Saving San Sebastian Church

Saving San Sebastian Church
Text and photos by Walter Ang
December 7, 2010
Philippine Daily Inquirer

San Sebastian Church facade.
Photo by Walter Ang
Bring a refrigerator magnet with you when you join the "S.O.S." (Save Our San Sebastian Church) walking tour. Part of the fun is being able to slap the magnet onto portions of the church that have been painted to look like stone.

Those magnets end up sticking onto everything. After all, the Minor Basilica of San Sebastian is the only prefabricated all-steel church in the Philippines, and, according to some sources, in Asia.

Offered by Old Manila Walks, a walking tour company headed by Ivan ManDy, the tour is equal parts art lessons, scientific facts, historical tidbits, and, of course, the most fun component, rumors of possible scandals.

No spoilers here, but be sure to ask the guides who wasn't at the big party to commemorate the completion of the church. Who allegedly broke some of the stained glass windows? Did Gustave Eiffel, of Eiffel Tower and Statue of Liberty fame, really design the church?

Unfortunately, the biggest scandal-in-the-making is the fact that the all-steel structure is rusting away.

All steel
Run by the Order of the Augustinian Recollects or "the Recoletos" and located in Quiapo, the church is the first Philippine shrine for Our Lady of Mt. Carmel as it housed an image brought over from Mexio in the early 1600s.

Three previous churches made of masonry were destroyed by earthquakes from the 1600s to the 1800s. In 1880, Spanish engineer Genaro Palacios rallied the friars to use a very modern (at the time) solution: steel. Stronger, lighter and cheaper than brick, termite-proof and earthquake-proof, pre-fabricated parts would be shipped from Europe and erected in Manila.

Ask the guides why it took a decade to build. Stories of lowest bidders, circuitous delays, stubborn suppliers, dealing with two sets of "management" in separate continents and other misadventures will make for an interesting afternoon.

But side-by-side the stories of bureaucracy are also lovely tales of engineering feats; of human passion and tenacity; of an architectural accomplishment.

"The church is a great mix of art and technology, of devotion and profession, of Europe and Asia. Born of the collaboration of engineers, friars, artists, metalsmiths, glassworkers, sculptors and laborers from six countries," says architectural conservator Tina Paterno, who usually joins the Old Manila Walks tour guides.

Marvels disappearing
Once the structure was erected, celebrated local artists finished its interiors. Lorenzo Guerrero designed the retablos and pulpit. Lorenzo Rocha faux-finished the steel interiors to look like marble and jasper. Rocha was a prizewinning portraitist and royal court painter whose collaborative trompe l'oeil on the church walls are all that is known to have survived of his work.

And even those might not last for long. "Since 1891, the Philippines has had 14 major earthquakes," says Paterno. That the church is still standing is a testament to engineered steel's ability to withstand strong forces, however, it's succumbing to another force of nature. Seeping water has caused panels to warp, rivets to pop off, paint to deteriorate and rust (and resultant holes) to form.

The tour affords views of spaces not usually seen by the public: above the ceiling, through floors of wrought iron staircases that lead to the belfry. Tourists are shown a mural of purgatory in the choir loft that's all but faded away. "The paintings are a challenge because corrosion has formed beneath the paint," she says. "How do you conserve a painting whose `canvas' backing is crumbling away?"

"Save for a few additions, the interior finishes including windows and painted metal, have never been replaced," says Paterno. "The interior space would be very close to what someone would have seen on inauguration day in 1891."

Most alarming and dangerous is that all the surface rusting could indicate the likely concurrent rusting of the church's hidden internal structural supports.

The order has long noticed the church's condition. Recollect Fr. Rene Paglinawan had attended a conservation talk given by Paterno and invited her to see their church in 2008.

The San Sebastian Conservation and Development Foundation, Inc. was formed this year. Fr. Regino, the Prior Provincial of the Recoletos, chairs the board, which includes Fr. Paglinawan, and Fr. Leopoldo Estioko, the parish priest, and Paterno as the executive director.

Paterno has practiced in New York City for over a decade, working on such projects as the United Nations and the Apollo Theater. She has assembled a conservation team that has already begun the first phase of its restoration: investigation and assessment of the problem.

"We have to establish the extent of the damage and its causes before we can formulate a rescue plan," she says. "We're a multidisciplinary team putting heads together to understand it better. The team has found over 50 leaks and many puddles of water inside the church. During a recent storm, they detected one meter of water inside a column. What can possibly be more corrosive to an all-steel church?"

Help in any way
Paterno's dedication and passion have inspired others who have become part of the technical conservation team. A few of the pioneer volunteers include structural engineering company Meinhardt Philippines, architect Dan Lichauco of Archion Associates and his architecture students from University of Santo Tomas, the National Historic Institute , photographer Estan Cabigas, the Corrosion Society of the Philippines, engineering consulting company I-Mat Pro and architectural and engineering imaging company Digiscript Philippines.

The multinational team that constructed the church in the 1880s is mirrored in the team that has rallied around Paterno to assist her, all of whom are volunteering their services: Dr. Robert Baboian, corrosion scientist and key figure for the Statue of Liberty restoration; Noel Ocampo, structural engineer specializing in historic buildings from Robert Silman and Associates, New York; Roz Li, restoration architect and principal at Li-Saltzman Architects, New York; Bakas Pilipinas, a Philippine historic preservation society based in New York; and the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

"Although the Recollects have invested in the work and Fr. Estioko tirelessly rallies his constituents for the need to keep the church alive for the subsequent generations, additional funds need to be raised for non-volunteer consultants, services and materials" she says. "There is much to do, it's a huge and complex building, any kind of help is always welcome."

"You don't have to be an architectural or engineering expert to help out," says ManDy, who added the "S.O.S." tour to his company's line-up to generate awareness and raise funds (100% of proceeds go towards the restoration efforts). "We can all help by using the skills or talents that we have. Or you can simply join the tour," he says with a laugh. "You can take photographs and post them on Facebook, write or blog about what you'll learn on the tour, tell people about it so that you can inspire others to save our San Sebastian Church."

To donate or volunteer, email For information on the tour, visit

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