I visited Sarrat, Ilocos Norte again in 1991. By that time, the 18th-19th century Santa Monica church was already being reconstructed after its destruction by a strong earthquake in the mid-1980s. Although my scholarly friends astutely observed that the reconstruction of the facade no longer captured the baroque architectural details of the original, I thought that the rebuilding was still a worthwhile heroic effort. Inside, long wooden beams supported the new roof, and the church interior was still impressive with a severe elegance that reminded me of the personal style of the Duquesa de Lerma which the Spanish master of couture Cristobal Balenciaga so admired…
The Santa Monica church and convent in Sarrat, Ilocos Norte had to be one of the most beautifully located church complexes in the Philippines. To the right of the church was a picturesque, wide sandy river, flanked by thousands of swaying, tall, graceful trees. The church complex itself was planted with many trees and flowering shrubs. The town was quiet, and when we were there during mid-afternoon, all we could hear were the whispers of the breezes and the rustling of the leaves. We all concurred that it was a very beautiful, almost enchanted place…
The place had such high style potential that I comically thought: “How elegant… Wouldn’t “Sarrat” sound so chic in French??? As in “Marat”???”
While my scholarly friends observed, criticized, evaluated, discussed, and debated the merits of the church reconstruction, I quietly stood at the narthex, gazed at the really long nave, and stared at the main altar flanked by the two preceding, slightly protruding side altars…
In my mind, it was 11 June 1983, and it was the wedding of Irene Romualdez Marcos to Gregorio Benitez Araneta…
In justice to the bride Irene Romualdez Marcos, what she really wanted was a small, private wedding with only the Araneta and the Marcos families and their close friends in attendance. It was her mother, the First Lady Imelda Romualdez-Marcos, who wanted a superproduction on the scale of the British royal weddings. It was also thought that President Ferdinand Edralin Marcos gave his reluctant assent to the superproduction because it pleased him immensely that the wedding would be held in his mother’s [ Josefa Edralin-Marcos ], “Nana Sepa’s,” quiet hometown of Sarrat, Ilocos Norte.
Important antique dealers Severina “Viring” de Asis and Maria Cristina “Kit” Ongpin-Roxas trucked in stocks of antique and reproduction furniture and decorations — virtual “rolling stores” of antiques — all the way north to Sarrat town in audacious bids to furnish the instant “bahay na bato” ancestral houses of the Marcos and the Edralin clans. They were successful and their stocks were “sold out” before the 11 June wedding.
Dr. Eleuterio “Teyet” Pascual, who oversaw the preparations at the church and at the reception, recounted to us how, upon “instructions,” he directed the whitewashing of Luis Ma. Araneta’s 24 18th and 19th century wooden torcheres ( and some reproductions ) with their precious patinated polychromy, which were to decorate the main altar. Luis Ma. Araneta — an arts and antiques connoisseur and collector with the most discriminating tastes comparable to the great Parisian collectors Arturo Lopez-Willshaw, Antenor Patino, and Jose Espirito Santo — became terribly upset with the “vandalism” of his antique torcheres. ( Many years later, Irene Marcos-Araneta sent her father-in-law Luis Ma. Araneta’s ruined torcheres one by one to the esteemed, Italy-trained, trompe l’oeil artiste Liliane “Tats” Rejante-Manahan who was able to carefully strip the offending white paint of Dr. Pascual and restore their precious antique pink and blue polychromy. )
Luis Ma. Araneta was an arts and antiques connoisseur with highly discriminating tastes, a most elegant bon vivant, a gentleman of the old school, and a patrician of the highest level. He was the father of the groom and he knew very well that, according to Filipino tradition, it was his obligation to undertake all the expenses for the wedding. His son was marrying a daughter of the extremely powerful Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos. He knew that the Marcoses were superrich and could pay effortlessly for everything, or even have everything for free by force, but his noblesse oblige prevailed. He was an Araneta de R. Hidalgo after all, a member of one of Manila’s most prominent families, and nothing less was expected of him.
The eminent artists Salvador Bernal and Monino Duque of the CCP the Cultural Center of the Philippines were tasked to head the production design of the whole affair.
The entire stock of colonial Filipino costumes at the CCP was brought to Sarrat to dress its excited townsfolk. There was a directive that the people would have to be dressed in “turn of the century Filipino costume” if they would walk the town streets on the day of the wedding, so as not to ruin the colonial ambience so carefully executed.
The First Lady Imelda Romualdez-Marcos ordered Sarrat town’s main road to “bloom” with white, pink, and red bougainvilleas. In the weeks prior to the wedding, the willing and excited schoolteachers of Sarrat were kept busy crafting old-style crepe paper bougainvillea flowers which were later attached to the actual bougainvillea plants lining the road. The effect was pretty and charming and impressed the wedding guests from Manila and abroad who thought they were all real flowers.
Mother and daughter, the First Lady and the bride, differed on the flowers for the 3 principal altars of the church. The bride, always the sensible daughter of an Ilocano father, had planned to use traditional paper flowers made of Japanese crepe paper, a traditional Filipino craft from the 1800s. But the First Lady absolutely would not hear of it: only fresh, imported, and expensive flowers would do. In the wee hours of the morning on the very day of the wedding, a large shipment of beautiful flowers from Hawaii arrived at the church. The First Lady won.
Large and magnificent fresh floral arrangements were frozen in great blocks of ice and installed every few meters on the side aisles along with electric fans. Apart from being splendidly decorative, the frozen bouquets also served to cool the church as fans blew the icy air to the wedding guests.
Mother and daughter, the First Lady and the bride, also differed on the color of the carpet that would be laid on the long nave of the church. The First Lady wanted red “for royalty.” The bride, possessed of a far higher aesthetic sense, wanted green, because she knew it would look better. Somehow, a comic scheme was worked out between Irene and Rexor Ver wherein the First Lady saw a red carpet laid out when she inspected the church after midnight on the very day of the wedding. At 4:00 a.m., Rexor Ver and his assistants finally laid out the green carpet for the bride. Irene won over her mother on that one. After the wedding celebrations, the Central Bank governor and avid heritage advocate Jaime Laya espied the rolled-up long green carpet among the production discards and promptly asked for it. He had it sent down to Manila and laid out at the new “Casa Manila” house museum in Intramuros, where it served its purpose and protected the magnificent “narra” wood floors and “escalera principal” grand staircase for more than 20 years. Thousands of local and foreign tourists and innumerable wedding reception guests at the elegant “Casa Manila” had no idea — but would have been thrilled had they known — that they were walking on the very same green carpet that lined the nave of the Santa Monica church in Sarrat during the legendary Araneta-Marcos wedding of 1983…
The talented Salvador Bernal had been assigned to design and construct all the “barong tagalog” of the men of the Marcos family and of the entourage. Characteristic of his excellence and professionalism, all the “barong tagalog” were completed and appeared on time, except, inexplicably enough, for the most important one: President Ferdinand Marcos’. “Ay, wala si Daddy!!!” the bride exclaimed in surprise and dismay.
President Ferdinand Edralin Marcos finally wore a “barong tagalog” by presidential tailor Edgar Aquino modeled after those which appeared in 1902. The latter was renowned for impeccable “barong tagalog” of the highest quality: featuring exclusive, and elegant embroidery, exhibiting flawless cutting, an unrivaled “fall,” and a perfect fit on the wearer. That was why President Marcos looked as distinguished as he did.
The First Lady, Madame Imelda Romualdez-Marcos, was supposed to wear a gown by Italian couturier Renato Balestra, but the white ”terno” [ Filipino gown with "butterfly" sleeves ] by Filipino maestro Joe Salazar was so beautiful and fitted so perfectly that she decided to wear it at the last moment.
The bride, Irene Romualdez Marcos, dutifully wore the wedding gown designed by Renato Balestra. The prominent Italian couturier and his lady assistants promptly attended to the bride as she alighted from the carriage at the church entrance.
The groom, Gregorio Benitez Araneta, wore a “barong Tagalog” by Italian Giovanni Sanna.
The elder sister of the bride, Ma. Imelda “Imee” Romualdez Marcos, ever the rebel, was absolutely determined not to look like her mother, the First Lady. She wore a witty ”terno” by Salvador Bernal that was ingeniously crafted out of dozens of embroidered ”pina” pineapple fabric placemats from “Tesoro’s” [ the premiere Philippine handicrafts store ]. She had come from Hawaii and was dark as soot. She was out of the country before the wedding so she could not be measured by Bernal for her gown, so he ended up bringing a sewing machine, his faithful assistant Marietta Arcega, and Imee’s fitting form mannequin all the way to Sarrat to finally construct the unconventional but elegant “terno” Imee Marcos would wear.
Very beautiful was the current girlfriend of Ferdinand ”Bonget” Romualdez Marcos Jr. at that time, the high society model Claudia Lopez Bermudez, daughter of the legendary society beauty Diana Jean Barnes Lopez [ certainly the most beautiful of the beautiful daughters of the hacendero Enrique Solis Lopez of Balayan, Batangas and his lovely wife of English-French descent, Wendy Payne Barnes of England ], Manila’s version of Scarlett O’Hara. The young Claudia was unforgettable in a white strapless dress with a single orchid on her ear. She looked like the proverbial White Rose. She was so beautiful that she could have been arrested for being more attractive than the Marcos ladies that very important day, had she not been the current girlfriend of the only Marcos son.
The four “madrinas” godmothers of the couple — Imelda Ongsiako-Cojuangco, Elvira Ledesma-Manahan, Conchita Romualdez-Yap, and Helena Benitez — were all dressed by the redoubtable Salvacion “Vacion” Lim-Higgins a.k.a. “SLIM,” at that time Manila’s greatest living couturiere. Their various gowns were inspired by the paintings of early 19th century Filipino master Damian Domingo.
The bride had been carrying a beautiful bouquet, a marvelous antique ivory fan, and a magnificent diamond rosary when she boarded the antique carriage with the President for the church. However, with the merry melee upon their arrival at the church, she forgot the beautiful bouquet and the marvelous antique ivory fan in the carriage [ the antique ivory fan could no longer be found afterwards ]. Thus, the bride walked down the aisle with no bridal bouquet, but only a simply magnificent and magnificently simple diamond rosary…
Some weeks before the June wedding, 2 waist-length necklaces — one of diamond briolettes [ the bigger diamonds were about +- 7 carats each but with a yellowish brown color ] and the other of ruby briolettes — “from Malacanang” were sent to a prominent Manila jeweler’s for “restringing.” The jeweler warned the secretary that the sharp edges of the diamonds would eventually slash through the strings and that it was infinitely more advisable that the diamonds and the rubies be strung with metal wire.
Memorable was the moment, witnessed by the congregation and by millions more on the television coverage of the NMPC the National Media Production Center, when the First Lady, Madame Imelda Romualdez-Marcos, the mother of the bride, haughtily refused the proffered arm of the patrician Luis Ma. Zaragoza Araneta, the father of the groom. Luis belonged to a venerable family in the highest ranks of the Manila aristocracy and that snub signified to all Filipinos that the old order, “The Oligarchs,” had finally collapsed in the face of the Marcos “New Society” [ which succeeded in creating new ones of its own ].
[ Perhaps, it was a case of tit for tat. Those who knew Madame Imelda Romualdez-Marcos well, way before her remarkable political ascendancy recounted how long-established Manila society --- of which Luis Ma. Araneta and his socialite friends like Pacita de los Reyes-Phillips, Conching Chuidian Sunico, Chito Madrigal-Vazquez-Collantes, Imelda Ongsiako-Cojuangco, Chona Recto-Ysmael-Kasten, Elvira Ledesma-Manahan, et. al. were at the top of the social heap --- had, on several occasions, paid scant attention, indeed snubbed her during her early days of "social insignificance." It was actually nothing personal, it was simply the way the social insiders treated all the social outsiders; it was, is, and will always be that way. However, they were unaware, as everybody else, of the dizzyingly spectacular destiny of the impecunious but undeniably beautiful "provinciana"; the destined First Lady had the memory of an elephant and did not forget anything, least of all social slights. ]
[ The evening before the wedding, Luis Ma. Araneta and several of his close friends gathered for an intimate party in his room at the Fort Ilocandia hotel --- an attempt to relive the happy days of yore, perhaps the days before Ferdinand Marcos. Present were the remaining creme de la creme of old Manila society --- Imelda Ongsiako-Cojuangco, Elvira Ledesma-Manahan, et. al. --- who had somehow survived the installation of the new social order of the Marcos "New Society." President Marcos and the First Lady were conspicuously not present at the intimate gathering. Whether they were or were not invited was the subject of conjecture. In any case, their obvious absence was a cause for concern: there were expected reprisals and repercussions from the all-powerful First Couple. ]
Forever etched in my mind was the vision of the exceedingly pretty Imelda Ongsiako-Cojuangco, an otherworldly apparition in white lace by Salvacion Lim-Higgins, looking every inch like a grand lady in the coterie of the Empress Eugenie [ Eugenia de Montijo de Bonaparte ] in Second Empire Paris as painted by Franz-Xavier Winterhalter. She literally floated up the nave with such exceptional delicacy and grace to take her place at the altar as a principal sponsor.
Elvira Ledesma-Manahan did not look quite as spectacular as Imelda Ongsiako-Cojuangco. Her “tapis” [ overskirt ] made her look like a country laundress washing at the village stream. She gestured towards her friend Imelda Cojuangco and commented: “I thought we were supposed to wear ‘Filipina dress’… What’s that?! What’s she wearing?”
Stunning was the glittering cord used to bind the couple during the ceremony: it was a suitably lengthy “Diamonds by the Yard” from premiere American jeweler Harry Winston.
Seven OB vans to record the occasion were parked at the back of the Santa Monica church. The media command central was at the commodious sacristy. Juan “Johnny” Ledesma Manahan, a childhood friend of the groom’s, was the director for the media coverage of the wedding ( son of Elvira Ledesma-Manahan, a great friend of Luis Ma. Araneta’s; Elvira was a second mother to Luis’ children Patty. Greggy, and Elvira ); Luis’ and Elvira’s children grew up close, like siblings ).
During the reception, President Ferdinand Marcos, as always, spoke brilliantly. He asked the Araneta family to stand up so he could acknowledge them properly: “May I request the Aranetas to rise…” None of them did immediately, not because of hauteur as widely perceived, but because of their old world modesty and reserve. Then his own daughter Irene Romualdez Marcos-Araneta, the newest Araneta family member, stood up, and that became the signal for the several members of the old Araneta-Zaragoza clan present to stand up as well.
After the wedding, word had it that the powerful industrialist Enrique “ENZO” Zobel developed a rather bad stomach on the flight back to Manila. It was a story that quickly made the rounds of high business, political, and social circles. Leading couturier Pitoy Moreno also developed a bad stomach. The guests remembered that purified drinking water had run out during the reception, so they conjectured that the local, mineralized water of Sarrat could have caused the upset stomachs of the Manilans.
True, it was not the wedding of Prince Charles to Lady Diana Spencer at Saint Paul’s Cathedral in London two years before, which ostensibly inspired it. But it was a singularly beautiful and elegant Filipino occasion on its own, the very definition of what is now termed and reminisced with awe as “Marcosian splendor.” For all their Bourbon excesses, President Ferdinand Marcos and Madame Imelda Romualdez Marcos certainly gave the Filipinos some very memorable moments in their history.