When I first saw San Sebastián Church when I was around ten years old, it was in the context of that ancient Lenten practice of Visita Iglesia, a ritual wherein the faithful visit 14 (some cut it to 7) churches and pray the decades of the Most Holy Rosary and venerate at the different grandiose Altars of the Repose. In short, it was dark, cramped and wasn’t conducive for a ten year old boy to appreciate the beauty and majesty of the church. Today though, I am now part of Ms. Tina Paterno’s team of preserving this church and I was assigned to research. Do enjoy this short entry on the beautiful Church of San Sebastián!
Anyone would be in awe at how San Sebastián, though puny as compared to Europe’s Gothic cathedrals, has this aura of romance but also rigidity. It is, after all, a steel Gothic church, complete with spiraling pillars, spires and pointy ornaments.
The history of San Sebastián began when Don Bernardino Castillo, the pious devotee of the Christian martyr San Sebastián, donated the land of the present site of the Minor Basilica in 1621. Though located in the swamp land of Sampaloc (no wonder UST literally sinks at the onset of rain!), the area was a preferred site for building a church since it was located away from the hustle and bustle of Binondo, the Parian and Intramuros. A convento for retiring Augustinian Recollect friars was built adjacent San Sebastián. However, due to a Chinese uprising in 1651, the nipa church was destroyed. The following San Sebastiáns were destroyed by fire and some earthquakes thereafter.
It was in the 1880s when the cura , the Muy Reverendo Padre Fraile Estebán Martínez, OAR requested from the architect Don Genaro Palacios a design that would render an earthquake and fire resistant church of San Sebastián.
Said to have been inspired by Gothic cathedral in Burgos, Spain, Palacios planned the church in the Gothic revival tradition and would be entirely be built by steel. According to popular historian Ambeth Ocampo, the steel parts were purchased from Societe Anonyme des Enterprises de Travaux Publiques in Brussels, Belgium.
The parts of the church were then brought to the Philippines in eight steam ships and were literally set up like “Lego” blocks, under the supervision of Belgian engineers. Inside the steel walls, gravel, sand and cement were mixed while the stained glass windows were imported from the Henri Oidtmann Company, a German company.
On the fiesta of Manila, 24 June 1890, His Holiness, Pope Leo XIII raised the church to a Minor Basilica and the following year, the Archbishop of Manila who was a known enemy of Jose Rizal, Archbishop Bernárdo Nozaleda consecrated the minor basilica, which was, for the longest time, the seat of the devotion to Our Lady of Mount Carmel.
San Sebastián to this day is and should be a toast of Filipinos. Though it is made of foreign materials and even its very concept very Western, it is still a church found on our shores. It is for us to preserve and remain in its appeal. As one enters San Sebastián, one is as if suddenly transported away from Asia and transferred to some Gothic cathedral in Europe.
Featuring groined vaults typical to Gothic structures, the all-steel church has walls, ceilings and pillars painted in such a way that these give off a faux marble and jasper appearance. This is due to the work of a Filipino artist and his students. Lorenzo Rocha and his students also applied the trompe l’oeil technique on the interiors of the church. The retablos, pulpit and other ornaments were designed by the artist Lorenzo Guerrero and Rocha in the Gothic revival tradition. There were six holy water fonts, all made of Romblon marble.
Above the main altar is a dome that isn’t spherical. However, painted upon it are Carmelite saints and other holy men and women. It is now facing terrible deterioration due to the elements of nature as well the heavy pollution that characterizes the city of Manila. The image of Our Lady of Mount Carmel that sits proudly at the top of the main retablo was an original gift by the Carmelite monjas or nuns from Mexico in 1617. In 1975, however, the ivory head of the image was stolen.
San Sebastián is facing rust and corrosion but also neglect and is always under threat due to priests’ seeming ignorance of church heritage and traditional structures’ maintenance. It’s about time Filipinos visit and support the management of this cultural gem that was hecho ayer.
This product of yesteryears’ ingenuity and craft, masterful skill and tasteful religious design is a source of Manila’s pride of place. It should be capitalized and always maintained. It can be a source not only of additional revenue but also national pride.