Fr. Fernando Pinto, a visiting priest from Lubao (on assignment from 1596-1604) is credited with constructing the first buildings of light materials. It is said that the church stands on grounds once abundant with quality lumber tree called "betis" (Bassia betis Merr.) Later, while still a parish priest of either Candaba or Mexico, Fr. Jose de la Cruz constructed a church of stronger materials with the help of the locals headed by Santiago David Tindo, between 1660 and 1670. The transept and façade were completed around 1738.
Rococo —a later baroque style that flourished in France, Germany and Central Europe-- also gained favor in Portugal and Spain, and soon, rococo motifs were being incorporated in Philippine churches in Tanay, Cebu and all over Luzon. Eventually, rococo found artistic expression in the retablo mayor of the Santiago Apostol Church, which, without a doubt, can be considered as one of the country’s finest.The uppermost storey is shaped like a lunette and is replete with folksy heavenly motifs—sun, stars, clouds and 6 musical instrument-wielding angels. The rest of the altar prominently features effusive rocaille (hence, rococo) carvings—twisting columns, irregular designs, shell, garland. leaf and foliage patterns. As expected, Augustinian saints in the nichos outnumber saints from different orders, 9 to 7.
The Augustinians, who left due to some ecclesiastical problems, turned over their posts to the secular clergy around 1773. In a 1790 church inventory, the retablo was described as having been newly installed, still unpainted and ungilded. We can surmise then that the construction of the retablo may have started with the Augustinian’s departure—making this altar the earliest example of rococo decorative style in the Philippines. If validated, this would also make the Betis retablo one of the rarest examples of religious art initiated by the secular clergy. In fact, a secular priest, Fr. Don Thomas Phelipe Gozum was responsible for the restoration of the church at the turn of the 19th century, regilding the retablo in 1812.
Subsequent repair and restoration works were ordered by Fr. Fernando Cuadrado (1855), Fr. Antonio Bravo (1857) and Fr. Manuel Camañes (1868-1898). The latter priest also built the cemetery and dug an artesian well at the plaza center, which still exists to this day. The retablo was last gilded during the Spanish times (1895) by Don Mariano Henson. Fr. Santiago Blanco (1939-1949) is credited with the interior re-painting of the church as we see it today. In 1980, on the eve of the town fiesta, the silver frontals and accoutrements for the altar were stolen. Despite these unfortunate desecrations, the Betis Church still stands today with most of its material heritage intact, a splendid monument to God’s glory and a tribute to man’s boundless artistic skills.
(11 January 2003)