Not many churches in the Philippines can claim to have been visited by a pope, and the St. Gregory the Great Cathedral in the Old Albay District is the first and only church throughout Bikol to hold such distinction.
His Holiness Pope John II visited Legazpi City on February 21, 1981. The Pope celebrated mass in a salakot-shaped cabana in front of the Cathedral, facing a sea of humanity that filled Peñaranda Park and the streets that surround it.
Memorabilia from the historic visit are kept in the Diocesan Museum within the Cathedral compound, home to the Diocese of Legazpi.
Other churches in Albay may be more imposing; however, few are as strategically located. St. Gregory the Great Cathedral’s main and north-side gates empty into the City’s main road,
Rizal Street; the Cathedral compound occupies a whole block of prime urban space.
Known as one of the oldest Roman Catholic churches in the Philippines, the Cathedral is a top tourist attraction and one of the most prominent landmarks in the Old Albay District of Legazpi. Located nearby are Peñaranda Park, Legazpi City Hall, and Albay Provincial Capitol.
It is also known locally as the Cathedral of San Gregorio Magno and Albay Cathedral. It is the Episcopal Seat of the Diocese of Legazpi; one of the massive churches found within Legazpi City where one can have a good view of Mt. Mayon Volcano on a clear day.
This church initially shared history with that of the St. Raphael the Archangel Parish located in the port district of Legazpi then known as Sawangan, changed later to Banwang-daan, and now as Barangay Sabang.
It was in Sawangan, which used to be an outreach village of Cagsawa, that the first wooden church under the patronage of St. Gregory the Great was established by Fray Francisco de Sta. Ana, OFM. Before Fr. Sta. Ana, Spanish religious missionaries ministered to the settlement in the 1580s.
Fr. Sta. Ana became the first priest of Sawangan, which was made a parish independent from Cagsawa when it became populous and progressive. He called his parish “La mission de San Gregorio de Magno.”
A bigger and more imposing church replaced the chapel during the tenure of Fray Martin del Espiritu, OFM, in 1636 and Sawangan continued to thrive despite the Moro raids in the 1700s, super typhoon of 1742, fearsome earthquake of 1811, and other calamities.
When the February 1, 1814 eruption of Mayon Volcano leveled the town and killed a big number of inhabitants, the survivors led by then parish priest Fray Pedro Licup, OFM, evacuated to Macalaya, now Barangay Taysan.
Since they were lowlanders, the survivors were not comfortable in Macalaya, which was located on the shoulders of Mt. Bariw. Many decided to go back to the lowland, not in Sawangan but in Taytay, which is now Bagumbayan. There were those, however, who opted to return to Sawangan against the advice of authorities.
The settlement in Taytay became bigger and developed into a township despite the stringent government provisions on the establishment of new towns.
In 1839, the settlers started to erect a stone church designed by no less than the Gobernadorcillo Don Jose de Peñaranda, an architect, in consultation with Fray Jose Yagres, OFM. This structure would stand for a long time to become today’s Albay Cathedral, while the one in Sawangan turned into the St. Raphael the Archangel Church.
The Diocese of Legazpi was established on June 29, 1951 when Albay was designated as the Episcopal See and the parish church raised into a cathedral. The diocese’s first bishop was Msgr. Flaviano Ariola and the first pastor of the Cathedral parish was Msgr. Maximo Escandor.
For its nominal patron, the Diocese of Legazpi has Our Lady Mother of Salvation. Its secondary patron is St. Gregory the Great. The diocese is one of the largest bishopric in the Philippines.
The St. Gregory the Great Cathedral has a facade with a semicircular arched main entrance with portico, flanked by niches and coupled columns on pedestals supporting the triangular pediment. Its frontispiece is dominantly Renaissance in style.
The thick church walls are the original volcanic stone blocks. Its tall and wide arched windows used to be in stained glass but have long been replaced with smoked glass.
Although the cathedral has retained its original form, the interior and roofing have been renovated several times. Repairs have likewise been done on sections damaged by calamities and in World War II.
The church patio used to be surrounded by a perimeter fence made of volcanic stone blocks. This too has been renovated with added height and topped with iron grills.
In 2001, during the golden jubilee of the church, a gate with monolithic pillars and arch was constructed.