As one approaches the Isabela City Plaza (formerly Plaza Misericordia), one feels at turns reassured and somewhat jittery as army trucks loaded with uniformed soldiers pass by every now and then. Easing some anxiety as well—at least, for this nervous Catholic tourist—is the sight of a towering mod-art structure to one side of the plaza, Basilan cathedral—the Cathedral of St. Elizabeth of Portugal, seat of the bishop of the diocese.
Isabela City in Basilan is an hour’s ride by ferry from Zamboanga City. The city gives an impression of having been frozen in time, as a casual walk from the pier to Plaza Rizal will take one across several old buildings built in the 1950s, 60s and 70s. Minarets, crescent moons and bulbous domes of minor mosques also dominate the skyline of Isabela City, their pastel colors contrasting with the drabness of informal settlements and old, dilapidated buildings. More recent buildings can be seen as well, like the Provincial Capitol and the garishly colored fast food restaurant right across.
Fire consumed the original Basilan cathedral in 1962, when the structure was just a simple yet wide edifice of wood with galvanized iron roofing. Construction of the present cathedral began in 1964, commissioned by Bishop Jose Ma. Querexeta, the first bishop of the prelature of Isabela. The building, which has a footprint of 1,100 square meters, was consecrated in June 1970. The architect of the church surprisingly remains a mystery, as no record has been kept in the parish office.
The façade of the present structure reveals its mid-century leanings, with its use of geometric forms. At its center is a gigantic mosaic in the same mod-art style enclosed within a dark concrete frame, which depicts a flame at the bottom, a Greek cross at the center and the hand of Christ at the top. Flanking this central mosaic are rectangular columns of brise-soleil, and on the left is a slender four-tiered belfry topped with a cross. A short, stylized portico at the main portal with cross iron grills serves as the gate.
The interior is spacious, a result of employing a high angled ceiling and a wide space for the nave. Columns start from the sides and go all the way up as ceiling support, taking the appearance of ribs that span the length of the nave. A huge mosaic in the Classic Roman style, said to be imported from Italy, takes its place in the retablo. The interior receives a healthy amount of sunlight during the daytime through the high stained glass windows between the columns. The grillwork of the gates located on the sides of the nave continue the cross pattern that dominates the façade main portal gate.
A bomb explosion damaged the side of the cathedral fronting the city plaza on April 13, 2010. The stained glass windows were shattered, and the damaged side was rebuilt within the year. A second floor was added to this part a year later to hold parish offices.
While many of the contemporary buildings within the city continue to deteriorate, the mod St. Elizabeth of Portugal Cathedral is well maintained and still stands handsomely, despite its unprepossessing neighbors. With several iconic buildings of the same style in Metro Manila having been lost to so-called development, it is refreshing to see an architectural gem still standing in far-flung Basilan.