The Jesuit House: Hidden in Plain Sight
*This was originally published in Where At Cebu.
A schoolboy from Cebu, studying Management at the Ateneo, leafs through a tome he picks at random in the library. Jimmy Sy—now an impish man with salt and pepper hair, and a glint in his eye—stops at a page where a structure is described in laborious detail, accompanied by an illustration. He is startled at the sudden recognition: it is the building that sits in the middle of the family warehouse!
The book, Fr. William Repetti’s Pictorial Records and Traces of the Society of Jesus in the Philippines and Guam Prior to 1768, shows what was referred to as The Jesuit House of 1730 with the original tower, the Bantayan Sa Hari, a watchtower built as a lookout for marauding invaders from the sea. But Jimmy is certain this was the bodega, where supplies for their business, Ho Tong Hardware, were crammed into. Although it withstood an earthquake around 1926, the tower was demolished by the Alvarez family (who owned the house from 1910 to 1960), and only the ghost of it looms beside the main dining area, painstakingly reconstructed with period pieces, like a ghost appendage to a magnificent architectural legacy from the 18th century. The two other buildings, connected by a bridge, still stand.
“We start the tour at the back entrance, the service area, an azotea where the servants would rest or iron clothes,” says Architect Tony Abelgas, Sy’s cousin and curator of the house and living museum. He makes the perfect guide, as the nuances and details of the Jesuit House lie in the layers of its architecture, a story that continues to unravel to this day. Described by Fr. Rene Javellana, S.J. as a “benchmark for a still unwritten architectural history of the Philippines,” it was commissioned as the residence of the Jesuit Vice-Provincial, built by the Chinese community of Pari-an. “At that time, it was the Chinese who had the better technology, take a look at the iron grills…no welding here, these are bound tightly by metal rings and rivets. The natives at that time could only make bahay kubo,” shares Arch. Abelgas.
A device, etched on the wall, clearly states 1730, which marked the year of completion. “But it probably took around 30 years for a house this big to be built,” Abelgas states, pointing out the labor-intensive hauling of the tugas (ironwood) postes (columns), and the layers of coral stone that, upon closer inspection, fit with grooves that locked them in place. A keen, and interested, eye is key in the discovery of the Jesuit House. The house shows telltale signs of Chinese architecture, notably the ingenious carved gou gong brackets, wooden beams that traverse the ceiling that seem to depict the head of a mythical creature at one end. “You may think they are decorative, but these brackets—when stacked perpendicular to each other—allowed the house to just sway during an earthquake.” Even the corbels, like abbreviated shelves that jut out between junction of wall and roof, are of great import to the structural integrity: “They fill the cavity between the stones that make the wall, poured over with limestone mortar. Adopted by the Sugbu Chapter of the United Architects of the Philippines, the house seems to have an otherworldly knack for finding the perfect caretakers, in this latest case as its stories are told in the language of the discipline of Architecture. But there have been other inexplicable instances: “It seems the house has been spared from destruction because in the Spanish era, it was owned by the Jesuits, in the American era, the Americans lived here. And in the Japanese occupation, the Alvarezes lived here with the Japanese, and they were untouched, because Spain at that time was a member of the Axis Powers,” says Sy. She is a survivor, this old lady.
“Even vandalism serves its purpose here,” chips in Sy, pointing out a section of the original wood in one of the—at most two—original bedrooms, painted a light blue, where a lonely carpenter spells out his lot in life: 20 years old, single, Noli, 1964. Sy’s father had asked a double wall to cover the original, and when it was taken down during the restoration, Noli inadvertently marked exactly when it was boarded up. “You can even tell from the wood which were done in the Spanish era and in the American,” he adds, leading the eye to the story in the woodwork, running his fingers over them. “The Americans used saws, so the edges are smoother, see? That technology wasn’t available in the Spanish era, they used axes, the edges of the wood are rougher.”
As we make the turn to the front staircase, in a somber blue-green hue, the sleuthing continues. “We know that this room was last painted right after the war.” Arch. Abelgas picks up a framed piece of an American newspaper. “In those days, they used newspapers to fill in cracks before painting over them. This one was on the top layer, and the date clearly says 1946.”
Irregularities in the floor (“See? It looks like something was covered up here, perhaps the original staircase that went straight to the street, but was boarded up because of feng shui”), the walls (“The stones of this portion do not match the ones around it, this must have been the original entrance” or “See the orange color? They pulverized terracotta pots, mixed them with lime mortar and plastered over it to waterproof the walls of the perimeter walls”), or the carved devices in entrances (“The IHS could be Franciscan, until you see the three nails at the bottom of it, representing the three nails that crucified Jesus, uniquely Jesuit”), become part of the narrative of the house, still telling its story after almost three centuries.
At the room adjacent to the little gallery assembled of artefacts and photographs of the history of Pari-an, ongoing restoration on the gigantic beams that support the house, now decayed (“Not by termites, but by differential temperature in the layers underground,” emphasized Arch. Abelgas), is a testament to the owners’ dedication to a newfound passion. Following the recognized International Council of Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) method of restoring heritage sites, this little private endeavor has garnered serious international attention, among them a Japanese ceramics expert, and faculty of the University of Seville, who offer many theories to the house’s history. “Especially since there is a gap, from the time the Jesuits were expelled in 1768 until 1910, when the Alvarez family lived in it.”
What can be gathered from archeological and architectural clues is augmented by oral tradition, which can also lead to the rather macabre parts of its storied past. “The neighbours tell of a massacre of 7 priests in this area. A Filipino, it seems, was accused of stealing gold. Angered by it, he murdered the priests,” retells Sy, that glint in his eye magnified by an inner fire of his discoveries. “After the deed, he leaves by the front door, and carves a cross into the stone.”
And just then, you find yourself at a little alleyway, at the end of your tour. It is the fitting end to two hours of discovery, peeling layers of the past, digging into stories of envy, politics, religion, 18th century life, survival, and coming full circle—in what was the main road in the Binakayan side, right next to a 300-year-old coral stone wall, and a crucifix that seems to be hewn with great, deliberate force.
THE JESUIT HOUSE/ MUSEO PARIAN SA SUGBU, at 26 Zulueta Street, Pari-an, Cebu City, is open daily from 8am to 12noon and 1pm-5pm. A minimal fee is charged: P10 per High School student and lower (if booked by the school as a tour), P15 for college student, P30 for walk in local, and P75 for foreign tourists. Call 255-5409/09 to book a tour.