Cebu’s historical Basilica Minore del Sto. Niño is the oldest Catholic Church in Cebu. Located at the heart of downtown Cebu, the Basilica is a house of prayer and pilgrimage to hundreds of thousands of people each year. It houses the image of the Sto.Niño, a representation of Jesus as a black Holy Child.
The Church is built on the exact spot where Spanish explorers in 1565 found the Holy Child sculpture. A burned wooden box left behind during the 1521 Magellan expedition preserved the Holy Child carving. The Spaniards, who discovered the image, called it miraculous for it survived the fire that destroyed the structure that housed it. The fire had totally blackened it and made it hardly recognizable.
Augustinian priest Fr. Andres de Urdaneta founded Sto. Niño convent on April 28, 1965, the same day the Legazpi-Urdaneta expedition arrived in the shores of Cebu.
There were three churches built prior to the present one. In 1566, Fr. Diego de Herrera built the first church using wood and nipa, but unfortunately, a fire incident destroyed it. The image of the Sto. Niño had also survived the fire. In 1605, Fr. Pedro Torres began the construction of a new church, again made of wood and nipa. However, a fire burned it down again in 1628. That same year, Fr. Juan Medina started the construction of another church, using stone and bricks. But the construction stopped because the structure was defective due to the bricks used.
In February 29, 1735, Father Provincial Bergano, Governor-General Fernando Valdes, Bishop Manuel Antonio Decio y Ocampo of Cebu and Juan de Albarran, prior of the Sto. Niño, began the foundations of today’s church, utilizing hewn stone. Fr. Antonio Lopez, the residents of Talisay, and Father Francisco Aballe, together with his parishioners, extended a lot of help. The construction completed in 1739. In 1965, Pope Paul VI elevated the church to the rank of Basilica Minore during the fourth centenary of the Christianization of the Philippines. Today, the Basilica remains under the care of the Order of St. Augustine.
The Basilica has an architectural style that is a blend of Muslim, Romanesque and neo-classicism. The facade of the church is still in its original stone texture and natural color which conveys a simple elegance. The bell tower serves as a counterbalance to the convent situated at the opposite far end. Its rounded dome is of Muslim influence. The center section is the focus of attention. The rectangular corners on the side balance the arched main entrance and a double-edged triangular pediment crowns the facade.
A small museum inside the Basilica is also a beautiful thing to appreciate as it seems to record the history of Christianity in Cebu. It displays various antique objects, century-old furniture, priestly garments and the Sto. Niño’s old cloaks donated by individuals over the centuries. There are also religious articles such as statues and relics and other items of daily life which were donations by the devotees.
The Sto.Niño image in the Basilica is widely believed to be the same one given by Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan to Queen Juana back in 1521, as a gift for their allegiance. It is reputed to be miraculous as basilica helpers attest that it sometimes goes out of its glass case to take long walks at night. They point to the grass stains found at the statue’s dress as evidence. This has been dismissed as superstition, but it has strengthened the belief of devotees that the Sto. Niño watches over their homeland. The Sto. Niño, patron of Cebu, is the one whom Cebuanos turn to for strength and guidance in the happy and sad times.