When you first set foot in Basilan, the Santa Isabel Cathedral is one of the most recognizable structures you’ll notice in Isabela. Since it is located next to the city’s plaza, you’ll most likely pass by it multiple times when exploring the city.
The cream-colored structure with its singular tower stands out with the brise soleil architecture that adorns its exterior walls and the dalle the verre (French for ‘slab of glass’) as the focal point on its eastern facade.
The brise soleil design also functions as a ventilation system, with its grill work motif allowing ample air to flow within the cathedral, as well as breaking up direct sunlight from shining into the nave.
Isabela, as with the rest of Basilan, is known for its religious diversity, with other churches and mosques scattered throughout the city. But with almost two-thirds of the island population being Muslim, the cathedral stands as one of the main spaces for Christianity on the island.
Beyond the misconception
Rev. Elizer Mondragan, assistant parish priest at the cathedral, says there isn’t tension between the two religions on the island.
“The relationship of Muslims and Christians [here in Isabela], we are actually in communion with them,” he adds.
Mondragon, who is also vocation director, says it’s just a misconception. “Some may say, especially those who aren’t from here,” he elaborates, “that there’s conflict between the two in Basilan but no—That’s a big no.”
He points out that he tries to dissipate these presumptions frequently with concerned churchgoers.
“When you stay here, even for just one or two months,” he says, “you’ll realize that Muslims and Christians really do help each other here.”
A deep history
The cathedral has deep roots in Isabela, going through many changes and surviving many catastrophes over the centuries. It was started by Augustinian Recollects opening a mission in 1850. Twelve years later, it was turned over to Jesuit priests, who built the original wooden chapel in 1862 by the Aguada River.
The church transferred locations over the years as the Christian population grew on the island. It was only in 1881 that the mission would be dedicated to Sta. Isabela de Portugal (or Saint Elizabeth of Portugal). This dedication was also linked to the naming of the nearby fort after Queen Isabella II of Spain.
The church met its first major hurdle in 1897. Two earthquakes, only a day apart, struck the region and left the church in ruin. This led to its relocation to its present location next to the city’s plaza.
Disaster would strike again in March 1962, when an accidental fire destroyed the church. At the time, it was mainly made of wood and steel supports. The fire, in turn, sparked the construction of the cathedral’s current structure.
Just a year later, in 1963, the territorial prelature of Isabela was established. Pope John XXIII bestowed its title of ‘Praelatura Territorialis Isabella Politanus,’ which led to its official title as a cathedral and its first bishop-prelate in 1964, Bishop Jose Maria Querexeta.
It was under Querexeta that construction began on the cathedral. The bishop acquired the aid of Spanish architect priest Fr. Maximo Cerezo to design the new structure, as Querexeta sought funds for the project through donations from Spain and local patrons.
The money also funded other causes such as schools and other parishes in Basilan. The cathedral was completed and consecrated in 1970, once again dedicated to Saint Elizabeth of Portugal.
Hall of colors
Stepping into the nave, you’ll first notice the large mosaic at the altar’s retalbo with the pews lit by the stained-glass windows at both sides of the hall.
Mondragon adds that the mosaic isn’t from the Philippines, but from Spain. Cerezo designed both the mosaic and the glass panels.
The mosaic depicts Jesus Christ at the center with 12 figures surrounding him—11 being the apostles minus Judas and the 12th figure being Cerezo. You can distinguish Cerezo by how his collar design is different from the rest.
The artwork was designed and imported from Italy, and along with the cathedral’s stained-glass fixtures, were mostly funded by donors from Spain.
Mondragon points out that Jesus’ glistening halo in the Mosaic is made of pure gold.
From the inside, the dalle de varre takes on a different look, with colored panels filling in the spaces in its design. The sunlight shining in showcases its true colors, compared to its plain white surface on the outside. A pleasant surprise for any visitor.
From Zamboanga City, you can take a two-hour ferry ride to reach Isabel City. Fares can range from Php20 for students and senior citizens to Php70 for first class. The Santa Isabel Cathedral is located next to the city’s plaza and is only a 5-minute walk from the port.
Outsource the Planning
For a seamless trip, you may leave the planning to DOT’s accredited tour operators in Region 9:
(062) 991-1174 / 0917-722-6410; firstname.lastname@example.org
(062) 990-2100; email@example.com
0930-061-1690 / 0997-745-2957; firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com
All tourist destinations in Isabela City and Basilan have health and safety protocols in place to protect locals and visitors alike. Everyone is expected to comply by wearing face masks, regularly washing their hands, and practicing physical distancing.
To check out up-to-date information regarding local destinations that are open and the safety protocols and requirements needed for each location, you may visit philippines.travel/safetrip or download the Travel Philippines app at app.philippines.travel or the Google Playstore.