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San Sebastian Church under siege

By: - Arts and Books Editor / @LitoZulueta
/ 05:04 AM December 05, 2020

Upon assuming office in June 2019, Manila Mayor Francisco “Isko Moreno” Domagoso said he would not allow another “photobomber” to ruin any of the Philippine capital’s history and heritage landmarks. He was alluding to the construction during the term of his predecessor, former president and Manila mayor Joseph Estrada, of the 49-story Torre de Manila in Ermita, which became a cause célèbre for marring the skyline of Luneta and the Jose Rizal Monument. Moreno’s declaration was welcomed by Rizal devotees, heritage advocates, park lovers, and cultural aficionados. But they spoke too soon.

A little more than a year after he became mayor, City Hall has apparently given the permit for the construction right behind the historic San Sebastian Church in Quiapo of the 31-story University Home Recto, a condominium development like Torre de Manila. Heritage advocates have noted that the construction has started despite the pandemic and the protests against the planned construction since 2017. In August 2019, just a month after Mayor Moreno’s declaration, developer Summithome Realty Corp. acquired a barangay clearance to support its application for a building permit. That a mere barangay captain could clear a questionable development so that City Hall could give the go-signal for its construction despite the threats it might create for a cultural landmark, should underscore the woefully low, if not nonexistent, culture quotient of local officials. On its Facebook page, Summithome appears confident of erecting its planned monstrosity: It has already announced the preselling of condo units.

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Something more is at stake than the high-rise ruining the skyline of the church. Construction diggings may affect the structural integrity of the church. San Sebastian’s foundation dates back to the 17th century with the arrival of the Augustinian Recollects, the fifth and the last of the great missionary orders that evangelized the Philippines. The edifice now is not the original church, but the celebrated all-steel gothic magnificence that replaced the one that collapsed during the 1880 earthquake. Prefabricated steel sections were shipped from Europe to Manila and Belgian engineers supervised the erection of the first and only all-steel structure in Asia. Designed by the Spanish architect Genaro Palacios, who was inspired by the gothic cathedral of Burgos, Spain, its conceptualization reportedly had the participation of Gustave Eiffel, builder of the Eiffel Tower in Paris. The church was consecrated to much fanfare in 1891 by Archbishop Bernardino Nozaleda, OP, the last Spanish archbishop of the Philippines. The year before, Pope Leo XII had declared it a minor basilica, the first in the Philippines and only the second in Asia (after the Stella Maris Church of the Carmelites in Haifa, Israel).

Considering its architectural, engineering, religious, historic, and cultural importance, San Sebastian has been shabbily treated not only by City Hall, but also by the national government. In particular, cultural agencies should be taken to task for their incompetence and highly suspicious inaction. San Sebastian is a declared National Historical Landmark by the Philippine government and it should fall under the protection of the National Historical Commission of the Philippines (NHCP). In 2011, it was declared a National Cultural Treasure by the National Museum of the Philippines. Neither has acted with dispatch to protect the church. The NHCP has a mixed record of protecting tangible heritage. It gave the go-signal for the construction of Torre de Manila despite the high-rise violating the NHCP’s own guidelines.

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The guidelines state that one of the offenses against historic or heritage sites and structures is “visual distraction or obstruction.” Another offense is “competition,” defined as “a structure that competes with or subordinates a historic/heritage structure.” Guidelines also identify a number of threats such as “adjacent construction activities that may adversely affect historic sites/structures.”

Come to think of it, the NHCP had violated its own rules when it allowed Torre de Manila to be constructed right behind and “adjacent” to the Saint Vincent de Paul Church on San Marcelino Street. The church had been awarded by the government a historical marker in 1935. It now appears that the vastly more culturally significant Recollect basilica would suffer the same fate as the Vincentian church.

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Lito B. Zulueta is a veteran journalist, editor, and arts and culture critic. He teaches journalism and literature at the Faculty of Arts and Letters of the University of Santo Tomas.

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TAGS: History, infrastructure, Isko Moreno, Manila City, NHCP, San Sebastian Church, University Home Recto
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