Faith, “facelifts,” and the San Sebastian Basilica 2
The pulpit before the paint job and after. It shows the muted hues of the old versus the gaudy new lick of paint.

Faith, “facelifts,” and the San Sebastian Basilica

There’s been another scuffle between pastoral heads of San Sebastian Basilica and the conservators who are working hard for its preservation
Mookie Katigbak-Lacuesta | Nov 03 2018

Almost ten years ago, my now-husband and I raced through the city trying to find a church in which to get married. There were the usual suspects—San Agustin in Intramuros, San Antonio in Forbes (that had such snooty regulations, we dropped out of that race early on in the program), and the unusual ones that were so stunning, we wondered why none of our friends had actually gotten married there. By unusual and stunning, I mean the San Sebastian Basilica—a mere five minutes away from Quiapo Church, but it might as well be a world. It’s an all-steel, neo-Gothic Church, with spires stretching upward for miles. It isn’t just a beauty, it’s a beauty with a pedigree. While previous iterations had been levelled by earthquakes, this church withstood them, given its engineering and its materials. In the end, however, we chose a friendlier church in Makati, one near the reception space, and one closer to home.

Our problem then, it seems to me, is still the problem facing San Sebastian now: people are always looking for things closer to home. For devotees in the community, home is Quiapo church, five minutes away from San Sebastian, home to the singularly iconic Black Nazarene, for whom millions risk their lives in an annual human crush, hoping for a taste of its miraculous powers with a sweep of a hanky, or even just an actual encounter. San Sebastian houses what I believe is an equally important icon—Our Lady of Mt. Carmel, which has its own flock of devotees, but is known primarily for an event called the Dungaw—a stop during the Black Nazarene crush. Legend holds that the icon slows down in front of the church because Christ will always wait for his mother. While lore alone makes me weep at the innate spirituality of the Filipino, it doesn’t mask the fact that San Sebastian seems to be a scenic stop and not the destination.

Since its restoration began almost ten years ago, it’s been an uphill battle for conservators—not least because of the effects of time: rust, leaks, and age. There are the long-term plans conservators have taken great pains to map, which often include unseen rust, and damage visible only to the trained eyes of specialists. And then there are the priests who want to address damage visible to themselves and to pedestrian believers (read: leaks brought about by the latest monsoon). The battle seems to be between the long-term and the palliative. The specialists and the church. And they can’t seem to see eye to eye.

Recently, the threat of a high-rise in an adjoining neighborhood further threatened San Sebastian’s potential of becoming a UNESCO world heritage site (which on its own, more than deserves to be on that list).  Short weeks ago, conservationists were appalled by the painting of the church pulpit by order of pastoral administrators.

The San Sebastian Basilica Conservation and Development Foundation issued a statement that the move was “not in keeping with its avowed vision and mission, standards and criteria.” At the same time, it acknowledged the difficulty in keeping the balance between its “advocacy, and that of the pastoral administrators of the San Sebastian Parish.” You can see where they’re coming from. The pulpit, faded through time but brandishing the muted colors collectors favor and specialists preserve, has been brushed over with a glossy emerald green, with its details outlined in gold. This is emblematic of the interior “battles” being fought by all concerned parties. But the problem, at least to me, seems to be much more basic than that.

Click on the image below for slideshow

Faith, “facelifts,” and the San Sebastian Basilica 3
Faith, “facelifts,” and the San Sebastian Basilica 4
Faith, “facelifts,” and the San Sebastian Basilica 5
Faith, “facelifts,” and the San Sebastian Basilica 6
Faith, “facelifts,” and the San Sebastian Basilica 7
Faith, “facelifts,” and the San Sebastian Basilica 8

The pulpit from a distance before it was glossed over and repainted


Before and after shots of the pulpit


Detail of the pulpit shows its gorgeous weathered-by-age facade.


Glossy, newly painted figures.


The aged pulpit San Sebastian devotees have known over the years.


Figurines after their new paint job are left to dry.


We talked to Tina Paterno, Technical Director of the San Sebastian Conservation and Development Foundation, Inc.about this seeming-bureaucratic problem, but the interview yielded more than we bargained for. It yielded the problem of community, and of the basilica’s place in the scheme of community-building.

“We have been working on the community,” Paterno says, “this cultural mapping was done by Fundacion Santiago—where you get a bunch of folks together and you ask them, ‘what’s important to you in the community?’. So stuff they say is like their favorite eatery, the best banana cue, [They say] I love Quiapo Church. And San Sebastian wasn’t high on that list.”

Paterno also recounts the story of a homeless woman, born and raised in Quiapo, who was asked where she would bring a first-time visitor to Quiapo, and she said” Quiapo Church.” The woman was brought inside the church for the first time, “and she looked around,” Paterno says, “she had never been inside.”

Now, why wouldn’t a local even venture inside one of the country’s most beautiful churches? Paterno says: “I don’t think it’s the beauty that draws them. It’s the spirituality. And I don’t know how they perceive this site.”

By this logic, there is a perceived lack of spirituality within the San Sebastian basilica as it relates to Quiapo Church. A small win seems to be that that both the church and conservation specialists have been drawing tourism crowds, and have encouraged interfaith dialogue with nearby Muslim communities. There is a concerted effort to build a community surrounding the church, but only time can really tell if “pastoral administrators” or conservationists have enough staying power to draw the crowds of, say, the Quiapo Church.

But what a beautiful church San Sebastian really is. Paterno talks about preserving its authenticity—a move challenged by the recent painting of the pulpit. “It’s about designing what in a space is so valuable that you want to transmit it to future generations in all its authenticity,” she says. “So the advocates say ‘Don’t touch.’ But you can create in other spaces. And you can create in ways that are in sync with historic spaces.”

There is always a need to create, to worship, Paterno says, and the view is that the parish is its people. “It’s the people,” she says, “it’s what the people want.” This strays from the decidedly European view where churches are preserved, even as they’re not exactly used.  

When asked if there are many devotees to this church, or if, in fact it’s a well-used place of worship, the answer is tentative at best. “How do you even define a well-used church?,” Paterno asks. Which all really boils down to community, whether within the church or without it.

My husband and I chose to be married at St. Andrew the Apostle Parish—a church known for the handiwork of National Artists. It seemed a fitting place of worship for two artists, a symbolic place of communion for our shared beliefs. A community of two, if you will, but a community nonetheless. Perhaps that’s all it redounds to, and is all the specialists and priests need to consider. What the basilica’s travails have captured is a digital community, one quick to ire at the slightest threat to one of our last heritage sites. An ANCX exclusive showed a video with the church, standing firm against the looming threat of a high-rise. It yielded more than 401,000 views and thousands of shares. The digital community, well, cares.

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When it comes to this basilica, specialists and priests alike seem to have built a digital church, but maybe what it needs is a stronger physical flock. Imagine all those pews occupied, and imagine having one of the most beautiful churches in the country as your parish, your prayers lit by one of Oidtmann’s thirty four stained glass windows.