From Caves to Chapels: The Evolving Ermita



My co-proponent, Kristian (Sendon Cordero), for this Bikol Kapilya research, and I have often wondered where this term “ermita” came from. Used interchangeably with “visita,” another complex term, the word “ermita,” which freely translates into hermitage, has always been used as the older (dating to Spanish occupation) name for chapels, those small church-like structures located in barangays and in distant villages.


For the students of Spanish influence on the Philippines, the term “ermita” has been accepted as a term imposed by the friars and Spanish authorities to designate a blessed site housing the patron saint of the place and other icons the people in that place may see fit as belonging to that sacred, Christianized space.


Research being not only a matter of finding the right answer but generating the appropriate questions, our study urged us to ask any and all kinds of questions:


Did a hermit live in the chapel, thus the label, “ermita”?


Were chapels always secluded and detached from the center, like a hermitage?


There is, of course, a very famous “Ermita” in the country and this is a place in Manila. Would the history of Ermita, formerly known as “Laguio” or “Lagyo” provide an answer to our investigation on the meaning of the word?


The online data provided by Wikipedia has this to say about Ermita, now a bustling in Manila.


Lagyo was re-christened in the 17th century as La Hermita, the Spanish word for “hermitage”, after the fact that a Mexican hermit resided in the area and on this site was built a hermitage housing an image of the Virgin Mary known as the Nuestra Señora de Guia (Our Lady of Guidance). The hermitage has since evolved into Ermita Church, which has been rebuilt several times since the early 17th century.


Without diminishing this information, we pursued the fact and asked another question: every time an ermita was built, did it follow that a hermit was there?


Given the small number of friars and Spanish ministers sent by Spain to the archipelago, would the Catholic Church then have the resources to field as many friars as possible to stay in an isolated village? Remember that the practice of “visita” was formed because the representatives of the mother church could only allow temporary visits of their friars to attend to the needs of the new converts.


So, then, was it possible that these hermits or ermitanyos, as they were called in popular tales, local elders, and therefore authorities? Were they healers? Were they local priests? Were they priestesses?


In our field research, we do not merely focus on the patron saints, although this was the original idea and remains so for the Mother Butler Mission Guild. This does not stop us however to go into other areas especially if the sites offer more information. For each chapel we document, we take photos of the structure as viewed outside. Then we go inside to photograph the icons and the details of their iconography (what are they bearing; how are they dressed? Who is with them on the altar?) When all this is done, we go around the area where the chapel is built. We look at the backside to check if there are other structures built or if there are signs of older forms. Are there ruins, perhaps?


In rural communities, we recognize how chapels have their backs against vast rice fields or banks of rivers. A respondent in Dahilig, Gainza, used the word “ulang” to describe the power of San Roque against diseases? Does the Saint also possess the power to stop the surge of the water behind his home?


Two weeks ago, we were in the chapel of San Benito in the barangay named after the same patron saint in Buhi. As we inspected the rear side of the chapel, we noted how there was mound-like protrusion supporting the part where the main altar inside is. It was rough, with no attempt to remove it or cement it over. Was there a cave before in this forested area hundreds of years ago? Was there a healer there?


A book titled, Spain in the Philippines, written by Nicholas P. Cushner, S.J., seems to answer our queries. Under Chapter 4, “Missions and Missionaries,” the Jesuit historian writes: “It might not be completely fair to say that Spanish Catholicism, with its emphasis on the concrete rather than on the abstract, on images, processions, and pomp was better-than-fair substitute for the pre-Hispanic animistic religions [note the understanding in that statement]. But the numerous and sometimes genuinely artistic santos found a niche in many homes and in all churches.”


Cushner continues: “Caves were replaced (underscoring mine) by well-constructed churches. And native priestesses were displaced by foreign missionaries, not all of whom were heroes or saints [note again the critique].”


As the major churches were built on pre-Spanish burial grounds to show the power of the new religion over the indigenous beliefs, were chapels built to cover the power of caves, the patron saints replacing the tutelary deities hidden yet adored by our ancestors?