Santa Maria’s fortress-like, earthquake Baroque-style Church of Our Lady of the Assumption, together with the convent and separate bell tower, were built on roughly 1.25 hectares on a 19 m. (60 ft.) high hill surrounded by a 1.6 m. thick defensive retaining wall on all sides like a fortress, The wall is augmented by stone buttresses every 10 m..
The church is a National Historical Landmark (by virtue of Executive Order nos. 260 on August 1, 1973, 376 on January 14, 1974 and 1515 on June 11, 1978) and was also chosen as a UNESCO World Heritage Site on December 11, 1993 as part of the Baroque Churches of the Philippines, a collection of four Baroque Spanish-era churches.
It was probably built by Fr. Alejandro Peyrona before the close of the 18th century, totally burned by fire in 1822, reconstructed in 1824, restored in 1859 by Fr. Lorenzo Rodriguez and finished in 1889 by Fr. Juan Zallo. During the revolution, the church was a rebel stronghold.
The church is 99 m. (325 ft.) long and 22.7 m. (74 ft.) wide and is approached by climbing a wide 85-step, 4-flight piedra china (granite) stairway, the first and second flight having 20 steps each, the third 22 and the fourth 21 plus two additional steps. The gently rising stairway, with three landings, tapers from 13 m, wide at street level to 1.5 m. narrower at the top. It has a sweeping view of the lower plains and the town of Santa Maria.
The simple, solid brick façade, with its three windows and one blind niche, has a recessed arched entrance framed by a pair of exaggerated rectangular pilasters, dividing the whole façade into three well-defined planes, and thick, massive walls with delicately carved side entrances (with few openings) and heavy circular buttresses or corner drums that end up in decorative urn-like finials. A stringcourse extends from one corner drum to the other across the façade, .
The eastern and western side of the outer walls are reinforced by 13 huge quadrangular buttresses, typical of Earthquake Baroque architecture.
The first buttress from the front is adorned by a huge bas relief, visible as one ascends the front stairway, retelling how the statue of Our Lady of Assumption was found on top of a tree.
According to tradition, the statue was washed up on the beach, undamaged from the wreck of a Spanish galleon. It was installed on the original ermita (chapel) built at the foot of the mountain. It would periodically disappear, only to be subsequently found on the same guava tree on top of the knoll where the church now stands.
The middle buttress on the eastern wall (back) is built like a staircase for easy maintenance of the roof, back when thatched roof was the norm in Philippine churches (now lighter corrugated galvanised iron roofing is used).
The main entrance and the blind niche on the curvilinear, cock comb-shaped open pediment (topped by a small cupola) have circular arched forms. Lateral ones have segmental pediments.
Inside is a long single nave with 9 pairs of Ionic pilasters dividing the interior elevation into 8 bays. Wind chimes hang from the lamps inside and the huge altar features some fine old tiles. A series of smaller altars, 3 on each side of the apse, flank the main altar. There’s also a pulpit and a lectern. The church houses the statue of the one-meter tall, dark Virgin of Santa Maria.
The celebrated, 4-storey, squat leaning bell tower, consisting of stacked octagonal horizontal cross-sections of decreasing diameter (typical of Earthquake Baroque church towers), stands separately near the middle of the nave. Covered by a dome with balustrade that is capped by a cupola (with a cross on top), this Chinese pagoda-like tower is decorated with single pilasters, finials and blind and real semicircular arched fenestrations. A clock, on the third level, faces the stairway for churchgoers to see.
The tower was built in 1810, during the renovation of the church, and furnished with a bell the following year. After the bell tower was remodeled in 1863, its foundation gradually settled down and, today, the imposing structure is slightly leaning or tilting.
Partly blocking the frontal view of the façade of the church and accessible from the church by an elevated stone walkway (underneath which is a gate that leads to the back courtyard) is the convent. Damaged during the 1880 earthquake, it was rebuilt by Fr. Benigno Fernandez and greatly renovated in 1895. An 8 m. high stone fence, erected in 1859 by Fr. Rodriguez, surrounds the buildings.
From the back courtyard, another wide stairway, similar to the front but on the opposite side (also built by Fr. Rodriguez in 1859), leads down to a brick walkway that leads to an old abandoned circular camposanto (cemetery) at the foot of the hill now overwhelmed by exuberant foliage. Within the brick fence of the cemetery are the ruins of a former old brick chapel (ermita) and old graveyards.
Address: Santa Maria – Burgos Rd,, 2705 Santa Maria, Ilocos Sur. Tel: (075) 732-5568. Feast of Our Lady of the Assumption: August 15.
How to Get There: Sta. Maria is located 369.75 kms. from Manila and 38.25 kms. south of Vigan City.