If I were to name the most popular edifice in this town, I would say without thinking, “The Bell Tower”. It is up to now the most visited spot in town and it is probably the most favorite view of selfie-bum tourists to take their shots. But above these, the tower has endured the test of time and served witness to the many events the people of Bantay have undergone, be it good or bad times.
This picturesque edifice sits on a hilltop called the Calvario Hill overlooking a vivid green vast of pastureland. It served a great purpose in the two World Wars, during the invasion of Zambals in WW I and the invading forces during WW II. While on top, one could see as far as the Municipality of Santa in the south, Sto. Domingo in the north and the mountains of Abra in the East. On December 19, 1941, the bells were rang continuously when Japanese ships were sighted at nearing the bay of Mindoro beach in Vigan. Also in April 15, 1945, the bell tower rigorously rang announcing immediate evacuation of the people as several bombs were dropped by the American forces at the church and bell tower vicinity when the Japanese soldiers took refuge in this area.
Just below the Bell Tower is San Augustine Parish Church, one of the oldest churches in Ilocandia built in 1590 during the time of Fr. Juan Bautista de Montoya who was an Augustinian friar so the structure got its name for obvious reasons.
Until the early years of 20th century, the church’s was roof was made of bamboo and nipa. It was thru the initiatives of parish priest, Most Rev. Alfredo Verzosa (1912-1916) that the roof was changed with galvanized iron.
The church was severely damaged by Japanese bombs during the World War II so temporary when it was indirectly knocked down by a bomb (during World War II) so a temporary hut was built to celebrate the mass. As the country recovered from the war, the structure was rebuilt in 1950 getting its neo-gothic façade mixed with pseudo-romanesque The now restored facade is of neo-gothic designed mixed with pseudo-Romanesque materials and rudiments. The splendid design reminds us of the long endured Spanish Era echoing from its brick walls which construction was made possible by the labors of our ancestors using indigenous materials like rice straw, and slime.
A popular folklore tells that an image of Our Lady of Charity was found by fishermen floating in a wooden box in Bantaoay River in the nearby town of San Vicente. It drew the attention of many people from all over the area but no one was able to lift it. Not even the strongest men at that time, except for one boy from Bantay was able to carry the miraculous image. It was brought to the San Augustine Parish and from then on, the Feast of Our Lady of Charity (Apo Caridad) or La Naval is celebrated every first Sunday of September. La Naval is observed with long solemn novenas ultimately ending in the procession of the miraculous image of Apo Caridad. On the 12th of January 1956, the Parish became the sanctuary of Our Lady of Charity, when the Most Reverend Msgr. Egidio Vagnozzi, the Papal Apostolic Nuncio to the Philippines, crowned the miraculous Image as the Patroness of Ilocandia. Since then, Bantay, as a parish, celebrates in a sacred manner, the canonical coronation of Apo Caridad every 2nd Sunday of January, where devotees from different parts of Ilocandia come to pay homage.
At first, individual persons and families hosted the celebration (or serve as Hermana Mayor) but starting 1973, Barangay Pastoral Councils play hosts in the annual festivity.
In preparation of the silver anniversary celebration of Her coronation in 1981, major face lifting was undertaken when the church underwent significant restoration such as the repair of its roofing, refurbished facade, re-construction of lateral turrets, plastering and reinvention of its walls and interiors. To signify the presence of a Marian Shrine, a commemorative Marian Arch was also erected, realized through the generosity of some of the yearly hermanas, which serves as the “Halleluia stage” and site of the Domingo Sabet during Easter Sunday.
In 1993, the first Nueva Segovia Pastoral Assembly (NSPA 1) decreed that an Archdiocesan gathering to take place every anniversary of Her coronation. On January 12, 2006, on the occasion of Her golden anniversary, a grand and festive program of activities to Her honor was tendered.
Valuing their existence from as far back as 16th Century, the San Augustine Parish Church and the Bell Tower were included in the list of Philippines’ National Heritage Spots. At present, this local tourist attraction is an essential itinerary part of the renowned Vigan Caleza ride.