The interior of Basílica Menor de San Sebastián or San Sebastian Basilica from the choir loft

The Rarer Treat

It’s a personally rare treat to tour a church.

For one thing, while it is free to enter churches, they have schedules for when they are open. And not all places in a church are given public access.

My church of destination: Basílica Menor de San Sebastián or the San Sebastian Basilica (SSB). The locals refer to it as the San Sebastian Church, a much beloved religious edifice some 1.50 km. (4,907.53 ft.) away from Intramuros, the heart of Metro Manila. At the right spot from the Walled City, one could see one of or both of the twin spires of the church, which rise to a height of 32 meters (105 ft.).

Basílica Menor de San Sebastián or the San Sebastian Basilica
Basílica Menor de San Sebastián or the San Sebastian Basilica

SSB is in a complex that also houses the San Sebastian College-Recoletos, Order of Augustinian Recollects Seminary, Santa Rita College School, and the Santa Rita College Convent. The Adoration Chapel of SSB is detached from the main church and found in front of the basilica. The area formerly belonged to a certain Bernardino Castillo, who donated the land to the Recollects in 1621. To honor Castillo’s contribution, the church was named after Saint Sebastian, the patron of soldiers and archers. Castillo was a devotee of the saint because he himself was a soldier.

One of the features of SSB that makes it famous and a standout among other Philippine churches is that it is made out of metal. Originally, the church was formed from bricks. A previous fire had already razed it but the 1880 earthquake demolished it. Because of the last disaster, the parish priest Esteban Martínez asked the Spanish architect Don Genaro Palacios y Guerra to create an earthquake-resistant church. His choice of materials – steel and cast iron – was the influence of then current Industrial Revolution.

Don Palacios’ plans were forwarded to a company in Binche, Belgium who created the prefabricated steel sections. The 52 metric tons of steel were shipped to the Philippines and arrived in 1888. With the direction of Belgian engineers, building the church began in 1890, starting with the erection of the first column. The church columns reach about 20 meters (65.6168 ft.) below ground. By 1891, all 132 columns had been placed as well as other prefabricated pieces and thus the church was completed.

Another feature of SSB is its stained glass windows, which were made by the Heinrich Oidtmann Company from Germany. The fragile pieces of art decorate the church walls: the Joyful Mysteries on the left, the Sorrowful Mysteries on the right; just beneath the beautiful scenes are items associated with them. While most were spared from the ravages of World War 2, the window that depicted The Presentation was damaged. A Manila-based German provided another stained glass window by replicating the former; the replacement bears his name in the bottom right corner. The rose and rosette windows of the basilica are also made from stained glass.

The church is styled in the Neo-Gothic fashion: tall spires, long and lean windows, pointed arches, and a vaulted ceiling. Images of angels and saints – the work of local Filipino artists Lorenzo Rocha, Isabelo Tampingco, and Félix Martínez – in trompe l’oiel style still adorn the walls, arches, and scalloping but have now faded with the passing of time.

At the right side of the church is the old pulpit. It can no longer be accessed because its steps have been removed. The heptagonal stand also bears the painted images of religious characters that have now faded. It also has small replicas of the church’s spires.

The old pulpit with its 7-pointed star
The old pulpit with its 7-pointed star

There are five retablos in the church. The retablo mayor was also supposed to be prefabricated metal; unfortunately, it was lost to sea and a wooden retablo now stands in its place. The central figure is the Lady of Mount Carmel while two saints stand beside her and images of other saints are painted above and beneath the three of them. The retablo is topped with a statue of Saint Sebastian. The other retablos also feature saints but the most curious one for me is the retablo that feature a child Christ decked in the uniform of a gobernador general. With the exception of the Lady (who is still being verified if she is the original statue that has an ivory head and hands created abroad), all the sculpted images are the works of Filipino Eusebio Garcia.

Above the altar is the vaulted ceiling supported by groin vaults. The tholobate takes the form of an octagon, creating what seems to be an eight-pointed star visible only from inside the nave. The dome that covers the vaulted ceiling is up 12 meters (39 ft.) high.

Up to the choir loft, we stopped to consider a mural of purgatory. While it still arches over the rose window, its beauty has long since dulled; from the pews of the church, there is no enticing artwork in that darkened space. There was a lone chandelier that hung from the ceiling, its appearance starkly different from the ones below. It is thought that it could be one of the original French oil lamps but could not be confirmed.

Our ten-man group plus two guides went up a narrow metal stair case. We passed by the dim area between the ceiling and the roof of the church via a catwalk. After going up two more metal stair cases, we found ourselves at the bell tower of SSB. The basilica has four bells: three large and one small, all of which rung by machine on a strict schedule. From the tower, we had a good view of the passing LRT 2 train, the neighboring Chinese temple, and the Quiapo church, among other things.

Beautiful as the church is from the outside, it is losing its beauty and strength from the inside. The elements and time have weathered the materials of the church. Thus, they have started a 10-year restoration program and are now on their fourth year. They are working with experts from all over the world, even with the first companies that created the basilica’s components over a century ago. Besides trying to learn how to repair the columns and restore the paintings without compromising the materials or structure, they are also making efforts to uncover what the original color of walls was – which was changed some five years after the church’s completion – and give the walls a fresh coat.

As rare a treat a church tour is, it’s rarer still to visit one that is made out of metal.

Please do follow San Sebastian Basilica Conservation and Development Foundation, Inc. on Facebook for information about their tours and how to help save the treasure that is San Sebastian Basilica.

San Sebastian Basilica
Plaza Del Carmen, Quiapo, Manila

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