La Campana de Santo Niño del Zebu

The Santo Nino Bell

 "Prayer time seemed to be never-ending, even during non-Lenten days. Daily, all-year-round in our house, prayers were said at Angelus when the church bells rang at 6 in the evening." - Concepcion G. Briones.

A century or two ago, the pealing of church bells was commonplace. Church life was a huge part of every Filipino. The church was strategically located in the center of town. We schedule our daily tasks based on the ringing of the bells. Nowadays, Catholic churches would only ring their bells during special occasions. 

This year I was able to read a book and a novella by Ken Follett. "The Evening and the Morning" is a prequel to his popular Kingsbridge series while "Notre Dame: A Short History of the Meaning of Cathedrals" was a homage to one of the most popular gothic cathedrals in Europe. Follett wrote intensively about cathedral building, he became somewhat of an expert because of his research for his books. 

In the first few pages of "The Evening and the Morning", the protagonist upon seeing Viking ships about to reach the town's shores immediately rushed to the church's bell tower to ring the bells in order to warn the citizens of the imminent danger. The scene reminded me of Our Lady of Remedies Parish in Malate, Manila and San Miguel de Archangel in Argao, Cebu (to name a few). The bell towers of these churches being the tallest edifice in town also served as observation posts to look for marauding parties of enemy armies.  

Because of the mood set by my reading of these topics, I searched for books that discussed the history of church bells. I was happy that I was able to find one written by Regalado Trota Jose (Of War and Peace: Lantakas and Bells in search of foundries in the Philippines). Professor Jose visited numerous churches in the country to specifically study the bells that were cast during the Spanish Colonial era. 

Professor Jose's book is a fascinating read for those who are interested in this type of historical trivia. 

I've also found some attributes or anecdotes pertaining to Cebuano church bells in books written by Father Pedro Galende, OSA, and Concepcion G. Briones

The day the earth shooked

When the Bohol Earthquake of 2013 happened on October 15th, the bell tower of the Basilica Minore del Santo Niño collapsed. Hundreds of churchgoers attending the 8AM mass witnessed how the 263-year-old bell tower structure gave way and debris rained on them. October 15th, 2013 was a moveable holiday and the Basilica had a number of devotees and tourists onsite that fateful morning. 

I was in Manila during the earthquake but returned to Cebu the following day. A few days later, I visited the Basilica and saw with my own eyes the crumbled centuries-old bell tower. More than half of the belfry was ruined. The largest of the three bells remained on the ground on its side for days.

I felt a sense of loss upon seeing the site, stone rubble was everywhere that completely blocked the entrance of the church on Osmena boulevard. Aside from the Basilica del Santo Nino, numerous Spanish-era churches in other Cebu and Bohol places suffered great damage and destruction caused by the 7.2 magnitude earthquake.

Major for the restoration of the bell tower and church's facade was provided by The National Historical Commission of the Philippines which allocated Php14 million. The NHCP also sent experts on heritage conservation to assist in the reconstruction. The Tourism Infrastructure and Enterprise Zone Authority also allocated Php 5 million to the preservation fund.

It took almost three years for the renovation and by 2016, the bell tower and the facade were rebuilt and restored. Since the Basilica is under the Augustinian Order, the maintenance of the centuries-old heritage structure remains their main responsibility.

During the process of the restoration, the principal church bell which is also the largest of the bells was displayed right beside the main gate of the Basilica. When I first saw it up close and personal, it tweaked my curiosity. I'm not sure if the devoted who passed by it on their way to mass, noticed the significance of the historical bell. Eventually, the bell was provided a more conspicuous spot near the central portal of the church. 

I'm assuming to safeguard the integrity of the bell tower, the authorities decided not to return the bell to the belfry. Some visitors think it's a wishing bell because of the little well under it. I've seen churchgoers toss coins on the well.

There's no marker that provides any information about the bell which is a little unfortunate since the cast-metal bell is part of the history of the Basilica Minore del Santo Niño. To avoid confusion, I would be referring to this bell as the Santo Nino bell fashioned after the inscription found on it, "Santo Niño del Zebu". It is the oldest of the bells in the Basilica. Two other bells were made by the Sunico Foundry in the 1880s. 

The remaining bells in the belfry are dedicated to St. Augustine, the Immaculate Conception, the Virgin of Carmen, and the Holy Trinity. It would be great if we can find out more about these bells or better yet have a visit and take a closer look at them. 

The lone bell tower serves as a counterbalance to the convent which is located on the other side of the church. 

Collapsed bell tower because of the 2013 Bohol Earthquake

Of Corals, Stone, and Metal

The present incarnation of the Basilica Minore del Santo Niño can be traced back to February 1735 when the first stone foundation was laid upon the instruction of the Augustinian friar, Juan de Albarran. Fray de Albarran was the church's prior as well as its architect. He created a step-by-step guide on how to build stone churches. To name some of the briefings and treatises that he wrote about church building: "Arte de construir iglesias en Filipinas", "Advertencias para obras que se pueden ofrecer en este convento:,  and "Modo de fabricar ladrillos, tejas, cal etc. "

His writings about the construction of the Santo Nino church and convent contained the materials used (stone, coral blocks, piedra de china, wood, etc.) and where to source them (e.g. quarried stones from Panay, molave wood from Talisay, coral blocks from Mactan, etc.); records of the salaries of the stonecutters, masons, master carpenters, maestra de obras, wood and ivory carvers, and other essential workers were also written down; and the layout of the church was detailed. 

The bell tower when constructed was ninety feet or fifteen brazas (a Spanish measurement). There is a winding staircase that can be accessed through the choir area. The belfry where the bells are positioned "has a sexagonal shape of three bodies, with the first adorned with half-sculpted saints of the Augustinian Order" (Fr. Galende). 

Fray de Albarran was born in Toledo, Spain in 1696. He became prior of Santo Nino de Cebu in 1735. 

By 1750, there was a new church prior, Fray Andres Puertas, and he commissioned the Santo Niño bell which is the one displayed near the entrance of the church. If you are able to visit the Basilica, direct your attention to the Santo Niño bell display and take a few minutes of your time to wonder about its historical and cultural contributions.

Belltower with Augustinian Saints

According to the book by Professor Jose, you can trace a bell's history on what is written on its surface.

The typical inscriptions include weight in libras (pounds), year of casting, name of saint for which it is dedicated to, name of the town who commissioned it, name of the parish priest when it was made, the name of the bell caster or foundry.

Unfortunately, the way that the Santo Niño bell is currently displayed, one cannot fully see the entire text lines. On the center part of the bell is the name, Santo Niño del Zebu, and on top of that engraving is a cross with three arms with fleur-de-lis at the ends and an acanthus base. 

Almost near the bottom, one line of text reads: "Hizose esta campaña Siendo Prior de Padre Lector Frai Andres Puertas. Año De 1750". When translated to English: "This bell was made for the Prior Father and Reader Fray Andres Puertas in 1750".

There's no marking that states the weight of the Santo Nino bell. I think it would be a practice that was started in the 19th century. The bell tower was originally designed to hold 7 bells. Currently, the existing bells' ages range from 1750 to 1930. 

The Santo Niño bell is not the oldest in Cebu City. The title belongs to one of the Cathedral bells that was cast in 1608. 

Based on the cross symbol and style of lettering, Professor Jose was able to pinpoint the craftsman who cast the bell. It was a short-lived foundry known as Master of the Biglanaua Cross. It was active from 1749 to 1771 and made approximately six bells that are still existing in Makati City, Bolinao (Pangasinan), Cebu City, Bacoor (Cavite), San Miguel (Bulacan), and Naga City (Camarines Sur). 

La Campana de Santo Nino del Zebu is a stationary bell due to its size. It does not move or rotate when the campanero or bell-ringer rings the bell. The clapper which is tied to a rope does all the work. When the rope is pulled, the clapper hits the sound bow of the bell. Historically, the primary bell would only be rung during special holidays or events and for emergencies. 

Materials to be used for bell-making are an integral part of the process. The Liberty Bell which one can see in Philadephia was made at the same time as the Santo Niño bell. It was cast by the Whitechapel Foundry in London in 1751 but because of the inferior materials used it cracked during the first test ring. It was then recast by John Pass and John Snow but less than 90 years later, the bell split and restoration efforts on it failed to repair the damage. 

Compared to the Santo Niño bell, one can see that it has not been recast since the original inscriptions are still visible and embossed. The components are made up of copper, bronze, tin, and iron. Over time and because of its proximity to the sea, a tinge of green has surfaced due to corrosion. Two other bells from the Biglanaua (Biglang Awa) foundry have not fared well. The Bolinao bell developed a huge crack while the one in Naga has a hole near the crown/top. 

For Whom the Bell Tolls

Jose Rizal's childhood home in Calamba, Laguna was right across from the parish church. He grew up hearing the ringing of the church bells and he incorporated them in his books, Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo. His two youngest characters in Noli were the brothers Basilio and Crispin, the tragic bell-ringers. In El Fili, the death knell for Maria Clara was heard by Simoun but did not understand its significance until the adult Basilio broke the news to him. 

Cebuano writer and journalist, Concepcion G. Briones, wrote in her memoir "Life in Old Parian" how their daily prayer devotion was guided by the ringing of the church bells. The first prayer of the day or Matins would be at 4:00AM, there would be the church bells between 5AM and 6AM for the Morning Angelus and masses; at 3PM in the afternoon for the Divine Mercy, the 6PM Evening Angelus, and the 8PM Animas or prayer for the souls in Purgatory. 

In our parish church in Quezon City, instead of actual church bells, they play Christmas music to signify the start of the Simbang Gabi mass.  

Bells have played a significant part in church history. It governed the lives of the religious and their congregation. In the earlier days when owning a clock or watch was not the norm, the townsfolk relied on the ringing of the church bells. Nowadays, one can hardly experience the sounds of the church bells. 

the author pictured with the Santo Niño del Zebu bell


Jose, Regalado Trota. Of war and peace: Lantakas and bells in search for foundries in the Philippines. Manila. UST Publishing House, 2009.

Galende, Pedro. Santo Nino de Cebu 1565-2015: 450 Years of history, culture and devotion. Quezon City. Vibal Foundation, Inc. 2016. 

Javellana, Rene. La Casa de Dios: The Legacy of Filipino-Hispanic Churches in the Philippines. Pasig City. Ortigas Foundation, Inc. 2010.

Briones, Concepcion. Life in Old Parian. Cebu City. Cebuano Studies Center University of San Carlos, 1983.

Basilica Minore del Santo Niño: Restoring a historical landmark

May Miasco (The Freeman ) - July 31, 2016 - 12:00am

Further Readings in Philippine Church History:

Six Franciscan Heritage Churches in Laguna

A Heritage Visit to San Miguel Archangel Church in Argao Cebu

A Visual Tour of Philippine Lapidas and Tombstones

Reconstructed Bell Tower of Basilica Minore del Santo Nino Cebu

Cebu's First Basilica Minore del Santo Nino

Sleepy Santo Nino 400 Years After by Fidel Araneta

The Different Images of the Santo Nino Child Jesus