Unwanted Guest

Beyond fending off a photobomber, the #SaveSanSebastian campaign seeks to bring attention to the threats a new condo tower poses against the historic church and its surrounding community.

Words Patrick Kasingsing
Images Sebastian Basilica Conservation and Development Foundation, Inc.

The #SaveSanSebastian campaign. Click photo to sign the petition. Header: Stained glass window, photo from San Sebastian Basilica Conservation and Development Foundation, Inc.

“We didn’t expect the #SaveSanSebastian campaign to snowball like this,” San Sebastian Basilica fundraising and communications manager Samantha Pacardo excitedly shares during our Zoom interview. “Suddenly, we had fellow parishes like the Quiapo Church sharing our campaign in their social media channels—public attention just exploded!”

More than a photobomber, a threat

And while this was, at face value, a good problem to have and an encouraging sign of how the public does, after all, care about heritage landmarks, a problem looms. The most widely-shared posts pertain to an ongoing controversy between the church and Summithomes, a condominium developer digging the foundations for a 31-story tower just a street away from the National Cultural Treasure. One of the country’s most esteemed anthropologists has called the condo project “a Godzilla rising from hell.” On social media, people are calling it a “photobomber” and “another Torre de Manila” that will ruin sightlines to the basilica and cast dark shadows on the treasured landmark.

Lawyers Letter Request to NHCP Part A and B

The construction of the 110-meter tower so close to the heritage site buttresses the Torre de Manila’s dangerous precedent, a building completed in 2018 that ruins views of Rizal Park’s sprawling grounds and the monument where Philippine national hero Jose Rizal’s remains are enshrined.  

This new construction yet again condones uncontrolled development and the ruin of our built heritage, a prevalent transgression in the nation’s land-scarce capital.

Conservationists are thankful the public quickly seized the photobomber narrative to propel the #SaveSanSebastian campaign. But focusing only on the impending offensive blotch on the landscape draws attention away from the threat the highrise poses. There is so much more at stake than ruined Instagram shots; building the condo could well prove hazardous to public safety.

The San Sebastian Foundation underscores “the need to protect the architectural and structural integrity of the Basilica and the surrounding homes in the neighborhood—both of which directly affect the lives of residents.”

The basilica’s dome, photographed by Patrick Kasingsing
Photographed by Patrick Kasingsing

Good intentions

With a provenance that can be traced 400 years back, the 129-year old all-metal basilica (the fifth church constructed onsite) houses the image of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel de San Sebastian, a much-venerated icon. The image plays a central role in the annual festival of the Black Nazarene’s Dungaw of the Traslación. The faithful’s desire to house del Carmen in a sturdy home after the destruction of its predecessors by fire and earthquake led the parish to consider a novel material for the church: steel.

Architect Genaro Palacios and company did spectacular work fashioning an arresting neo-gothic structure out of workmanlike materials. But a century of flooding and Manila’s saline tropical air has slowly oxidized and eaten away at basilica’s steel panels, columns, beams, and structural supports. Thankfully, with the Order of Augustinian Recollects (OAR)’s blessing, community support, and the expertise of world-class conservation architects and engineers, a long-term comprehensive plan to conserve and fortify the San Sebastian Basilica came into fruition.

We are no stranger to the news and social media posts of how heritage churches often suffer at the hands of their stewards and parishioners and their misguided attempts at aesthetic and functional improvements. Thankfully, none of that worry for San Sebastian, as the OAR are resolute in their desire to faithfully restore the Minor Basilica to its most pristine state. So firm is their conviction that the San Sebastian is one of the few heritage landmarks whose operations, restoration, and future are enshrined in a Conservation Management Plan, a compendium of agreements, plans, and roles all the church stakeholders have agreed to adhere to.

Tearing at the cultural fabric of Quiapo

However, all the safeguards upholding San Sebastian’s future are for naught until the condominium development ceases and desists. Its proximity to San Sebastian poses a grave threat to the aging structure that is still in the process of being restored. The vibrations and tremors from the excavation and drilling are no mere annoyance to the quiet community. They threaten San Sebastian’s structural integrity and pose a physical danger to the workers, designers, and parishioners working in and visiting the church.

An expression of faith

It is heartwarming to note the Prior Provincial and Augustinian Order’s fervor to protect and restore their house of worship. At the heart of their message is the primacy of unwavering devotion to God and the church. The OAR’s position on the condominium controversy is decisive and explicit: the new tower threatens the community’s safety. The message is consistent in their communications and that of their members in their social media channels. They speak in no uncertain terms how the battle must be fought,  inviting the community to protect the church as an expression of devotion.

With the Order’s blessing, the parish launched an online petition last January 7 to drum up public support for the basilica’s continued restoration and present a show of strength against the nearby condominium project. In days, the petition gathered steam, garnering support from religious groups and heritage enthusiasts, with mass media broadcasting the appeal over airwaves and the internet. As of publishing, the #SaveSanSebastian campaign has garnered 29,772 signatures of support out of the 400,000 they aim to gather in time for the 400th year of the very first San Sebastian Church. Onsite signup for the petition is also available to members of the church’s immediate community.

Basilica interiors, photographed by Chester Ong

Heritage as an active player, not an artifact

San Sebastian Basilica has never been just a church. It has stood its ground and fulfilled its role in Manila’s riverside Quiapo district for centuries. It is ingrained in the neighborhood’s historical, cultural, and social fabric—a source of spiritual sustenance for parishioners, a hub for rejoicing and fellowship in feasts and festivals, and a sanctuary offering succor and solace in times of danger and disaster.

The landmark of 129 years is the first of its kind in the continent, a singular blend of ecclesiastical architecture, art, and science. A union you would be hard-pressed to find in other heritage churches. Its presence inspires generation after generation. Just look at the variety of ways people express their love for it in the ongoing Art for San Sebastian campaign.

This is why the fight to save San Sebastian must prevail. The battle to preserve this landmark is a fight for safety, history, tradition, memory, and faith. It’s a fight for the spirit of place, the soul of Old Manila, for pride in our heritage, and what makes Filipinos unique in the world. It’s a fight for respect for the people who came before us and for those who shall come after. •

Photographed by Patrick Kasingsing

Join in the efforts to save the San Sebastian Basilica. Like the San Sebastian Basilica Facebook page @savessbasilica for updates on activities, trivia, and information on the church’s restoration. Use #SaveSanSebastian on your SSB photos and posts. Make your voices heard and help in the efforts to protect and preserve San Sebastian Basilica from external threats by signing this petition bit.ly/SaveSanSebastian

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