Binondo Church (Minor Basilica of St. Lorenzo Ruiz) is one of the less-celebrated Catholic churches located at the heart of Manila for two reasons. It was primarily built for the Chinese-Filipino Catholic community, and it is located in an area in Manila that is more popular for shopping.
Binondo Church was built in the 16th century primarily to give Chinese converts a place to practice their new faith. Chinese-Filipinos were banned from entering the Intramuros and so they could not go to the famous San Agustin Church, the Manila Cathedral or any of the other Catholic churches inside the walled city, which was then the center of Catholicism in the Philippines. Owing to this and many other restrictions segregating them from the rest of Manila’s population, the Chinese-Filipinos established their community north of the Pasig River. As more Chinese converted to Catholicism, they soon built their own cathedral. The original structure was founded by Dominican priests in 1596, but was destroyed by invading British forces in 1762.
In 1852, the reconstruction was completed, and still stands in Ongpin Street, Binondo, Manila. This historical granite church stood untouched for almost a century through earthquakes (1645, 1863, and 1880) and typhoons, until it was damaged in World War II, but not destroyed. The western façade and octagonal bell tower were both untouched and are in their original form today. This is fortunate, especially in the case of the bell tower, because it is a lovely depiction of Chinese aesthetics and symbolism combined with Christian purposes: the bell tower was intentionally shaped as an octagon to represent Chinese culture.
After World War II, reconstruction of Binondo Church began in the 1950′s, and modern-day renovations were completed only in 1984. A convent now stands at the back of the church. Today, Binondo Church boasts of a marble reredo that reminds parishioners of the façade of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. (A reredo is an ornamented wall or screen that serves as background for the high altar of a church.)
Binondo Church is also known as the Minor Basilica of San Lorenzo Ruiz. Lorenzo Ruiz was a Chinese-Filipino Catholic born in 1600 who became an altar boy, was executed for his faith and thus became the first Filipino saint. When he was falsely accused of killing a Spaniard, Lorenzo fled to Okinawa, Japan on board a ship. At this point of history, Christians were greatly persecuted in Japan. In 1637, Ruiz was arrested, tortured and executed as a Catholic martyr, and for this he was beatified by the Catholic Church as a modern-day saint. He was canonized on October 18, 1987, as the first and so far the only Filipino saint in the world. A San Lorenzo Ruiz Plaza now stands in front of Binondo Church in Ongpin, Binondo.
The other reason why Binondo Church is not as popular as other churches, as mentioned earlier, is that the fame of Ongpin Street overshadows the church’s. Ongpin represents the entire Chinatown in Manila and receives thousands of visitors every day, all of them with money burning their fingers and out to soothe that burn. Manila residents, Chinese-Filipinos, and foreign visitors walk the winding length of Ongpin looking for the best and cheapest Chinese jewelries, DVDs of Chinese movies, Chinese herbal medicines, authentic Chinese foods, hardware, clothes, and other household commodities. It has become such that when one hears of Ongpin or Binondo, one is automatically reminded of the shops, and neither of Binondo Church nor the first Filipino saint. This is a shame, especially where tourists are concerned, because both the church and the saint it commemorates deserve more attention.