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Augustinian fathers preaching Christianity in the island of Panay in the early 17th century came across a thriving community set amidst a vast plain traversed by the Salug (Tigum) River in the north and east and Aganan River in the wast.
It was called Catmon after a tree with thick, green foliage and distinctly big, white flowers that grew in abundance in the area.
Catmon today is known as Santa Barbara, a first-class municipality in the province of Iloilo. The Spaniards named the town after its patroness Santa Barbara, virgin and martyr.
Santa Barbara appeared to have wielded considerable influence during the Spanish occupation from the 17th to the 19th century but also played a key role in the rebellion to end Spanish rule in the Philippines.
It was a Santa Barbara native, a mestizo by the name of Martin T. Delgado, who was instrumental in spreading the revolution from Luzon to the Visayas and eventually to Mindanao.
Outside of Luzon, the flag of the fledgling revolutionary Philippine Republic was first raised in Santa Barbara.
The Spaniards first set foot on Panay soil in 1565. A group of Spanish men led by Mateo del Saz journeyed to Panay Island accompanied by an Augustinian friar, Fr. Andres de Urdaneta. They were part of Miguel Lopez de Legazpi's expedition that landed in Cebu in February of that same year.
It was however another friar, Fr. Martin de Rada, who first preached the gospel in the island and he was with the second wave of Spanish conquistadors led by Luis de la Haya who came to Panay from Cebu aboard the ship Espiritu Santo in 1566.
That voyage and Fr. de Rada's return in 1567 showed the Spaniards were securing a foothold in Panay, further solidified by the establishment of a church in Ogtong (now the town of Oton) in 1570.
Its proximity to Ogtong and the accessibility of its plains showed without a doubt that the early work of Spanish missionaries converting the locals to Christianity extended to Santa Barbara as well.
The early Augustinian friars described Santa Barbara, then known as Catmon, as a "fertile plain" which was into the production of corn, sugarcane, tobacco, pepper, coffee, cotton, fruits, and rootcrops. They noted that bamboos and trees were abundant in the area.
Although nothing came out of it, they even planned in 1617 to transfer the Vicariate of Jaro, established shortly before the 1600s, to Santa Barbara. The Vicariate of Jaro was headed by Augustinian priest Msgr. Pedro de Agurto and then under the Bishopric of Cebu.
Catmon remained a visita until it was constituted as an independent parish named after its patroness in 1760.
Immediately after the Bishop of Cebu gave Santa Barbara the status of independent parish, the Augustinians immediately went to work reinforcing control over the town and assigned Padre Juan Ferrer as the first parish priest.
The natives took to the new religion introduced by the Augustinian friars without much resistance, noting the power they wielded and probably seeing their teachings better compared to the ways of the babaylans, indigenous religious leaders who functioned as healer, shaman, and seer.
A year after it became a parish, Santa Barbara was recognized as an independent pueblo on July 15, 1761 through an order issued by Don Juan Manuel Ramirez de Arellano, the governor of the Province of Iloilo.
The period between the 1600s to the 1800s was a remarkable one for the Catholic Church in Panay. It was characterized by growth accompanied by the creation of new parishes and construction of big stone churches.
Aside from churches, the Spanish authorities constructed belfries, improved roads, installed bigger and more spacious convents, beautified cemeteries, put up more permanent civil government buildings, and introduced other improvements.
Many of these structures built by the Spaniards remain standing in Santa Barbara and attest to the town's glorious past. One of these buildings is the Santa Barbara Church.
The completion of the road from Iloilo City going to the remote towns of Janiuay and Maasin in 1840 paved the way for the construction of the structure in 1845.
The building's walls, pillars, and floor were made of stone blocks known in those days as "piedra silleria" and "piedra tsina" that were quarried from the mountains of Leon, Alimodian, and Tubungan. The hardwood used for the convent's floors were also taken from these mountains. They were loaded on carts draw by cows and carabaos through narrow and treacherous mountain trails.
When the church and convent were finished in 1845, work on the improvement of the cemetery started. A wall made of slabs known as "piedra for Este Ultimo" or stone blocks from the Far East was constructed around the graveyard. Its gate was fashioned from wrought iron embellished with ornate designs.
Inscribed on the stone slabs of the front gate are words written in the local dialect which says: “Ig-ampo mo kami, Karon sa amon, buas sa inyo.” (Pray for us, it’s our turn today, tomorrow it’s yours.)
Spanish authorities wielded considerable power in the town and the rest of Panay until the late 19th century when the revolution caught fire in the Visayas through Santa Barbara.
Although it took two years for the rebellion to reach Iloilo, it was able to spread quickly largely due to the efforts of Santa Barbara native Martin T. Delgado.
When the revolution broke out in Luzon in 1896, Spanish authorities thought they could keep the Ilonggos loyal to Spain. Governor-General Basilio Agustin organized the Volunteer Militia in Iloilo to enlist the Ilonggos in the fight against Tagalog rebels.
Being a “mestizo” and having occupied the highest office in the town, Delgado was appointed commander of the “voluntaries” in Santa Barbara. He and his men were given firearms.
Unknown to the Spaniards, Delgado had already become a “revolucionario.”
He publicly declared himself for the revolution on October 28, 1898 and with fellow revolutionaries took over the municipal building. The flag of the fledgling Philippine Republic was raised in Santa Barbara on November 17, 1898 to signal the launch of the revolution in the Visayas and Mindanao, an act that has become known as “The Cry of Santa Barbara.”
This cry of victory, of freedom turned Santa Barbara, Iloilo into the cradle of independence in the Visayas.
The victory against Spain was short-lived as the Filipino-American War followed. The superiority of enemy forces forced Delgado to surrender on February 2, 1901 at Jaro.
When the Americans established a civil government, Delgado was appointed the first provincial governor of Iloilo and was elected to the same position in the first election held in 1903. Santa Barbara became a town under the American regime and was incorporated into a municipality by the Commonwealth Government.
The town began to progress under the Americans. Better roads and bridges were built that linked Santa Barbara to Iloilo City and other neighboring towns. The railway line between Iloilo and Capiz built in 1906 passes through the poblacion.
The Santa Barbara Golf Course, the first in Asia, was established in 1907 by a group of Scott, English, and American expatriates working in Iloilo City businesses.
World War II brought destruction to whatever little progress that was achieved during the Commonwealth period in Santa Barbara. Life was hard for the residents of the poblacion.
The town was finally liberated from the Japanese in 1945 with the help of the Americans. Soon after the war, Santa Barbara began rebuilding homes and lives. Being an agricultural area, concentration was on rice, corn, mongo, vegetable, and tobacco production.
Today, the town is a premier suburban municipality of Iloilo. It is bounded on the north by the municipality of New Lucena, on the northeast by the municipality of Zarraga, on the southeast by the municipality of Leganes, on the south by the municipality of Pavia, on the southwest by the municipality of San Miguel and on the northwest by the municipality of Cabatuan.
It is 15.7 kilometers north or a twenty-minute drive from the City of Iloilo, through a well-maintained national highway.
Santa Barbara has a land area of 13,196 hectares and ranks 29th among the 42 municipalities of the province. It occupies 1.5% of total land of the Province of Iloilo and is a predominantly agricultural town, with almost 100 percent of its land being cultivated or alienable and disposable.
The topography of Santa Barbara varies from slightly rolling hills to almost flat or gradually inclined plains, sliced by Tigum River at its centermost, which flows from northwest to the southeast and the Aganan River in the southern section.
Its climate is well-suited for planting multiple crops, and around 85 percent of its land is devoted to agriculture. The town's rolling hills, unsuitable for farming, are being utilized as pastureland.