Down, But Not Out

November 8, 2013: On the day that Typhoon Haiyan (known locally as Typhoon Yolanda) ravaged through the central Philippine islands, all we experienced were some blustery winds and a grey sky threatening rain. Oblivious at the time to the destruction happening to the south of us, we set off on yet another day trip with Chris’ parents to see the after effects of destruction of a different kind. On October 1, 1995, eight metres of lahar (debris flow) from the slopes of Mount Pinatubo buried 18 of the 21 barangays in Bacolor. Hundreds were killed.

Today’s destination was the sunken shrine of Bacolor. My online research and map check showed some interesting lakes along the way, so first a detour off the main road to check them out.

We came upon the town of Sasmuan and found it surrounded by fish ponds. Aquaculture drives the local economy here. A series of huge ponds are all diked with the roads perched on top. Even the town itself sits on a long narrow raised patch of earth.

Further along we came to another of the many megadikes built after the eruption of Mount Pinatubo and the lahar flows that ensued in the rainy seasons following. And here we found yet another bridge that was out. This time our destination was literally right on the other side of the bridge, which was closed for construction. Instead, we had to drive back to the main road along a detour atop one side of the dike and then drive the long way around.

Eventually arriving at the sunken Archdiocesan Shrine of Our Lady of Lourdes in Cabetican, it was not at all what I was expecting.

The original church was completely buried. The new church stands off to one side, but an enormous concrete shrine was also built over the buried church. It was full of water and overgrown when we visited. Apparently they pump it out for special festivals and at Easter. I found a picture online of what it looks like inside when it’s all gussied up. It’s hard to believe they can transform it that much!

Our next stop was the San Guillermo Parish Church, also known as the sunken church. When you first look at this imposing church, right away you can tell something is odd. The dimensions just don’t feel right. It’s because this 12-metre high church was buried to half its height. Instead of digging it out, they simply added a new tile floor on top of the debris and turned the second floor windows (now sitting at ground level) into the new doors. Inside, the dimensions feel even more strange and the ceiling seems very close.

The Parish has a museum in the building next to it, also suffering from low ceilings and doorways. Inside we found lots of photos of the area taken during the eruption of Mount Pinatubo in 1991 and the lahar flows in 1995. It’s remarkable to compare the before and after photos.

Equally shocking was a chart listing the area’s share of natural and man-made disasters in the years since the original church was built in 1576. You certainly have to be resilient to live in the Philippines and be able to pick yourself back up time and again, something that has become even more apparent in the aftermath of Yolanda.

Bacolor “Events”


First church built






Dome collapsed


Great epidemic


Volcanic ash rained on Bacolor


Smallpox epidemic


Bacolor named national capital by Spain as Britain occupies Manila


Present day stone church built


Measles epidemic


Price of rice increased; mass starvation results










Earthquake, typhoon, flood


5 consecutive earthquakes


Strong typhoon


Strong earthquake


Strong typhoon


Series of typhoons




Mt. Pinatubo erupts


Lahar flow from Mt. Pinatubo buries Bacolor

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