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A TOLL ORDER: Save San Sebastian

The seemingly simple San Sebastian Basilica was disguised to hide its all-metal nature and made to look like other Neo-Gothic churches. Because of natural factors, the church is now experiencing structural complications. Photos by Miguel Nacianceno

From the outside, the San Sebastian Basilica in the center of Quiapo is akin to any other Roman Catholic church in the country — a center for worship, a refuge for the devout. Going by its outward appearance, it’s hard to imagine this church standing out among the others that are bigger, richer in historical value, and plainly more popular; so much so that a remark of, “Is this it?” isn’t uncommon. 

Yet, despite its outward humility, the San Sebastian Basilica is a National Historical Landmark and a National Cultural Treasure. It is the first and only all-metal structure to be built in the country. Inaugurated in 1891, the church is made of a couple of thousand tons of steel. Already the fifth church to be erected on its land, the basilica was designed to be earthquake-proof — it is said to be capable of withstanding even the Big One — even after previous churches were flattened by devastating tremors, fires, and a war.

As soon as one steps through the church’s heavy doors, there is a feeling of awe — a spiritual high as one discerns the ornate interiors, undeniably weathered over time. Once the eye picks out the tiniest details, from the columns to the windows and the hanging chandeliers to the elaborate dome, it is impossible not to feel wonderstruck. For a better overview, take a tour of the grounds organized by the San Sebastian Basilica Conservation and Development Foundation, Inc..

“We’re surrounded by art as soon as you walk in the church. It’s like a museum filled with art without frames,” shares Samantha Pacardo, the community development manager of the program spearheading the church’s restoration. In fact there are 140 figural paintings lining the walls of the basilica, and many of them are hard to distinguish if not pointed out by a learned guide. The walls, columns, and ceiling are no less works of art: Trompe l’oeil effects fool the eye into believing that the steel columns are of either marble or stone. 



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The basilica’s stained glass windows are visible when walking up the center aisle. Imported from Germany, these are painted directly on glass, allowing the tiniest details to be shown — a distinguishing element of the Neo-Gothic style used on the San Sebastian Basilica. One will notice how much light is actually allowed inside the church’s hall, a Neo-Gothic ploy to convert more individuals to Catholicism and to ultimately strengthen the faith of believers. The view up the choir loft makes this more discernible. Here, one sees the marriage of faith and science under one roof: “Faith made us believe this is the home of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel, and science allowed us to build her a lasting one,” says Pacardo.

Is there really a need to restore the church? Definitely, because, invisible to the naked eye, many structural complications have been brought about by natural decay over the years. Rust, leaks, and corrosion are the simplest matters to fix. Stopgap solutions were used to fill holes with rags, jeans, and cement, but this has proven more problematic. “Part of the work is undoing the interventions done over the years by those with no technical skills and knowledge — although, of course, they had the greatest of intentions,” says Pacardo. The first four years of the 10-year restoration program were allotted for documentation, survey and research. “We discovered over 300 leaks because of people trying to help the basilica without knowing how to do it properly.” Leaks allow water to enter the church and threaten the many artworks stored there.

The intervention to save this structure can be aided by participation of more locals. The amount needed for restoration is in the hundreds of millions already, which doesn’t even include the church’s paintings and windows. Although foreign aid has been pouring in, there is undeniable dignity in Filipinos stepping forward to raise funds to save their own landmarks. “One of the ways is through our tours,” adds Pacardo. “Filipinos become more aware, and they eventually want to help out. For P100, one can already play a significant role in restoring this national treasure that will see its completion in 2020.”

The tolling of the bells of a Catholic church is usually a call to come together through prayer. This time around, the bells of the San Sebastian Basilica toll because it needs its believers to come together to marry their prayers with action.

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