are preserved, and compatible developments are introduced, then, there will be a very significant increase of tourist arrivals which will help uplift the economic status of the town. There will be compatible physical developments that are introduced for making the church-convento-atrium complex responsive to the demands of today’s tourists and of the present times such as candle offering area, souvenir shops, snack bar, ossuary and Stations of the Cross statues. Energy efficient church is also assumed by placing solar panels on the top of church buttresses for solar energy in place of conventional electricity source and using Light Emitting Diode (LED) lamps.
The restoration of the Nuestra Señora dela Asuncion church, convent, belfry, stair, and retaining walls used environment-friendly materials such as bricks, woods and stone which are locally available in the locality and neighboring towns.
The restoration of the Nuestra Señora dela Asuncion Church National Historical Landmark and UNESCO World Heritage is a potential landmark to uplift the economic status of the municipality as well as the province.