Manila Cathedral, the country’s premier cathedral, reopened last week after undergoing extensive repair works for two years. The cathedral is now the center of Manila’s Holy Week celebrations and would be welcoming pilgrims from all over the country as Filipino Catholics perform visita iglesia or church visit. Aside from the Manila Cathedral in Intramuros, another church would surely be a popular choice among pilgrims—Asia’s lone all-steel church found in Manila.
The San Sebastian Church, also known as the Basilica Minore de San Sebastian, in Quiapo, Manila, is considered as the only all-steel church in the Philippines as well as in the whole of Asia. Its strong metal parts manufactured by a Belgian company allowed the structure to withstood disasters like earthquakes, typhoons and even World War II that left much of Manila in rubble.
The neo-Gothic San Sebastian Church completed in 1891 was designed by architect Genaro Palacios. Artist Lorenzo Rocha and his student painted the structure’s columns, walls and ceiling to resemble marble, while Lorenzo Guerrero designed the altar, pulpit and the confessional boxes. Meanwhile, the Henri Oidtmann Company of Germany was responsible for the stained glass windows depicting the life of Jesus.
While the all-steel structure still proudly stands in the Philippine capital today, the harsh tropical climate threatens the very existence of the basilica that was declared as a national historical landmark in 1973.
A closer inspection of the basilica would reveal that rust is slowly taking over some portions of this edifice—from the columns and even the doors. Rain water seeping into the structure has even corroded critical areas of the church’s dome and belfry. In 2013, a technical team discovered more than 300 leaks within the church. Unfortunately, the sources of some leaks are still unknown. The environmental condition in the area also led to deterioration of its interior finishes including the trompe l’oeil paintings of various holy men and women.
The San Sebastian Basilica Conservation and Development Foundation has stepped up to extend the lifespan of this manmade marvel. The group believes that restoring the basilica would take 10 years as extensive study and investigation are still needed to identify and document factors causing the structure to deteriorate.
The UNESCO World Heritage Centre noted that “there is no other example of a prefabricated all-steel church in the Philippines and in Asia. It is the only known all-steel basilica in this part of the world.” Hence, the San Sebastian Basilica Conservation and Development Foundation believes that this unique structure would need “very complex and unusual repairs.”
The World Monuments Fund identified the basilica as one of the most endangered sites as early as 1998. The structure also made it again on the same list in 2010.
Although the challenging task of restoring the historic church is still in its initial phase, the foundation has already performed emergency repairs to minimize the leaks and avert further corrosion. A statement from the foundation noted that the broken belfry downspouts were already replaced while broken window panes were repaired. Additional repairs are still needed such as augmentation of the church’s existing gutter and replacement of catch basins, among others.
The foundation has received grants from the Philippine government and other groups including the United States Department of State to finance this massive restoration and conservation project. The San Sebastian Church is under the auspices of the Order of the Augustinian Recollects. It is also considered as the National Shrine of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel.
The Basilica Minore de San Sebastian remains open to the public despite the ongoing conservation and repair works.
Basilica Minore de San Sebastian
San Sebastian Church; National Shrine of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel
Plaza del Carmen, Quiapo, 1000 Manila
Tel. no. (02) 734-8908; Fax (02) 736-1185