steely church of San Sebastian

tag: san sebastian church, quiapo, manila, san sebastian college, augustinian recollect

I walked around the wet streets of Manila yesterday. I wondered about what it felt like to be a Manileño during its golden age. When it was the center, the most modern, the most beautiful city in Asia. Well, it is a shell of what it once was, reality is that it’s in a sad state of bleakness, poverty. Even the once massive but graceful houses of Quiapo are now boarded by some of our most unfortunate kababayans.

Surprising is how the government of Manila allowed the construction of a building (old location of the UP fine arts school) right smack in the middle of Quiapo town! As if things couldn’t get worst in this area. There’s not a lot of planning involved in city planning around Manila after Mayor Lacson. I wonder if they even have a vision for the future around here.

I started in Manila’s city hall, crossed the Ayala Bridge to Calle  Casal, then straight to Legarda, turning left to Bilibid Viejo. That’s a short 2 kilometer walk in a showery Manila day. My reward was seeing the magnificent marvel of engineering the Recoletos built in 1891. Alleged to have been been designed by Gustave Eiffel, it is the only all-steel church in Asia and is said to have been the only prefabricated church in the continent.

Just imagine what it was like when colossal chunks of the church started to roll on the streets of Manila. That must have been a sight to see! It was, according to Jaime Laya, an international project, with English, Filipino, Belgians and other foreign nationals taking part in its planning and construction.

The Augustian Recollect missionaries in the Philippines were known for their intrepid and valiant expeditions. Nick Joaquin refers to them as “jungle” experts, so fearless that they took on wilderness that even locals would dare not go. So it is not unexpected that they envisioned something so out-of-the-box with their basilica. A prefabricated iron neo-gothic church in a tropical territory. But they must have forgot that salty winds from the nearby bay are known to slowly deteriorate even the densest of steel!

My first memory of San Sebastian was when I was a boy. These visits are rare because Quiapo church was easier get to (and my nanay was a Nazarene devotee) but the image of the steel church, with its noticeable dim interiors and captivating glass window art, made an deep impression on me that when I see a gothic church, wherever I go, I’m instantly reminded of it.

The challenge today is preserving the church. Since it would cost more to restore it than build a new one, some, even among the Recollect community are brooding over the idea of tearing it down and just building a new church. Not the best news a heritage advocate would like to hear but there’s not a lot of options left out there. Time will come when the entire steel church would be unsafe to use and by then we would all be confronted by the truth.

They don’t make ‘em like they used to they say, and this storied church, that has survived catastrophes, both man-made and natural, might finally succumb to deterioration caused by nature. Let’s all pray that God allows it to stand for another hundred years.


One response to “steely church of San Sebastian

  • mylesgarcia

    I had never been to the San Sebastian church (not that I had to…. But two churches which I fondly remember as a child were the Sta. Mesa church and the much simpler Pinaglabanan Church in San Juan. Could you write something about the Sta. Mesa (who was Saint Table? 🙂 church?? Thanks.

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