Basilica of San Sebastian

Facade of Basilica of San Sebastian

San Sebastian Church, today a magnificent temple of pure Gothic style with slender spires pointed heavenward, the first all-iron church in the world, the first iron edifice in Asia and the second in the world after the Eiffel Tower, with the polychromatic glass artwork similar to those of the Gothic Cathedral of Paris, has its history way back in 1621. It is among the lasting testimony of the patience and determination of the Augustinian Recollects above all, it is a testimony of their love and dedication to the Mother of God under the title of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel whose precious image is enshrined in the main altar.

It was in 1621, while this area was still known as Calumpang, when Don Bernardino del Castillo Maldonado y Rivera, maestre de campo of the Royal Infantry Battalion and commander of Fort Santiago, and his wife Dona Maria Enriquez de Cespedes donated the Calumpang estate and country house to the Augustinian Recollects. On February 16, 1621 the Archbishop of Manila, Msgr. Miguel Garcia Serrano, OSA, issued the necessary authorization for the foundation of the new church and convent. Don Bernardino Maldonado del Castillo also extended his financial assistance to the construction of the church. The church was opened on May 5, 1621 with the Archbishop of Manila consecrating and inaugurating the new temple. Both the convent and the new church were dedicated to San Sebastian because of the special devotion of Don Bernardino, its donor, to this glorious Roman martyr.

In 1639, during the Sangley uprising, the church was looted and set on fire. It was immediately repaired but on November 30, 1645 it suffered from a terrible earthquake. It was demolished, leaving the Recollects to minister to their parishioners in a nipa church. Meanwhile, a temple was built. The newly built temple lasted for almost two centuries. On June 3, 1863 a powerful earthquake, which modern seismologists and the historians concede as the most cataclysmic in Spanish times, ravaged the metropolis. The temple of San Sebastian was pulverized. The church was reconstructed and opened to the public on January 20, 1867. However, this temple did not last long for on July 14, 1880 it was again destroyed by an earthquake with its aftershocks on the 18th and 20th of the same month. Considered unsafe for public worship, the church of San Sebastian was closed by the Recollects.

It was easy to imaging the anguish and bitterness that pervaded the Recollect community of San Sebastian. Their best efforts have been repeatedly reduced to shambles. But they came out wiser, more prudent and more steadfast as well in their relentless endeavor. They learned their lesson the hardest way. Soaring stone churches were absolutely no match to strong seismic quakes. It would be quixotic to build tall stone and brick edifices in a place where a powerful quake occurred every ten or twenty years. This paved the way to the idea of a temple which is of solid steel. It would be one that symbolize the faith and resilient character of the Recollects, and one that would defy the three fatal foes of Asian edifices: tremors, termites and typhoons. In no time, the resilient Recollects would draw up the blueprint for a church wholly made of steel.

Interior of Basilica of San Sebastian

It was no other than the Spanish Don Genaro Palacios y Guerra, director of public works of the insular government, who had conveyed as early as February 1881 the idea of a steel church to the Superior of San Sebastian. The proposal was approved on June 13, 1883. Finally, in 1886, the Societe Anonyme d' Enterprises de Travaux of Brussels, Belgium was awarded the contract to undertake the construction of this grandiose design.

The steel parts with the total weight of 1,527 tons were manufactured in Societe Anonyme's foundry in Binche, Belgium and were shipped to Manila during the steel temple's fabrication phase. On June 2, 1888, the ship William Burkitt docked in Manila bringing with it the first shipment of steel parts for the church. For two years, the church was assembled with the local artists and craftsmen joining the Belgian firm in applying the final finishing touches on this wonderful new church of steel. The total of eight ships carrying 50,000 tons of iron steel and glass artwork were used in the four-year projects (May 1887-July 1891).

On June 24, 1980, while in the midst of its construction, the church of San Sebastian was raised into the status of minor basilica attached to St. Peter's Basilica and on July 4 was also attached to the Basilica of St. John Lateran, the cathedral of the Pope as Bishop of Rome.

The all-steel church of San Sebastian was solemnly blessed and inaugurated on August 15, 1891 by the Archbishop of Manila, Bernardino Nozaleda. It was considered as a wonder of engineering skill and artistic creativity. The prefabricated iron structure indeed is sui generis in Asia. Unknown to many, the stability of the church is perfect, as a result of its foundation: a hull-shaped framework for transverse and longitudinal latticework filled with lime, clay sand and cement. The center of gravity of the edifice is way down below its massive concrete foundation, making it harmlessly sway with, and withstand, intense seismic movement and typhoons. It measures 50 meters long by 22 wide and has belltowers rising 52 meters high.

After a century of existence the Basilica of San Sebastian is still marvelously intact, miraculously surviving wars and solidly defying earthquakes. Declared as one of the National Historical Landmarks in the Philippines by virtue of Presidential Decree No. 260 of August 1, 1973, the Basilica proudly lays claim as one of the cultural properties which are specially of high value from the viewpoint of world culture that are considered as irreplaceable treasures of the country. It is one of the best models of colonial art and architecture in the country. On August 15, 1991, during its centennial celebration, the Basilica of San Sebastian was solemnly dedicated by Archbishop Gian Vincenzo Moreni, the Papal Nuncio to the Philippines.

Excerpt from Shrines, Incarnating Christ Today. St. Paul Philippines, 2004. Photos from and

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