A giant scaffolding made of bamboo rose right before the basilica’s altar at the point where the nave and the transept meet. Apparently, the church’s interiors were undergoing a minor renovation. The top of the scaffolding reached to the ceiling of the dome which was being painted. I could not imagine how difficult it was for the painters given that we were inside the biggest Catholic church in the Philippines and in the whole of Asia.
Yes, the Basilica de San Martin de Tours, simply known as Taal Basilica, is Asia’s largest church and it was not very difficult to see. Sitting on top of a hill, the basilica towers over the old heritage town of Taal. It is a very dominant structure and is visible in most parts of the town proper and even in some parts of the neighboring town Lemery.
History of the Taal Basilica
The original town of Taal was founded by Augustinian missionaries in 1572 on the banks of the Taal Lake (where the municipality of San Nicolas now lies). Fr. Diego Espinar led the construction of the town’s very first church in 1575. In almost two centuries, the church continued to improve and was rebuilt only to be utterly destroyed in 1754 after the biggest explosion of nearby Taal Volcano. It wasn’t just the church, though, as the whole town of old Taal was so devastated.
The town moved to its current location, on top of a hill overlooking Balayan Bay. In 1755, the construction of a new church was launched under Fr. Martin Aguirre. Over several decades, new elements and features were added for the beautification of the church. However, on September 16, 1852, tragedy struck yet again. A massive earthquake hit the province and destroyed the church.
Four years after the catastrophe, another church was built at the same site under Fr. Marcos Anton, who commissioned architect Luciano Oliver to create the design and run the construction. In 1865, almost a decade later, the newly erected church was inaugurated despite its unfinished state. The construction was finally completed in 1878 with the addition of its gigantic 79 ft altar under the supervision of Fr. Agapito Aparicio. It was a massive church, the biggest at the time and would remain the biggest even centuries later.
On January 16, 1974, it was declared as one of the country’s National Shrines.
Facade and Interiors
Certainly the biggest church in Asia, Taal Basilica is 96 meters long, 45 meters wide, and 96 meters tall. This colossal Baroque structure was made of coral stones and adobe. The most noticeable features of its facade were the 24 classical columns in pairs and lined up two rows of six on top of the other. It has 10 windows and 5 doors. The edifice is topped with a triangular roof and gable on each side and one in the center. On the left side rises the bell tower.
The interiors of the basilica was dusty and cluttered when we visited because of the ongoing renovation but its beauty radiated through. Of course, the first thing we noticed was the size and how spacious it was. While most churches have only two lanes of pews arranged in the nave, the Taal Basilica had more. Its aisles could even accommodate more benches.
It also fosters a much lighter atmosphere than the other churches we visited primarily because of the white and pale peach (?) walls and ceiling, painted intricately with what looked like three-dimensional patterns from afar. The main altar of the basilica is 24 meters high and 10 meters wide with three Doric columns lined up on each side of the centerpiece where a statue of crucified Jesus stands. There are other statues of saints and angels within the balustraded altar area. The church’s transept houses minor altars with more images of saints. The altars are showered with light coming from the windowed dome above.
I can’t say anything more about the interior really because I bet that it has changed drastically now that the restoration is complete. I had not returned to the site since then but my mom, who is an active member of the this church, has been raving about how stunning the ceilings and domes have become with the addition of vivid images of scenes from the Bible. While I believe my mom, I have to see it for myself and come back soon.
Taal Park and Nearby Structures
The Taal Basilica is the most prominent structure in Taal Park, which also harbors several buildings including Escuela Pia: Taal Heritage Center, the Rizal College, and Our Lady of Caysasay Academy (where the kids in our family go to for afterclass tutorials). The Municipal Hall of Taal also stands nearby. Vendors of Batangas delicacies and other street food abound in the park. Although some tourists (like the friend who was with me at the time) get irked by how insistent they are sometimes, it just needs some getting used to.
The Heritage Town of Taal is small and can be explored by foot. Once you’re at the Taal Park, most tourist attractions such as the many ancestral houses, the Well of Sta. Lucia, the public market, and the Shrine of Our Lady of Caysasay are just a few minutes walk away.
How to get there: From Manila, take the bus bound for Lemery and tell the driver to drop you off at the Taal Basilica. If the driver tells you it the bus will not pass by the Basilica (because some buses really don’t), get off at the Taal Lemery Bypass Junction and take a jeepney to the Basilica. If you miss the junction, don’t worry. Alight at the Lemery Terminal (the last stop) instead and take a trike to the Taal Basilica.