Kamagsa Vines, Dirigkalin, and the Church of Paracale

Whenever we hear the words ‘materiales fuertes’ we know what it exactly means. High grade, durable and resistant. The ecclesiastical structures and those baronial ‘bahay na bato’, reinforced the usage of the Spanish ‘materiales fuertes’ in all Filipino languages. After all, they’re the only structures that has survived the test of time. In fact, most of them would still be standing today if it were not for the avariciousness of those who inherited the legal right to own them.

The facade of the Church of Paracale.

One of these structures made of ‘materiales fuertes’ is the church that houses the miraculous Nuestra Señora dela Candelaria de Paracale. I recently visited the church and the first question that came to mind was how did this structure survived all those giant typhoons that ravaged Bicolandia for hundreds of years? What kind of cement was used here? Remember, like all the coastal towns of Bicol, they get blasted by the strongest gusts of the year round typhoons before it goes to up to us in Manila!

The ideal resource person here of course is Pio Andrade Jr., the recognized history scholar of Paracale. ” I once asked my father what was the cement used in building the stone church of Paracale, and he said that according to old folks it was a mixture of lime and molasses. I didn’t believe it but I found out later as a student of the University of Florida that lime-molasses was the universal cement for stone houses before the invention of Portland cement in 1832.”

You look up lime and molasses today on the internet and you’ll come up with kitchen recipes. However, this ‘lime and molasses’ technique has been used by the Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch and English in their colonies. The Spanish perfected the method in their roads and buildings, evident are all the Spanish era structures that constitutes most of our heritage buildings. Somehow their builders figured out that thick molasses mixed with lime mortar slowly solidifies the mix, not only preventing cracks from developing but the gradual healing process makes it stronger. Eggs were also used because it had a similar effect like the molasses–it stabilizes air in the mix and reduce water, preventing bleeding , increasing malleability and strength. The egg shells are not thrown away–they’re crushed into calcium paste and gets thrown into the mix.

What about the indigenous woods used?

“The ceiling of all old Camarines Norte churches were made of marang planks–not the wood of the marang fruit–because it is light and water resistant. Batikuling is the wood most used in sculpting religious statues because it is easily carved and light. One of the parts of the Paracale Church that disappeared was the choir loft which was at the same height as the wooden floor leading to the belfry. This loft is supported by two post of dirigkalin. This wood which is now extinct in Paracale is water and anay-resistant and it is so hard the nail bounces on it. Holes are drilled with running water in this wood to attach metal attachments. Old dirigkalin posts from old houses are recycled to build new houses. Molave, Apitong, Lauan, Palosapis, Dungon, Yacal… are other hardwoods used in construction of other load bearing structures of Churches. For Church pews and other furniture, narra and kamagong are used.”

The triangular interior of the church. There’s ‘brownout’ which I was told is common these days in town.

The most interesting wood in this list is Dirigkalin. I’ve seen posts made of this hardwood and I could attest that there’s possibly no tougher woof out there that could match it. So solid that when I first  encountered it I thought that it was painted cement formed to look like a tree trunk. This is the adamantine of all Philippine hardwood. I’ve never seen a living Dirigkalin tree which are relegated to be foundations and posts because its hardness and weight removes it from any other effective usage. Even internet provides sparse resources on this particular specie. I wonder if there’s still a healthy number of these trees around or if they had been extinct for sometime.

The thick walls of this church has provided sanctuary for hundreds of years to native Paracalenos. Those who lives near the coast still runs to the church to seek shelter to this day.

The Kamagsa vines which to this day holds in place the massive bells of the church according to Andrade  also bind the beams in the church’s ceiling until a super typhoon blew off the roof. Instead of repairing the damage, the parish priest at that time decided not to. Forever removing an integral building element that secured the roofs on top of the faithfuls heads for hundreds of years. The historian adds, ” One thing about kamagsa: when fresh it’s so supple you could twist it easily as a rope, but as it ages, it becomes as hard as nails. Also it is mold- and anay-resistant.”

Where did the builders of these ecclesiastical buildings and houses acquired these incredible knowledge of the natural building materials around them? Obviously, this know-how came from a culture that had experienced using these materials before. Now, with the arrival of the Spanish came the systematic methodology of combining masonry and crafting wood to form functional and artful religious buildings. Whenever I see a church like this one in Paracale, all I could think of is that wonderful combination of Spanish and native elements that make up what I understand to be the truest of Filipino forms.

The Kamagsa vines tied to the Yakal beams. This hasbeen in place for 150 years now. Photo courtesy of Pio Andrade Jr.

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3 responses to “Kamagsa Vines, Dirigkalin, and the Church of Paracale

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