By its sheer size and massive weight, “San Sebastián Basilica: Ironclad Faith” (2023; 312 pages) is a book that seems to have been 132 years in the making. Published by the Kawayan Press of Ambassador José Cariño and edited by Inquirer cultural heritage writer Edgar Allan M. Sembrano, the book promises to be not only the most complete book on the historical, aesthetic, scientific and cultural significance of Asia’s only all-steel church, but also the most complete book on any basilica or major church in the Philippines. Neither San Agustin, the oldest church in the Philippines, nor the Manila Cathedral has had a coffee-table book treatment as massive as San Sebastian’s in “Ironclad Faith.”
With gorgeous photographs by Stefan Cabigas and Chester Ong and very tasteful book design by Felix Mago Miguel Jr., “San Sebastián Basilica: Ironclad Faith” is a labor of love and a rescue mission. The various authors rendered their services for free and 50 percent of the proceeds will go to the restoration of the San Sebastian Basilica.
In his foreword, Recollect friar Fr. Rene Paglinawan gives us the initial stirrings that led to the movement to save San Sebastian Church from corrosion and ruin. The rescue operation is embodied in the San Sebastian (SSb) Conservation and Development Foundation Inc., which has set out to undertake the project, according to its inaugural executive director Cristina Paterno, “of a basilica restored sustainably.”
Father Paglinawan gives an English translation of the 1894 article in “Ilustracion Filipina” about the church, which had been consecrated and opened to much fanfare and great acclaim only three years before.
In their first article, architects Michael Manalo and Caryn Paredes Santillan give us a comprehensive history of San Sebastian, from its beginnings in the marshlands of Calumpang to the urbanization and industrialization of its environs, and later urban developments at the turn of the 20th century. Calzada de la San Sebastian’s growth is linked with the growth of the districts of Quiapo and San Miguel. Manalo and Santillan chart as well the wages of urban development that have marred and even debased San Sebastian and Plaza del Carmen.
In their second article, Manalo and Santillan call San Sebastian a “serendipitous match of technology and style.” Aside from the rise of steel technology, the building of the church was accompanied by the aesthetic development of revivalism—the neo-Gothic movement. They agree to most earlier observations that San Sebastian had been designed along the lines of the Gothic cathedral of Burgos, Spain. Both architects, however, point out that for the Recollect friars, the foremost consideration was “structural, not stylistic”: “They wanted a church that would withstand the earthquakes that continuously shook the Philippines.”
Regalado Trota José, a leading church architecture historian and former National Commission for Culture and the Arts commissioner and archivist of the University of Santo Tomas, provides us a very informative survey of the life and work of Genaro Palacios, the architect of San Sebastian Church. An engineer, Palacios was part of the pioneer team sent to the Philippines by Spain to modernize the islands’ public works. Aside from the church, his most famous work is without a doubt the provision of safe drinking water for Manila. Through research in various archives in Spain, Ricky Jose gives us a fine picture of Genaro Palacios, the man behind the world’s tallest all-steel church.
In “The Church of Many Nations,” Eugene Sumakwel Servigon, Michael John Mago and Edwin Estrada draw a rather surprising parallel between San Sebastian and the Tower of Babel for having been both “built by issues of differences in language and culture.” The more basic difference, of course, is that while the biblical edifice was “constructed with pride to challenge the heavens,” the church was built “to glorify the Creator.”
But San Sebastian indeed was a labor of the nations and of different tongues. “Its designer was Spanish; three million pounds of metal were forged in Belgian foundries; a Frenchman built the foundations; the floors (were done) by a Chinese; the foreman was British, all with the help of Filipino craftsmen and laborers.” They add other nationalities, as well: “Add the German stained glass and the Mexican icon of the Virgin Mary, San Sebastián may as well be of the first genuinely tangible outcome of ‘foreign relations’ during the Spanish colonial era.”
Most helpful is the two-column historical chronology of San Sebastian Church by Jose, with the right column covering the history of the Recollect order and of their most important church in the Philippines, and the left chronicling global events, whether geopolitical or cultural, as they affect Philippine history, the Recollect order and the church. The chronology is most comprehensive in mapping the planning and decision-making that went into the erection of the first church to be canonically named by the Holy See a minor basilica in the Philippines.
Another chronology, this time by architects Manalo and Caryn Paredes Santillan, with some notes from Jose, summarizes the interventions made on San Sebastian from 1922 to 1940.
Toward the end of the book, architects Manalo and Santillan enumerate the various policies that have been developed since the restoration started that should govern the conservation and development of San Sebastian.
If the architecture and construction of San Sebastian should show it is the “Church of Many Nations,” its art and appurtenances thereof are also, according to Cariño, the product of “multi-ethnic efforts”: “From its retablos and stained-glass windows to its walls and its dome, it is replete with paintings and other works of art that are the handiworks of known artists such as Felix Martinez, Lorenzo Rocha (Lorenzo Guerrero) and Isabelo Tampinco.”
In this chapter, “An Art Haven: The Artists and their Works,” Cariño likewise discusses Gaston O’Farrell, who’s interred in the basilica. Another bonus is that he discusses the artists who assisted Rocha, Tampinco et al., and they were all artists who studied at the Academia de Dibujo y Pintura: Manuel Espiritu, Eulogio Garcia, Antonio Sanchez, Clemente Paredes and Simon Fortich.
In “The Enclosed Garden,” Billy Ray Malacura discusses the devotions that have been promoted and the traditions cultivated by the Recollects of San Sebastian, such as the devotions to the Martian titles of Consolacion y Correa, Salud, and of course, Del Carmen.
He has a sound theory on why the Recollects got the by now venerated image of Del Carmen from the Carmelites of Mexico: He surmises that since both were descalzos, or the reform wing of their respective orders, the Carmelites felt a special affinity with the Recollects, so that they gifted them with the image. So that even before the first Carmelites came to the Philippines in the 1920s, the devotion to Del Carmen had been already thriving since the 17th century.
In “Once a Noble Street, Now a Prayerful Zone,” anthropologist, Quiapo denizen and heritage advocate Fernando N. Zialcita gives us a tour—architectural, cultural, historical—of Calzada de San Sebastian, now Calle Hidalgo. He writes: “The best way to appreciate San Sebastian’s scale is by walking down Hidalgo while allowing your view of the church’s lantern tower and spires to grow until you finally find yourself before them at an open plaza. Until recently, a continuous flow of colonnaded houses of similar dimensions flanked the streets on both sides, creating a perspective which led, straight as an arrow, to San Sebastian at the plaza.”
Zialcita agrees with Ramon Fernandez Gonzalez in the latter’s 19th-century travel guide that Calzada de San Sebastian was “the best and most beautiful street in all of Manila.”
Street of spirituality
But while Zialcita’s original appreciation of Calle Hidalgo was aesthetic, it has also become spiritual due to the “several houses of prayer” in the area. Aside, of course, from the Recollect church and convent, there is the Beaterio de San Sebastian de Calumpang, now the Congregation of Augustinian Recollect Sisters, which runs Saint Rita’s College. Then there would be the Sisters of the Holy Face of Jesus. Then there are the Hospitallers of Saint John of God and the Knights of Malta, both involved in the medical care of indigents.
In “Of Sightlines, Paints, and Larcenies: Issues and Challenges in Recent Memory,” Sembrano places the major issue bogging the conservation of San Sebastian—the controversial construction of a high-rise condominium that could mar its sightline—in the context of cultural heritage crises that had happened before, such as demolition by Mayor Lito Atienza of the Art Deco Jai-Alai and the construction of the high-rise Torre de Manila in Ermita that photobombs the Rizal Monument at the Luneta.
In “Genesis: Conserving a National Icon,” Paterno, first director of the SSb Foundation and now the head of Philippine branch of the International Council on Monuments and Sites of the Unesco, writes about the all-important work of saving San Sebastian from rust and decay and restoring it to this original glory, while laying the basis for its further development in the new century. “We hope to leave the basilica looking much as it did in 1891, but having increased the life span of the structure, the paintings and stained glass, so that the house for the spirit remains strong, and our grandchildren’s grandchildren can continue to experience it the way we have.”
In “Almost Falling Iron and Weeping Walls: The Fight to Save San Sebastian Basilica,” Marianne Claire Vitug, who succeeded Paterno in the SSb Foundation, gives an update on the fight to save San Sebastian. Despite the dire prognosis, she remains optimistic: There’s “a glimmer of hope,” she says, that the church “will survive the ravages of the elements and the unstoppable passage of time.”
Ultimately, “San Sebastian: Ironclad Faith” provides more than a glimmer of that hope. As St. Augustine says: “Hope has two beautiful daughters; their names are Anger and Courage. Anger at the way things are, and Courage to see that they do not remain as they are.”
“San Sebastian Basilica: Ironclad Faith” is available at the San Agustin Church Museum Shop and the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Manila bookstore, both in Intramuros, Manila. For orders, email email@example.com or call tel. +63917-8234616.