AS THE FIRST phase of the restoration of the historic Malate Church in Manila has ended, priests of the Society of St. Columban who have been administering the church since 1929 have defended the five-year project from those who question the approaches made on the centuries-old structure.
Critics that include the National Historical Commission of the Philippines (NHCP) question the process of restoration after “new” palitada (lime plaster covering) was applied on the side walls and on the façade of the church, which renders it a “new appearance.”
“As a historian and a student of heritage, I believe we ought to retain the patina (color) of time. Restoration should not make a structure that is several hundred years old appear newly built,” said NHCP Chair Ma. Serena Diokno during the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines biennial convention of church cultural heritage practitioners in Sorsogon City last June.
Diokno added that “the sense of appropriateness also entails a degree of likeness to the past. Although an exact likeness might not always be possible, especially with regard to buildings that have been altered over time, the characteristic of likeliness remains important, not only because of the public’s emotional attachment to the past, but also in keeping with the heritage property’s historicity.”
Conservation work on the church was undertaken by the Escuela Taller Intramuros, a skills-development school founded in 2009 by the Spanish government, but which became a nongovernment institution in 2013 teaching poor Filipino youth conservation approaches on built colonial heritage.
The restoration project is supported by the National Commission for Culture and the Arts and the National Museum.
In an interview during the closing of the five-year program to restore the church on Dec. 2, former parish priest Fr. Michael Martin said the critics would have a voice if they wanted to, but he also pointed out the Columbans had consulted the parishioners and invited other people to give their opinion on what to do with the church, and they “followed very carefully the recommendations of the parishioners” because “it is their church.”
“The opinions from the parishioners didn’t differ,” the Columban priest said. “The opinions from older and younger people didn’t differ. All were saying, ‘Protect your building. You must do that, but don’t make it look new,’” he said.
“So, in so far as possible, the minimal amount of intervention with the maximum protection for the building [was applied] and ultimately for the people to look at, what they see is the color, and you try to have much continuity as you can in color, so enormous care was taken with that,” Father Martin explained.
He added the Columbans had not received negative comments from the parishioners.
Fr. Martin, the former superior of the Negros district of the Columbans, explained it was the voice of the people that was important in the restoration project.
“So sensitivity I think has gone into it, but sensitivity not just to what is artistic and beautiful and the right chemical substance [used], but also sensitivity to what people want to find in their church, and they do want to find continuity,” he said.
The last portion to be restored was the façade, the most challenging portion of the church. Last year, the Columbans organized a conference with heritage advocates and experts on what would be the best approach for its restoration, Father Martin said.
“I didn’t think it (the result of the façade’s restoration) would be nearly so good. I didn’t think it would be so well. So I like what’s been done. I don’t know how you could do it better,” he said.
“I think there has been extraordinary research, extraordinary fidelity to the tradition, extraordinary sensitivity to what is best in building materials today, and I honestly feel this is as good as you get in the year 2015,” Father Martin added.