A Stroll in Paco Park

After dropping off Cheska at ACTS (where  she was taking review classes for her Med Tech board exam), I decided, on my way home, to drop by historic Paco Park.  Getting there proved to be difficult for me as I had to make my way around a maze of one-way streets.  I decided to park my car just a few blocks away and walk the remaining distance.

Paco Park

Just about everybody, couch potato or not, is familiar, one way or the other, with the TV program “Paco Park Presents.” The concert was begun by Dr. Christoph Jessen (Press and Cultural Attache of the Federal Republic of Germany) with the late National Park Development Committee (NPDC) Vice-Chairman and journalist Teodoro “Doroy” Valencia on February 29, 1980 as a part of the celebration of Philippine-German Month and a gala tribute for then outgoing German ambassador Wolfgang Eger. The “Paco Park Presents” classical concert became a tradition and it now presents  chamber, traditional and pop music performed for free by the finest international and local solo artists, duets and small ensembles at an improvised outdoor stage. Truly a unique way of bringing classical music, via intimate, open-air concerts, to the masses.

Park entrance

I have been to the park a couple of times before as two of my siblings, my elder brother Frank (to the former Rosario “Cherry” Correa on December 17, 1978) and youngest sister Tellie (on December 27, 1982) as well as my good friend and fellow architect, Ed Yambao (to the former Gloria “Glo” Pagsanghan also on the same date as my sister) got married in the park’s St. Pancratius (named after a 14 year old martyr of the 4th century) Chapel. My late parents also renewed their marriage vows there during their silver wedding anniversary on the same day Frank got married.

Historical Research and Markers
Committee plaque
National Historical Shrine plaque

Why do people marry at a place that was once a home for the dead? Haven’t they heard of the often-mentioned warning that marriages made in such a place live but a short life? Couples don’t seem to mind at all even if the receptions are held besides rows of empty, gaping niches.  For me, it must be this recreational garden area’s atmosphere of peace and tranquility.  I featured this cemetery in my first book, “A Philippine Odyssey: A Collection of Featured Travel Articles” (New Day Publishers, 2005) under the heading “Presenting Paco Park.”

The Outer Cemetery

This 4,114.8 sq. m. circular park, one of the oldest landmarks of Manila, is located at Paco District, a nondescript commercial and residential area east of Taft Ave..  Formerly called San Fernando de Dilao, Paco was the Catalan nickname for Francisco and was presumably adapted by the natives to refer to the Franciscan friars who ran the parish.  The park was originally a cemetery built in 1807, through an administrative order, according to the plan of maestro de obras Nicolas Ruiz.  It was completed on April 22, 1822 under the supervision of Don Jose Coll.  The cemetery was, however, already in use two years before its completion to accommodate victims of the cholera epidemic which broke out 3 days after a strong October 1, 1820 typhoon ravaged the city.

Doves by the ticket booth

The epidemic was falsely rumored to have been caused by the poisoning of the Pasig River and the local wells by the foreign merchants, businessmen and scientists then residing in the city.  As a result, persons and property of said foreigners were attacked by violent Filipino mobs affected by this malady.  Casualties were 1 Chinese, 1 Spaniard, 12 French, 1 British captain, 1 American Marine guard, 2 Danes and 12 British and American sailors. Through energetic measures, the epidemic was under control in less than a month. Dominican friars excelled themselves in attending to the sick and, in grateful recognition of their services, 9 of the niches in the cemetery were donated to them by the city of Manila.

The Gomburza Memorial

In 1859, the cemetery was enlarged to 4,540 varas cuadradas (approximately  4,500 square yards) and enclosed with a circular stone wall by Gov.-Gen. Fernando de Norzagaray y Escudero (1856-59). A Chinese builder won the contract to build the circular stone wall of this cemetery for PhP19,700.  The cemetery used to have a chaplain (who lived across the site now occupied by the Paco Fire Station), a sacristan and 8 caretakers.

Gomburza Memorial plaque

At that time, the niches cost PhP20 for three years subject to renewal.  No one was allowed to own the niches in perpetuity.  Niches in the inner wall were reserved as exclusive burial places for prominent Spaniards.  Norzagaray’s successor, acting Gov.-Gen. Ramon Solano y Llanderal (1859-60), was buried in a now unknown site inside the mortuary chapel.

Jose Rizal Grave Site

The cemetery was the burial site of Frs. Mariano GomezJose Burgos and Jacinto Zamora, the triumvirate of Filipino priests unjustly implicated in the January 20-22, 1872 Cavite Mutiny.  They were executed by garrote (a strangulation machine) at sunrise of February 17 at the Luneta (now Rizal Park) in Bagumbayan.  All three were buried in an unmarked grave near the outer wall but the site has not been located up to now.  Instead, a memorial was installed on February 17, 1898.

Grave Site plaque

After the execution of our National Hero, Dr. Jose Rizal, also in the Luneta at dawn of December 30, 1896, the Spanish authorities, fearful of public unrest (and of his followers removing his remains and establishing a cult), secretly buried him also near the outer wall.  Rizal’s sisters fanned out in search of his remains and found them at the cemetery.  The mismarked tombstone, with the initials R.P.J., was said to have been the result of the sisters’ bribing a guardia civil veterana (who guarded the spot for 15 days) to mark the spot. Rizal’s remains were exhumed on August 17, 1898, placed in an urn made by Teodoro Romualdo de Jesus and deposited at the house of Rizal’s mother at Estraude St. in Binondo.

Elaborate niche of Margarita Miguel
de Cobarrubias (September 1, 1907)

The last burials here were in 1912 (the same year Rizal was finally laid to his rest at its present monument in Rizal Park) and the cemetery fell into disrepair, its empty, semicircular niches hollow reminders for the purpose they once served. During World War II, the park, with its thick adobe walls, was used by Japanese forces as a central supply and ammunition depot.  They dug several trenches and constructed pillboxes with 75 mm. guns. In 1948, proposals were made to convert the cemetery into a park.  Unclaimed remains were transferred to the Manila South Cemetery’s paupers’ lot. Through the guidance of Doroy Valencia, its beautification and restoration was done by renowned landscape architect Ildefonso “IP” Santos.  In 1966, it was made into a national park.

The more common semicircular niche
(Timoteo  de los Angeles, June 3, 1910, 53 years old)

The park has two concentric walls, along which are rows of niches hollowed out of aging adobe for the bones of the dead and separated by a 14.5 m. wide walkway.   The wall niches used to be 5 tiers high but only 3 tiers are visible today as its floor was raised due to flooding in some parts.  Before, Paco district was a reclaimed swampland with non-existent drainage (sewers were only installed during the early 20th century).  The cemetery then was a muddy catch basin for rainwater.  I.P Santos elevated the middle portion of the park so that the water flowed outwards.   He was sharply criticized for this.

Gate leading to the ossuary

Strolling around the outer wall, you will espy the original Rizal grave (with its white cross with the initials R.P.J.) as well as the Gomburza memorial.  At the back of the St. Pancratius Chapel is an arch with a wrought iron gate leading to the Ossorio (ossuary), an enclosed burial site for infants and babies. Flights of steps on either side of the gate lead to an interconnecting upper promenade.  There are 2 other ossorios beside it, all with walls decorated with intricate stone carvings of festoons and angels.  In spite of their otherworldly air, these places seem to be favorite tambayans (hangouts) of students.

Flight of stairs leading to upper promenade

The inner cemetery can be entered via an elaborate main stone-columned archway whose triangular pediment has a sign with the Latin inscription “Beatimortui qui in Domino Moriuntur – John in 14:13 Apoc.” (“Blessed are those who die in the Lord”).  Inside the inner courtyard, one is greeted by a romantic setting of a 3-tiered circular fountain, the small oval, domed St. Pancratius Chapel, 8 century-old, widespreading acacia trees (Samarea saman), wondrously gnarled white kalachuchi trees and pocket gardens with park benches.

Entrance to Inner Cemetery

The inner courtyard’s focal point is the St. Pancratius Chapel, now under the care of the Vincentian Fathers (who manage the nearby Adamson University). Formerly a mausoleum for Spanish elite during the first half of the 19th century, this chapel, done in the Classical style, has a stone dome, stone walls dressed in velvety growths of lichen, moss and creepers, triangular pediment from which hangs a bell and a cross.

Inner Cemetery

On each side of the main entrance, I counted 31 bays with 9 niches per bay.   My estimate is there were once 2,790 niches within the inner courtyard alone of which only 1,674 are exposed.  Fourteen of these still have their burial plaques dating from 1898 to 1913 (?).   On both flanks of chapel are two side entrances leading to the outer wall and two beautiful stairs leading to an interconnected 2-m. wide (the width is dictated by the length of the burial niche underneath) upper open terrace with stone balustrades.

St. Pancratius Chapel

Filipino eskrima (stick martial arts called arnis in the West) practitioners also hone their traditional fighting skills within the park and the Arnis Combat Kiathson System Philippines (they offer eskrima lessons) is based here.

The 3-tiered circular fountain

Paco Park: Gen. Luna St. (at the east end of Padre Faura St.), Paco District, Manila.  Open daily (except Wednesdays), 8 AM-5 PM.  Admission: PhP5. The “Concert at the Park” is held every Friday, at sunset. Schedule of masses at St. Pancratius Chapel (Sundays & holidays): 10 AM, 11 AM, 5 PM & 6 PM, also 9 AM every 12th day of the month).  Wedding arrangements at St. Vincent de Paul Parish Office, 959 San Marcelino St., Ermita, Manila.  Tel: 527-7853 7 524-2022 local 101.

How to Get There:  Take a jeepney along Taft Ave. and alight at Escoda St..  From there, you can walk towards the park.

2 thoughts on “A Stroll in Paco Park

  1. Paco is not Catalan, but Castilian. Although you probably know that the Jesuits that came to Manila after their supression were Catalan (this is why among the languages that Rizal learned Catalan is one of them).
    Paco comes from Francisco: Phrancisco in the old spelling ( in Latin is Phranciscus), was shortened in Phco (probably in liturgical books or in this saint´s prints). The only way to pronounce this in the Castilian way is Paco.
    I do not think that nobody could name this friars Paco. It sounds very strange
    Probably this is something chinese misspelt.
    Anyway, I do not think that there is another cementery similar in the world and I consider that the idea of being converted into a garden is a very good one.
    I wonder if this old cementery has conserved the luneta at the entrance and the burial place of Gobernadores and Arzobispos.

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