The Dominican Mission in the Philippines

The Dominican Mission in the Philippines

Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” (Matthew 28:19)

The Mission of the Roman Catholic Church is founded upon Jesus' command to his followers to spread the faith across the world. The Confirmation of the Order of Preachers on December 22, 1216 reinforced such mission “ propagate the Catholic faith, preaching the name of our Lord Jesus Christ throughout the world” (MOPH XXV, p.144) for the Order founded by St. Dominic “is known from the beginning to have been instituted especially for preaching and the salvation of souls” (Prologue to the Primitive Constitution). The idea of Mission – being sent to share the fruit of God’s love – resonates in the heart of the Dominican vocation. Dominic sent out the early Friars from quiet centers of study, prayer, and community life to the frontiers, where light ended and darkness began. They went as lights shining in that darkness and as voices shouting in that wilderness. And where that light found welcome and those words found hearing, behold! There was life: the life of Him who proclaimed Himself the Way, the Truth and the Life.

Prelude to the Mission in the East

The evangelization of the Philippines and the birth of Christianity in the Orient must be understood within the general historical context of the evangelization of the Americas during the sixteenth century. A Dominican named Domingo de Salazar heeded the call to be a herald of the Good News in the New World and labored 23 years of mission in Mexico and Florida. In 1579, he was appointed as the first bishop of the ecclesiastical see of the Philippines, the remotest Spanish Colony in the East. The proximity of the Philippines to China became his motivation in fulfilling his dream of opening the portal to China, the Grand Cathay of Marco Polo.

In 1580, Bishop Salazar had left Spain with eighteen Dominicans to sow the seeds of faith and establish the Dominican Order in the Orient. However, the perilous voyage to Mexico across the Atlantic and soon after, resulted in human casualties and most of them perished. From Mexico City, already on his way to Acapulco and Manila, Bishop Salazar sent Juan Crisostomo as his representative to Spain and Rome to ask King Philip II (1556-1598), the Master-General Pablo Constable de Ferrara (1580-1582), and Pope Gregory XIII (1572-1585) to send a large Dominican mission to the East. Bishop Salazar left Acapulco in March 1581 with Cristobal de Salvatierra who served as his personal secretary, and joined the pioneer Jesuit missionary group to the Philippines.

Inspite of great difficulties, Crisostomo gathered a mission of forty Dominicans which left Cadiz, Spain on July 17, 1586. Some died during the crossing to Mexico, others soon after, but the majority changed their plans and stayed in Mexico City when they learned from the Jesuit Alonso Sanchez, who sailed from the Philippines in June 1586, that China was impervious to external influence and it was useless to go there peacefully. It has been their dream to evangelize China and the news dissuaded most of them to go further.

Those who decided to continue became members of the new missionary Province of the Holy Rosary. They sailed from Acapulco in two separate groups. Three of them in a small boat sailed to Macau while fifteen Dominicans left Acapulco for Manila on April 18, 1587.

The Advent of the Dominican Mission in the Philippines

​​The fifteen Dominicans composed of thirteen priests and two lay brothers arrived in Cavite on July 21, 1587, the eve of the feast of St. Mary Magdalene, the apostola apostolorum and patroness of the Order. They reached Manila on foot on July 25, feast of St. James the Apostle, patron of Spain. Bishop Domingo de Salazar (1512-1594), Governor-General Santiago de Vera (1584-1590) and the rest of the people joyfully welcomed them. They were the heralds of the Gospel in the East.

For a few months, the Dominicans were lodged as guests in a Franciscan convent until they can already transfer to their own convent. In 1588, they completed building a wooden church and convent in a marshy and mosquito-infested place and was named Santo Domingo in honor of their holy father St. Dominic of Guzman. As a general rule, the members of the Province of the Holy Rosary dedicated the first house to their founder whenever they start a new mission.

After the founding of their motherhouse, the Dominicans went directly to their mission posts. At that time, the only religious in the islands were the Augustinians, the Franciscans and the Jesuits. Four went to Bataan; six left for Pangasinan; and the rest remained in Manila of which two were engaged in the ministry to the Chinese.

Bataan was sparsely populated and the groups of natives were scattered in the mountains. Sometimes, the missionaries rode small rowboats from one village to another, often 30 kms apart; but often times they were forced to travel on foot on flooded or muddy terrain. They depended on the natives’ generosity for their subsistence. Slowly, they convinced them to live together and thus the towns of Santo Domingo in Abucay, Orani, Samal, Balanga, Orion and Hermosa were created. In the course of time, the process of Christianization was accelerated.

In Pangasinan, the towns of Santo Domingo of Binalatongan (now San Carlos City), Calasiao, Mangaldan and Manaoag became focal points from which the missionary activities of the Dominicans spread to the rest of Province including Northern Tarlac. The natives except those in the coastal town of Lingayen, opposed any attempt of evangelization. This hostility could be due to the harsh collection of tribute by the Spanish government since 1574 and the natives’ faithfulness to their supreme deity and reverence to their priests and priestesses.

Furthermore, there were some revolts that hindered the process of Christian growth like the uprising of Andres Malong in 1662 and the revolt of Juan de la Cruz Palaris in 1762 during the British occupation of Manila.

The Dominicans labored strenuously to persuade the people to lay down their arms. Bishop Salazar begged the Dominicans to abandon their Pangasinan mission, but they decided to stay at all costs. It was only when they converted some influential natives that their missionary activity took a more positive turn. By 1750, they had a total of eighteen mission stations.

In Manila, Santo Domingo convent, the motherhouse, served as the center of their evangelizing activities. They also built the San Gabriel Hospital for the Chinese and took care of their pastoral needs in Binondo and in Parian. In the field of education, they had established the University of Santo Tomas in 1611 and founded the Colegio de San Juan de Letran in 1620. Both still exists at present, witnessing to the educational apostolate which the Dominicans have carried out for centuries.

In 1596, they were given the whole Cagayan Valley which was inhabited by savage tribes. Evangelization was hard and costly both in labors and lives.  The main center was Santo Domingo in Lallo. The provinces of Isabela and Nueva Vizcaya were much more difficult to evangelize than Cagayan. However, by the middle of the eighteenth century, these provinces became Christian.

At the beginning of the seventeenth century, they made great effort to evangelize the Mountain Province as well with their mission among the Mandayas or Apayaos. They created small towns and built some churches. All faded away in the course of time. However, they opened a new mission in the Mountain Province towards the middle of the nineteenth century.

In addition to their missions in Luzon, they also took charge of the mission in the Batanes and Babuyanes in the northernmost part of the Philippines. Fr. Mateo Gonzales, OP first landed in Imnajbu in 1682 to survey the prospects of the evangelization of Batanes. There, he celebrated the first holy mass on Ivatan soil and the first baptism administered. Their missionary zeal crossed the Balintang Channel in the Babuyanes group of islands which today falls under the jurisdiction of the province of Cagayan.

Birth of the Dominican Province of the Philippines

The mission of the Spanish Dominicans became stable and systematic through the centuries as the Holy Rosary Province provided regular waves of missionaries. However, it was disrupted during the Philippine Revolution of 1896 when the Church in the Philippines became unstable. The Acts of the Provincial Chapter of the Holy Rosary Province in 1906 celebrated in Spain lamented the brutal murder of Fr. David Varas, a parish priest in Bataan. There were also several Dominicans who were held as prisoners and most of them survived their torment. The Dominicans also lost their mission territories, parishes and estates. Eventually, the Dominican mission continues amidst hostility.

The failed attempt to the Filipinization of Religious Orders from 1957 to 1958 by a group of Filipino religious preluded the establishment of the Dominican Province of the Philippines. They did not succeed mainly because of the lack of support from fellow Filipino religious and the unyielding position of their religious superiors.

Even before the establishment of the Philippine Province, the Batanes-Babuyanes region had been partially manned by Filipinos since 1960. Those who were assigned to these missions were Fr. Pedro Traqueña in Batanes and Calayan missions (1960) and Fr. Amador Ambat in Batanes (1961). Fr. Benito Vargas has been the director of St. Batholomew Academy in Calayan from 1962 to 1966; Fr. Domingo Nacion took over in 1967, and Fr. Wilfredo de leon, in 1968.

The Filipino Dominicans’ attempt at Filipinization was revived in 1969 but the spirit that animated them was not solely that of nationalism. As they always insisted, it was not separation that they wanted, nor the expulsion of all non-Filipino Dominicans, but a framework of cooperation and sharing of responsibilities, where missiological principles would find their concrete expression and fulfillment. The birth of an indigenous province could help the Spanish Dominicans undergo the transition from an implanter to an enabler.

After a series of preparatory steps, the Dominican Province of the Philippine was inaugurated on December 8, 1971. At the time of its establishment, there were 46 Filipino priests, 7 Spanish priests by reason of assignment, 32 professed clerical brothers and 15 professed cooperator brothers. The following convents and mission territory were given to the new province: Sto. Domingo Convent, Convent of San Juan de Letran and Letran College, Holy Rosary Convent in Manaoag, Holy Rosary Convent in Jaro, Iloilo, Convent of St. Raymond of Peñafort and Aquinas University in Legazpi and Babuyanes islands of the Prelature Nullius of Batanes-Babuyanes. The University of Santo Tomas became subject of a special statute approved by the Master of the Order.

After the inauguration the following convents and houses were established: Convent of St. Albert the Great in Laguna (1977); Bahay Dominiko (1996); St. Dominic’s House in Sri Lanka (2001); Convent of San Lorenzo Ruiz and Companion Martyrs (2005); and  Rumah Biara Santo Dominikus in Indonesia (2006). At present, the Province regularly sends friars to the missions in Calayan Island, Camiguin Island, General Santos City, Isabela and to the international frontiers of Sri Lanka and Indonesia. However, mission is not about geography; it is about the spirit. It is not about territory; it is about attitude. It is not about where a friar is sent; it is about his consciousness of himself as one being sent to some frontier, where the light of the Lord is absent or shines dimly.

By Rev Fr Louis R. Coronel, OP


  • The Acts of the Ninth Provincial Chapter of the Dominican Province of the Philippines, 2008.
  • Aduarte, Diego de, Historia de la Provincia del Santo Rosario de la Orden de Predicadores en Filipinas, Japón y China, 2 vols., Madrid, ed. Manuel Ferrero, OP, 1962.
  • Collantes, Domingo, OP, Historia de la Provincia del Santisimo Rosario de Filipinas, Tunkin, y Formosa, Cuarta Parte, 1700-1765, Manila: Impr. De Universidad de Sto. Tomas, 1783.
  • De la Rosa, Rolando V., History of the Filipinization of the Religious Orders in the Philippines: Beginnings of the Filipino Dominicans (rev. ed.), Manila: UST Publishing House, 1996.
  • Ferrando, Juan and Fonseca, Joaquín, Historia de los Padres Dominicos en Filipinas y en sus misiones de Japón,, China, Tung-king y Formosa, 6 vols., Madrid, 1870.
  • Gutierrez, OP, Lucio, Archdiocese of Manila: a Pilgrimage in Time (1565-1999), Manila: The Roman Catholic Archbishop of Manila, 1999.
  • _________________, Domingo de Salazar, OPFirst Bishop of the Philippines (1512-1594) Manila: University of Sto. Tomas, 2001.


(07 December 2017)