Cebu’s oldest Catholic church stands in the same spot the island’s first Christian relic—the image of the child Jesus known as the Sto. Niño de Cebu—was found by Miguel Lopez de Legazpi in 1565 inside the charred remains of a house completely gutted by fire.
It is widely believed that the image is the same one given by Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan to Hara Humamay of Cebu in 1521 when she, her husband Raja Humabon, and several of their followers were baptized into the Roman Catholic faith.
Given the honorific title Basilica del Santo Niño, it blends Baroque, Muslim, and Romanesque architectural influences.
Candle vendors here are different in any other churches; in the basilica, they dance their prayers in that two-step-forward, one-step-backward rhythm called the sinug, mimicking the movement of the tide, shouting Pit Senyor! (We call upon the King!) before an intent is spoken.
This same rhythm is believed to have inspired the Sinulog dance, performed on Cebu City’s streets by millions of devotees in the Sinulog Grand Parade, arguably the Philippines’ biggest festival held every third Sunday of January. A day before the fiesta, the original centuries-old image is paraded on the streets with Cebu’s patron saint Our Lady of Guadalupe in a religious procession, the only time it leaves its heavily-guarded sanctuary once a year.
The Santo Niño image’s reputation as miraculous is buoyed by reports of basilica keepers that it sometimes goes out of its glass case to take long walks at night, slipping past his guardians. They point to grass stains on the hem of its dress as evidence.
The stories are dismissed as superstition but they strengthen beliefs of devotees that the Santo Niño de Cebu, “Cebu’s holy child,” watches over Cebu.