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Philippines' iconic church faces serious rust issue

Steel basilica and national treasure in urgent need of repair in the nation's capital

Roy Lagarde, Manila

Roy Lagarde, Manila

Updated: June 01, 2017 08:13 AM GMT
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Philippines' iconic church faces serious rust issue

The Basilica Menor de San Sebastian, better known as San Sebastian Church, in Manila. (Photo by Roy Lagarde)

The Philippines' iconic and only all-steel church, which dates back to 1891, is starting to show its age, and corrosion is causing major concerns.

While the exterior of the Basilica Menor de San Sebastian, better known as San Sebastian Church, in Manila receives a regular paint job, water leaks are corroding critical sections of the Gothic structure.

"The leak has affected the structural elements of the church, and has affected other parts of the building, including the art and stained-glass windows," said Samantha Pacardo who manages a foundation that works to conserve the old structure.

To save the "architectural marvel" in the heart of Manila’s Quiapo district, church officials have embarked on a US$6 million restoration project since 2012.

It is a process that may take more than 10 years and go through three phases: diagnostic, design and construction.

Pacardo said the first phase, which was completed last year, revealed "many shocking conditions," spurring a team of international experts to conduct emergency repairs.

"Fortunately, structural engineers calculated that despite significant corrosion, [the church's] original strength overrode current weaknesses, for now," Pacardo said.

Currently on the design phase, a technical team is coming up with "unique solutions" to all the damage, particularly on the structural and architectural repairs.

As of January, the team had identified and repaired the five most damaged supporting columns with metal plates that were partially eaten away by corrosion and contained up to two meters of water.

Pacardo added the building, of unique construction, "requires customized repairs for many of its problems," including the other columns, original wall paintings and stained-glass windows.

Under the care of the Order of the Augustinian Recollects, the San Sebastian Church is the Philippines' oldest basilica.

It is also the location of the first shrine to the Our Lady of Mount Carmel, which was housed in the location in 1617.

The Augustinians, who settled in the country in the early years of the Spanish occupation, built four San Sebastian masonry churches, which were all destroyed by earthquakes or fire and subsequently rebuilt.

Following an earthquake in 1880 that destroyed another church, the religious order designed an earthquake-resistant building made of steel.

Since its inauguration in 1891, the San Sebastian Church has become an example of fine Gothic architecture in the Philippines.

It is the only all-steel church in Asia and the only prefabricated steel church in the world.

Compared to other historic churches, the San Sebastian Church is one of the country’s last remaining churches whose interiors remain authentic, and survived the ravages of earthquakes and war.

More than 120 years since its construction, its original defining features, glass windows, metal doors, walls, columns, ceilings and interior decorative paint, look much the same as they did in 1891, if not soiled and rusted.

"It is fortunate that the now-fragile oil paintings that embellish every inch of its interiors, including over 140 figural paintings, remain," Pacardo said.

In 2006, the church was included on the "tentative list" for possible designation as a World Heritage site. It was designated as a "National Historical Landmark" by the Philippine government in 1973.


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