Manila, the Philippines

January 29, 2011

Gothic, Illuminati, noir-ish. No, these were not plot elements of the latest installment in the Da Vinci Code franchise.

One gloomy January day, I attended an Illuminati event at the only Neo-Gothic church in Manila, the Basilica Minore de San Sebastian. From the elevated train, the sight of the church’s twin spires piercing the sunless sky evoked an ominous Gothic atmosphere. Despite the whimsical aquamarine exterior, darkness enveloped my tentative steps as the basilica’s main portal creaked open akin to a film noir opening sequence.

San Sebastian Church

Lighted electric candle chandeliers and gleaming rose windows reluctantly illuminated the church’s Gothic features. What looked like a row of gigantic clamshells hovered overhead. The skeletal high-vaulted ceiling, looming pointed arches, towering steel columns, and the luminous golden retable at the far end all conjured up a medieval mise-en-scene.

Leon (my friend) at the Door: San Sebastian Church
Gothika: Nave and Alter of San Sebastian Church
Faded Trompe L’oeil Painting: San Sebastian Church

Initially, the walls and columns looked stark. As if by turns, decorative embellishments revealed themselves in the dim lights. Faded sculptural paintings hid behind a rusty haze; their subjects became apparitions lurking in the shadows. Supposedly trompe l’oeil, the tableaux’s depth of perspective had been evened out by time. Out of the blue, an otherworldly capsular object appeared to have descended down a pillar. It was a pulpit decked in elaborate design by artist Lorenzo Guerrero. Shadowy figures had tricked my eyes to waver from vision to imagination.

Clamshell Ceiling @ San Sebastian Church

Only the tiled floor I walked on was clearly real. Ann, a friend from Connecticut steeped in quilting tradition, later identified the aisle design as the Ohio Star, popular in the 19th century Gothic Revival. I wondered which came first – the floor tile or the quilt block. Perhaps both were inspired by an ancient mystical symbol.

Floor Patterns @ San Sebastian Church

The historic construction of the church was an alluring aspect of its lore. Wooden and stone incarnations of the church stood on this site; but fires and earthquakes had destroyed them since the 17th century. In 1881, Genero Palacios, a Spanish architect in the Philippines, advocated the use of an indestructible material to rebuild the church. After the Industrial Revolution, steel made the deal. The steel structure was prefabricated in Belgium which was then taken apart into eight sections and shipped separately to the Philippines. The pieces were reassembled in Manila like a steel Lego. The church was finally inaugurated in 1891, one of the few prefabricated all-steel churches in the world. A contested claim that Gustave Eiffel (of the eponymous Parisian tower fame) had a hand in the steel design further cemented the church’s legend.

Nuts and Bolts of San Sebastian Church
San Sebastian Church Rusting Away

Steel, it turned out, was not as foolproof as Palacios had hoped. It may have worked out fine in Europe, but not quite in a humid tropical island drenched in almost thrice the amount of annual rainfall. Rainwater and humidity proved to be persistently corrosive forces.

Architectural conservator Tina Paterno explained that water had been seeping into the steel structure. With a laser pointer, she highlighted several holes on the walls and columns. The 120-year-old basilica was rusting away despite previous restoration efforts. Water had gnawed its steely skeleton.

Church Conservator Tina Paterno @ San Sebastian Church
Joel Aldor, Co-Founder of Illuminati Tours

Along with several government agencies and private organizations that had campaigned to save San Sebastian Church, the public was enjoined in this undertaking. This was the advocacy of Illuminati – not the heretical secret society. Illuminati Travel and Tours, co-founded by aspiring church historian Joel Aldor, focused on heritage tours that would train the spotlight on the country’s rich cultural heritage and imbue Filipinos with a sense of history in the hopes that they would take an active role in the preservation of their historical heritage. San Sebastian Church, the steely damsel in distress, was an auspicious venue to launch the company.

People went to church to seek salvation. It was time to return the favor. This church, as with other colonial churches in the country, sought people for its salvation. People’s love for heritage could save many of our dwindling historical treasures.

Scaling the Steeple of San Sebastian Church

The church tour ended in a climactic climb up one of the twin steeples. The voluminous clouds seemed within reach, threatening to burst into a downpour, creating an atmospheric sense to this dramatic tour.

The up-close-and-personal view of the bell and the spire of the opposite steeple was the highlight. I imagined that San Sebastian Church was ringing and reaching up to heaven in a desperate prayer for salvation. The view from this vantage point had seen the changes in Manila’s skyline. May it remain stable and solid through the centuries and continue to bear witness to the changing times.

Bell and Billowing Clouds: View from San Sebastian Church Steeple
Feels Like Flying: At the Steeple of San Sebastian Church