Saving San Sebastian Basilica, the Philippines’ all-steel church

enablePagination: false
maxItemsPerPage: 10
totalITemsFound:
maxPaginationLinks: 10
maxPossiblePages:
startIndex:
endIndex:

Made of 1,500 tons of prefabricated steel shipped from Belgium, the San Sebastian Basilica is a spiritual and a cultural treasure, one that is in danger of crumbling due to corrosion. Photo by JL JAVIER

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — A church made of steel stands tall in the blaze of the afternoon sun, its twin spires towering against the vast dome of blue sky. Located in Plaza del Carmen in Quiapo, Manila, the Basilica Menor de San Sebastian, painted a light green, appears nondescript: like any other place for worship, it’s a gathering place for the community’s Marian faithful.

For centuries the church has been witness to countless whispered prayers and songs of devotion to the Lady of Mt. Carmel, whose image is enshrined within. Behind its walls are the hushed footsteps of the Order of Augustinian Recollects, which maintain and build the parish community.

But if its walls could speak, the neo-gothic church would tell you a tale that dates back to 1521 — when Christianity arrived in the Philippines — involving the voyage of a venerated image, nine ships laden with foundations of steel, and how it took the world to build a church that would eventually withstand 11 earthquakes. It would also tell you, however, about its unseen battle with another element — the slow, unnoticed seepage of water from the inside — and the destruction that threatens it from within.

Water leaks through at least 300 holes from the ceiling of San Sebastian, and drips through the church’s steel columns. The water collects at the bottom. The presence of oxygen allows layers of rust to form. From the inside, the columns start to corrode, the years of unintentional neglect taking its toll.

The church has fallen several times due to earthquakes, the first of which was in 1645. If not repaired and restored, years of disrepair will cause it to crumble again.

san sebastian basilica corrosion.jpg Detail from corrosion patterns in San Sebastian Basilica. The same corrosion pattern has existed since the 1960s. Photo by JL JAVIER

***

The San Sebastian Basilica is a spiritual and a cultural treasure, says Fr. Rene Paglinawan, OAR, San Sebastian Convent Prior. For the longest time it has been the seat of devotion to the Lady of Mt. Carmel.

In 1617, when Discalced Carmelite Nuns from Mexico gifted an Augustinian Recollect Priest, Fr. Rodrigo Moriz Aganduru, an image of the Virgen del Carmen, he was on his way to the third mission to the Philippines. The Virgen would eventually find her way to the San Sebastian Church, newly erected and opened in 1621, in an area previously known as Calumpang, and donated to the Recollects by Don Bernardino del Castillo Maldonado y Rivera (then Fort Santiago maestro de campo) and his wife, Doña Maria Enriquez de Cespedes.

Maldonado had a special devotion to San Sebastian — patron saint of soldiers, athletes, archers, and those who wish to die a saintly death — thus inspiring the church’s name.

For 300 years, the church remained the center of Carmelite devotion in the country. “This contributed to the Marian character of the Filipino as we know it — pueblo amante de Maria, a people or nation that loves Mary,” says Fr. Paglinawan.

san sebastian basilica carmelite devotion.jpg For the longest time, the church has been the seat of devotion to the Lady of Mt. Carmel. Photos by JL JAVIER

Testament to that devotion is the church’s predisposition to disasters and its guardians’ patient and constant efforts on rebuilding it. “Kung ‘yung mga simbahan dito nasisira sa earthquake, kaagad inaayos ng mga pari para ‘di ma-stop ang Carmelite devotion,” he adds.

In 1640, the church was set to fire and plundered during a Sangley uprising. Five years later, it was pulverized by the powerful San Andres earthquake, along with the convent.

A newly constructed, bigger temple saw developments in the parish, among which is the establishment of the Beaterio de San Sebastian de Calumpang, by two sisters who desired to live a life of piety and devotion to the Nuestra Señora del Carmen. In 1762, however, British troops looted and stole from the church sacred vessels, ornaments, and even precious jewels from the image of the Blessed Virgin. After this period, it went into state of weary disrepair, and was refurbished from 1859 to 1861.

Unfortunately, this reincarnation of the church would totally fall to an earthquake in 1863. The subsequently reconstructed church, inaugurated in 1867, would also fall 13 years later in 1880, after a series of earthquakes and aftershocks.

“It’s one of the last of our buildings that’s still original on the inside,” says Tina Paterno. “It’s made of metal, it’s so unique not just locally, but in the world … how come it’s in the periphery of our heritage?”

Emmanuel Luis Romanillos, in “The Spires of San Sebastian,” described how the quakes affected Manila at that time: “Church bells … eerily tolled by themselves. Paco Church almost completely sank to the ground. A tower of San Agustin Church in Intramuros cracked. Statues in San Francisco Church near Puerta del Parian fell to the ground and shattered to pieces.”

And yet: “Strangely, the image of Virgen del Carmen in San Sebastian Church was left intact.”

***

The repeated rise and fall of the church — akin to the deaths and rebirths of a mythical phoenix — highlighted the need for a better foundation. Within its flock, so to speak, the church found what it needed to rebuild. Spanish engineer Don Genaro Palacios y Guerra, a devotee of the Virgen del Carmen, offered his services in 1881 for San Sebastian’s reconstruction, recommending an all-steel church.

Palacios completed the design in three years, after which the project was awarded to the Belgian contractor Societé Anonyme de Travaux Publics, which built the train cars for the Orient Express, as well as constructed the Museo Nacional de Ciencas Naturales in Madrid, Spain.

san sebastian basilica column.jpg The columns are the basilica's primary structural elements. In photo is a bare and unadorned interior fluted column, kept away from public view upstairs. Photo by JL JAVIER

Over 1,500 tons of prefabricated steel and cast iron parts were shipped, in parts, from Belgium to Quiapo, aboard nine steamships which arrived in Manila in staggered deliveries from 1888 to 1890.

When the last shipment arrived, the church was put together by an international crew Palacios assembled: among others, French Magin Pers for the basilica’s foundations, British Frederick Henry Reade Sawyer as its foreman, German studio Henri Oidtmann for the beautiful stained glass windows, Chinese craftsmen (called Quentin) for the original floors, and Filipino art students (under the supervision of Lorenzo Rocha) from Academia de Dibujo, Pintura y Arte, a nearby art school, to paint the church’s interiors. The school’s famed alumni include celebrated sculptor Isabelo Tampinco and father of Philippine realism in painting Felix Martinez.

Interestingly, even though the church is all-steel, it has been disguised to appear stone-like, consistent with the general appearance of churches at that time. Fr. Paglinawan has a theory why this had to be done, instead of flaunting the church’s material. “Early Christian writings would say tayong mga Kristiyano, para tayong mga bato. We had to be shaped. Popormahin in order to become part of this temple,” he says.

San Sebastian Basilica stained glass.jpg The main nave windows (30 percent of which are cracked, as in the photo) of the basilica depict the joyful and sorrowful mysteries in drawings from 15th century Germanic representation. The painted glass was produced in Brussels by the studio Dr. Henri Oidtmann & Cie, which still exists today. Photo by JL JAVIER

Being a rare neo-gothic structure at a time when local churches were designed in the baroque tradition — and the only remaining neo-gothic structure from the Spanish colonial era — the basilica has been designated as a Philippine Historical Landmark in 1973 and a National Cultural Treasure in 2011 for its value as a work of art and architecture. It has also been listed under the World Monuments Fund Watchlist for 1998 and 2010, and has been tentatively listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Considering these merits, tourists should be visiting the church by the busloads, says Tina Paterno, technical director of the San Sebastian Basilica Conservation and Development Foundation, which undertakes the gruelling assessment and restoration of the church.

“It’s one of the last of our buildings that’s still original on the inside,” says Paterno. “It’s made of metal, it’s so unique not just locally, but in the world … how come it’s in the periphery of our heritage?”

Before she became a conservator, Paterno remembers seeing the basilica as the maid of honor in a friend’s wedding. “I was awed by its beauty,” she says, referring to the brilliantly-colored stained glass windows and the trompe l’oeil (French for “to trick the eye”) paintings that seemed to render objects in three dimensions.

san sebastian basilica trompe l'oeil.jpg The trompe l'oiel paintings (see center of photo) are part of San Sebastian Basilica's defining character. According to the San Sebastian Basilica Conservation and Development Foundation final assessment report, "this may be world's only ecclesiastical building whose metal finish imitates another building material." Photo by JL JAVIER

Dome of San Sebastian Basilica.jpg A decorative painting at the dome of the basilica. Photo by JL JAVIER

After pursuing further studies and working for ten years abroad, Paterno went back to see the church again, this time with a conservator’s eyes, and was alarmed with the extent of its deterioration. “My first thought was, why isn’t someone doing anything about this?” she says. “But then I thought, hey, that’s me.”

A meeting with Fr. Paglinawan and years of coordination and study would lead to the establishment of the foundation, which received a grant from the Ambassador’s Fund for Cultural Preservation to assess and plan the restoration of San Sebastian Basilica.

A final assessment report, contained in a 196-page hardbound tome, painstakingly details the conditions and causes of deterioration in the church. The main cause: “severe water infiltration,” which has been active for at least 70 years.

The leaks have caused heavy corrosion and water collection at the column bases, as well as large losses, some over a square meter. While the basilica has admirably withstood damage, owing to structural allowances in its design and the high quality of its slow-corroding, weather-resistant steel, the report states that five of its magnificent columns have lost 76 percent of their structural strength.

Given time and the elements, the church will slowly give in to the rust eating away at its parts, if not for the foundation’s timely intervention.

San Sebastian neo-gothic.jpg Being a rare neo-gothic structure at a time when churches were designed in the baroque tradition — and the only remaining neo-gothic structure from the Spanish colonial era — the basilica has been designated as a Philippine Historical Landmark in 1973 and a National Cultural Treasure in 2011. Photos by JL JAVIER

***

The way Paterno and her team sees the restoration project is a puzzle to be put together. The project has a timeline of 10 years and will hopefully be concluded by 2020. 

The approach to restoration does not focus on one aspect alone, but on how one aspect affects all others, which is outlined in the comprehensive assessment report. So far, since January 2017, the local team has repaired the five most damaged columns, with the help of international restoration experts.

“Who owns heritage? Who is liable for it? Has the heritage community come up with an answer? No. But the cultural patrimony is everyone’s.”

However, work still needs to be done in other columns, which are 132 overall. The repair of the columns, additionally, is just one aspect of repair. Repairs in the roof system, ceiling, foundations and floors, walls and doors, windows, towers, site drainage, electricals, lighting, and passive cooling would still need to be implemented. Funds for this will have to be raised.

Beyond the restoration project is also an ongoing project to let the community partake in their shared heritage and make the church a rallying point for people to come together, in faith or in patrimony.

Citing previous rehabilitation efforts, ongoing parish activities and programs, and his hopes for the restored San Sebastian, Fr. Paglinawan says: “The people should not see this as a project they undertake from time to time. Since this benefits them spiritually, materially, let’s take care of this building.”

“No need for the parish priest to say, kailangan nating pinturahan, ganyan. It becomes part of the consciousness of the people,” he adds. “The important thing is ‘di pwedeng magawa ang simbahan physically tapos the group is not physically united working as one … It’s useless if the physical church is restored, but the spiritual community is divided.”

san sebastian basilica interiors.jpg The project to save the basilica of San Sebastian is ultimately about how a community can claim a shared sense of identity around a culturally significant work. Photos by JL JAVIER

Paterno also looks further after restoration has been completed. “Part of our work as a foundation is [also] to build a wider stakeholder base, whether by community involvement, economic development. We have tours; we build merchandise around it,” Paterno says, the proceeds of which have sustained the foundation’s operating costs.

Looking to the future, aside from maintenance and issues of sustainability, the project to save the basilica of San Sebastian is ultimately about how a community can claim a shared sense of identity around a culturally significant work.

Paterno asks: “Who owns heritage? Who is liable for it? Has the heritage community come up with an answer? No,” she says. “But the cultural patrimony is everyone’s.”

***

To raise funds for the restoration of the San Sebastian Basilica, the foundation holds tours explaining to guests the cultural significance of the building. For tour schedules and more information, visit its Facebook page.