San Gabriel Hospital: A unique social service to the Chinese in the Philippines (1587-1774) (Part 1)

An article by Fr. Lucio Gutierrez, O.P.

Source: First International Conference, History of Medicine in the Philippines   



The history of San Gabriel Hospital finds its beginning with the arrival of the Dominicans to the Philippines in 1587 and their apostolate among the Chinese, called Sangleys, at that time. The hospital in its beginning was small. When the governor of the Philippines, Luis Gomez Dasmariñas (1593 – 1596) saw the great fruit harvested by the Dominicans, he granted them permission to build a bigger one in the Parian.


Years later, they transferred the hospital to the right bank of the Pasig River, to the district of Binondo. From the start, the Hospital was opened to both Christians and pagans. In fact, it had been established to help the poor and abandoned Chinese who came from China and had no one to turn to. It was also used as a means of evangelization. The Dominicans, like all the other religious orders in the Philippines, felt a great admiration for the Chinese and for the greatness of their culture and civilization.


The history of San Gabriel is indissolubly connected with the history of the Chinese in the Philippines. It suffered the same ups and downs of the Chinese in the country. From the beginning of the seventeenth century, the Chinese, either in extreme provocation or for other reasons, rose various times in revolt against the colonial government; in the end, they were defeated. Everything ended in barbaric massacres perpetrated both by the Spaniards and the Filipinos. During the British occupation of Manila, 1762-1764, the Chinese placed themselves decisively in favor of the British. Once the invaders left, and peace between Spain and England was signed, Charles III (1759 – 1788), King of Spain, disgusted with what he considered high treason by the Chinese against their adoptive motherland, signed in 1766, a degree of expulsion from the Philippines. This degree was executed by the Royal Audiencia of Manila in 1769.




The history of San Gabriel Hospital is not easy to recapture; its beginnings are obscure and difficult. Since the creation of the first church for the Chinese in the Parian of Manila was called San Gabriel, the hospital, as a result of the ministry of the Dominicans to the Chinese, was also called San Gabriel. The Hospital had a history of almost 200 years of continuous social and medical services to the Sangleys as the early Chinese merchants and traders in Manila and its environs were called. Founded in 1587, the very year of the arrival of the Dominicans in Manila, it was closed in 1774 through a royal decree from Spain. That also brought the Dominican apostolate of the institution to an end.


The ‘Spell’ of China


The missionaries who left Spain and sailed for far away Asia were moved by the desire to bring all people to the knowledge of God and free them from the ‘slavery’ to Satan. According to the Dominican historian, Diego Aduarte, in his well-known Historia, the Dominican missionaries were impelled to come to the East by the desire of


“…the conversion of the Great Kingdom of China which, without any comparison, is bigger in the number and quality of its people than any other kingdom on earth; their intellectual capacity higher, and their refinement far superior than any other nation”


Aduarte laments the fact that so gifted a people, so culturally advanced were totally blind to the things that mattered most, the things touching to the life, to the spirit, and their everlasting salvation. For the missionaries, salvation and sharing God’s eternal life was paramount. Aduarte said that the Chinese held the view that no people had ever reached their level of culture. This intellectual pride kept them blind to the liberating truth of the Gospel of Jesus. He says:


“The desire of their conversion was the greatest and most important force that moved the founders of this Province [Holy Rosary Province] to come to the East.”


It is then in this context of the evangelization of the Chinese Sangleys in the Philippines where we have to find the beginnings of the Hospital of San Gabriel.


Forty Dominicans sailed from Spain to Mexico and the Philippines in July of 1586. Fifteen arrived in the Cavite Port on July 22 of 1587. Three days later, on July 25, Feast of St. James, Patron Saint of Spain, they entered Manila. The Bishop of the Philippines, Domingo de Salazar, O.P. had desired intensely the conversion of the Chinese, in general, and of the Chinese in the Philippines, in particular. In fact, in a letter he wrote to the Spanish King, he mentioned that one of the reasons that ‘forced’ him to accept his ministry as first Bishop of the Philippines was the nearness of the Philippines to China and the hope of conversion of the Chinese.


Two Dominicans, pioneers in the apostolate for the Chinese, were assigned to this ministry already in 1587. The first was Fr. Miguel de Benavides, one of the founders of the Province of the Most Holy Rosary, a former professor of theology in the famous Colegio de San Gregorio de Valladolid, Spain; later on Archbishop of Manila and founder of the University of Santo Tomas of Manila. The other one was Juan de Maldonado, of Alcala de Guadaira, Sevilla.

A reading of Aduarte’s Historia, and the masterful introduction of Jesus Gayo in his Doctrina Christiana, enables us to follow the history quite well. A detailed reading will free us from the many errors some historians still fall into. The literary production of the Dominicans of the first generation in the Philippines was of primal importance for culture and religious anthropology. The printing of the Doctrina Christiana en letra y lengua china also in 1593; the Doctrina Christiana en lengua española y tagala in 1593, together with Shi-lu Pien Cheng-Chiao Chen-Ch’uan, or Testimony of the True Religion, again published in 1593, made them true pioneers at the time of the Spanish Contact in the Philippines.


The presence of the Chinese in this Philippines is definitely much anterior to the arrival of the Spaniards in the country in 1565. It is difficult to assess how numerous they were before the Spanish arrival and how deeply they had influenced Philippine culture. With the arrival of the Spaniards, their numbers grew every year by leaps and bounds; their numbers grew into the thousands.


Some of these Chinese merchants, traders, and artisans who came from China every year returned home as soon as they had sold their wares. However, some remained behind and established themselves in Tondo, interacting with the natives. In the process of time, these Chinese became fishermen and farmers. They concentrated especially in the area called Baybay, known formerly as Longos. The larger group, the Sangleys lived and mixed with the Spaniards in what later on was called Intramuros.


The Spaniards, less than a thousand of them, became fearful of the Sangleys and thought of gathering them in one nearby place, where they could have supervised and controlled. Governor-General Ronquillo de Peñalosa (1580-1583) kept them in one place – east and northeast of the present Intramuros. It was a marshy area easily flooded by the Pasig River and the place came to be known as Parian. Aduarte tells the following about the Parian:


“Ordinarily from eight to ten thousand Chinese live here. On various occasions more than fifteen thousand were found there.”


Why the special connection between the Dominicans with the Chinese in the Philippines? Aside from the ‘spell’ of China, mentioned earlier, and the dream of entering the mysterious Grand Cathay of Marco Polo, the physical proximity of the new Dominican foundation in Manila, the Santo Domingo Convent, to the Parian of the Chinese was the occasion for the daily contact between the Dominicans and the Chinese. According to the first Dominican chroniclers, the Chinese’s curiosity about the life of the Dominicans led to admiration. On the part of the Dominicans, this increased their zeal for evangelizing the Chinese.


About the writer:

Fr. Lucio Gutierrez, O.P. earned a doctorate in Church History from the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome and started his academic career in UST in 1968. He taught Ancient Church History, Medieval Church History, and Modern Church History at the Ecclesiastical Faculties and the Graduate School.

He passed away last December 21 2013. He was 75.