Taal was originally a shanty town located in Sitio Balangon. It had been destroyed by the Moros sometime in the 16th century, after which a new town was created and settled by the bank of Taal Lake. According to Jorde, Fr. Agustin de Albuquerque, the founder of the town and the first minister of Taal, gathered the natives around the place called Balayan(Balangon). Since they lived under the fear of the volcano, Fr. Albuquerque reached its top accompanied by his parishioners, blessed it with holy water and celebrated the mass there. Despite this show of piety and bravado, the volcano brought havoc once again to the Taaleños. Fr. Diego de Espinar, Fr. Albuquerque’s successor as prior in 1575, transferred the town to a new site called Lumang Taal, where San Nicolas is located at present. Then he built a makeshift church dedicated to San Martin de Tours, Bishop. The town thrived in the new place, and the number of Christians grew at a fast pace. In 1599, the prior was asked to contribute an annual rent of 20 pesos to the San Agustin Monastery of Manila, and chickens for the infirmary. By this time, it had two visitas, Balayan and Bauan.
A significant event which occurred in 1603, gave great impetus to the cause of the new faith: the extraordinary finding if the image of the Virgin, later called de Caysasay. The story related by the smple-minded fisherman named Juan de Maningkad was taken by everybody, including Fr. Juan de Montoya, to be a token of divine intervention. The Taaleños clustered around the statue and ever since they have been, so they believe, favored the Virgin of Caysasay, Mother of Mercy.
The Estado of 1612 indicates that Taal had three priests attending to 1,500 tributos or 4,500 souls. In 1642, the convent donated two bells of ten arrobas and one libra (220 kg. and 460 gm.) to the campaign of Governor-General Sebastián de Corcuera.
The Taaleños, however, forgot the threats of the volcano, whose last eruption then occurred in 1749. The eruption of 1754 was even more formidable and prolonged. Fr. Martín Aguirre, parish priest that year, remarked that he lost everything “except what he was wearing” and that he had become “as black as a charcoal vendor.” This new catastrophe moved Fr. Aguirre to the plan the relocation of the town-the third one- to a new, safer place. This he did in 1755. He arranged for the urbanization of the town and started in 1756 the construction of the reef stone church and convent, and some other municipal buildings. The Alcalde Mayor, D. Jose Ayuso, however, chose to settle in Batangas town, thus making it the capital and thereby supplanting Taal.
A document dated 1758 discloses how the Governor Arandia thanked the father provincial of the Augustinians for the great help extended to the province of Batangas after the havoc caused by the eruption of the volcano in 1754. Thanks were also given for the balandra-a boat, named San agustin, which cost 6,369 pesos the nand the one named Santo Niño, which cost 3,298 pesos. The convent must have been quite poor at the time because the chapter relieved it from the obligation to pay any rent “for the moment.”
In 1732, Taal had 4,670 souls. The report of Father Provincial Pedro Velasco indicates that, in 1760, it had 800 tributos, made a total of 2,400 souls which, added to the other 2,043 nonpaying tributos, made a total of 4,443 souls. By 1767, the convent must have recovered from its misery, because the Chapter the nordered the prior to restart paying the contributuions due Manila. In 1896, its population rose to 30,104. In 1980, however, it decreased to 29,699.
Construction of the Church
Several churches had been built befor the present one: one by Fr. Espinar in 1575, another one in 1642, quite possibly of strong materials, although its builder is not known. San Agustin describes, possibly this church, as being “of very strong structure all made of stone.” It was destroyed by the eruption of Taal Volcano in 1754 and whatever remained was abandoned. As mentioned earlier, Fr. Martin Aguirre, who relocated the town to the present site, started in 1756 the construction of a new one made of reef stone. It was continued by Fr. Gabriel Rodriguez in 1777, and by Fr. Jose Vitoria in 1782, “who brought the complete set of the silverware that Taal still possesses up to the present.” Fr. Ramón del Marco bricks the “processional” road around the atrium of the parochial buildings.
Bishop José Seguf, O.S.A., who made a canonical visitation in 1831, describes the church as “spacious and magnificent, with unsurpassable wealth of silverware and damasks: everything here is great.” It was a beautiful church in a beautiful town with its valleys, its majestic plaza, the imposing church and convent, and the many houses sprawling down the rolling hills towards the sea and the lush countryside ornamented with the countless verdant trees.
Both church and convent suffered heavily in 1852 during another eruption of the volcano. In 1857, Fr. Marcos Antón moved to build a monumental church that would be unparalleled in the Orient, and hired the services of the architect Don Luciano Oliver. Construction started in 1858. The church was officially inaugurated in 1865 although it was still unfinished. Fr. Antón clothed the statue of the Virgin of Caysasay with the pure gold and placed it in a special niche above the main altar. It was at this time that the new tradition of keeping the statue in the church of Taal for a few days started.
Fr. Agapito Aparicio completed the church in 1878, adding a main altar of Doric style 24 meters high and 10 meters wide. He also built the baptistery and decorated it with floor tiles from Europe. A truncated mass of stone behind the walls of the façade appears to be what must have been the base of the short tower destroyed in 1942. An 18-inch wide winding stairway leads up to the top of the belfry. It gives an impression of tremendous massiveness. One cannot help but think of the gigantic requirements for such a job.
The church was restored in 1972 by the Taal Quadricentenial Council to commemorate the 400th honors not only by the Augustinians but also the Taaleños. The church was declared a “national shrine” by the presidential decree on January 16, 1974.
The adjacent convent built simultaneously with the present church remains the same, except for the rooftiles replaced in 1946 by sheets of galvanized iron. The façade has been restored after the damage caused by a typhoon in 1970.
On the remaining base of the massive tower, there are four bells, one cast in 1828 dedicated to Nuestra Señeora de Caysasay (sic); another one without date is dedicated to San Martin Obispo, patron of the town; another one for the Virgen de Caysasay (note how it is spelled differentky this time), installed by Fr. Celestino Mayordomo in 1856; finally, there is a fourth one ordered cast by Fr. Manuel Población, parish priest in 1840. These bells, as shown by their ideas, belonged to the previous church and were installed in this new one.
Style of the Church
The style of the façade of Taal defies any attempt at classification. Rather than a style, it is a tendency, a fashion, even an explosion of fervor-patriotic, religious, artistic- which underlines a fundamental ambiguity, a dramatic movement, a theatrical exuberance and t o a point, a welcome extravagance. It may not be logical, but it indicates a desire for novelty. It may not convince the mind, but it is certain to captivate the heart. A somebody has written, “it exemplifies the overt feeling of Baroque grandeur and opulence.”
If the term “Baroque” originated, as some critics claim, from the irregular, oddly-shaped pearl with a synonym for the extravagant and tehunusual, the Taal church façade is Baroque in the strictest meaning of the word, a single mass of stone shaped according to complex, rich and dynamic designs.
The style of the church is an abrupt departure from conventional architecture. It is towerless, although it originally had a small one. The arrangement of arched openings is confusing: the pediments have alternating segmental and arched shapes. The segmental canopies above the windows are triangularly arched, or simply depressed. The openings on the first level have different sizes and types of arches. The massiveness of the wall contrasts with the lightness of the Ionic and Corinthian columns.
The proturberant columns create a dramatic vertical movement broken by the roundness of the fenestrations aligned horizontally. The contrast between solid volumes and spatial masses, light and shadow, the fusion of the contrasting forms of arts, the recessed walls and protruding columns, the unusual massing of the forms, the “subtle variety and difference,” create a dramatic movement of theatricality which captivates the senses even of the less knowledgeable in art.
This town is located by the slop of an elevated hill from whose top can enjoy a picturesque view of the sea and the countryside. It is bounded by the towns of Lemery, San Luis and Bauan; by the sea and the lake.
The Augustinian Chapter of March 3,1575 appointed Fr. Diego de Espinar, prior of the convent of “San Martin de Bombon Sentale(sic) giving him the administration of all the towns around the lake and all their people, (omnen paludem cum populis suis).”
Taal was one of the towns located around the Laguna de Bombon. The lake resembles a big cauldron of water, hence it was called Bombon, after a Tagalog word which stands for a bamboo container, originally called bumbong.
A clause in the chapter suggests that the prior of Taal had under his jurisdiction all the towns around the Bombon lake, and that tha towns had already been founded and taken by the Augustinians Chapter. This could be true since Fr. Agustin de Albuquerque had preached the gospel there as early as 1572, a feat that earned him the romantic title “Apostle of Batangas.” Furthermore, it is very curious indeed that San Agustin, who usually mentions the date of foundations, does not do so in this case; but simply states that the convent of San Martin de Bombon was accepted by the chapter.