Iconic church a disaster waiting to happen



The Manila Times



COMMUNITY activists in Manila have raised the alarm over the condition of the iconic Minor Basilica of San Sebastian in Quiapo, which they say presents a risk to the safety of churchgoers and visitors due to the deterioration of many of the building’s internal fixtures. While the structure itself is said to be reasonably sound, engineering experts have warned that the poor state of internal parts such as ornamental trim and cladding on the wall columns and roof vault ribs has already led to large pieces falling. With the upcoming Holy Week observances sure to draw crowds to the church, the risk of serious injury to visitors cannot be ignored, and the building should be closed until repairs can be made. The San Sebastian Church was constructed in 1890-1891 in what is now Plaza del Carmen at the eastern end of Recto Avenue; the spot where the church is located was the site of at least four earlier churches dating back to the 1620s, all of which had been destroyed by earthquakes or fires. The unique modular steel design of the presentday church came about due to a desire to provide an earthquakeand fire-resistant structure, and is the only church of its type in Asia. The design was created by the Spanish architect Genaro Palacios (not Gustave Eiffel, the builder of the Eiffel Tower in Paris, as a popular myth claims), and modeled after the cathedral in Burgos, Spain. The steel components of the church, totaling more than 50 tons, were manufactured in Belgium and shipped to Manila for assembly on the site, being completed in 1891. Although the church was first designated a historic landmark in 1973, its condition has become emblematic of an overall poor regard for heritage sites in the Philippines. San Sebastian’s steel structure has been weakened over the years due to Manila’s humid, salty atmosphere as well as air pollution, and is also threatened by nearby construction allowed by the City of Manila and the local barangay, in greed-driven, blatant disregard of laws that mandate buffer zones around important historical sites. Some restoration work over the years, largely undertaken through private initiatives of concerned community organizations, has at least stabilized the basic structure of the church, but lack of funds and government support for proper maintenance and repairs, which need to be carried out constantly on a structure of this type, has led to the dire condition of the church’s interior. Citing the risk that damaged parts could fall due to noise and vibration from bigger crowds inside the church for Easter holiday observances, the local community led by the historical preservation advocacy groups Renacimiento Manila, the Philippine Historic Preservation Society (Bakás Pilipinas), the Advocates for Heritage Preservation, and others has urged the Diocese of Manila and the Manila city government to close the church and relocate services outdoors. This is certainly good advice, and should be followed at once by the responsible authorities. That, and carrying out the repairs and refurbishment that are visibly obviously necessary, is only the first step, however. The national government and local government units need to do some soul-searching, and consider how the lack of awareness and respect for historical heritage that they allow, intentionally or not, is imposing unrecoverable costs on the nation and their communities. The Department of Tourism (DoT) needs to become more proactive in the area of historic preservation as well, as these sites are significant economic drivers. In its recently released tourism road map, which we took a look at in yesterday’s editorial, the balance of planning and strategy focus was heavily tilted in favor of commercial concerns, and this is wrong. Part of the success in tourism for our neighbors Thailand and Malaysia can be attributed to the great care taken to maintain and promote their heritage sites; it is a best practice that our own tourism boosters should learn and emulate. A hotel, beach resort, or recreational facility can be replaced; unique, centuries-old examples of the Philippines’ rich history cannot, and their value must not only be appreciated, but carefully protected.