The San Sebastian Basilica’s Story in Steel

So much has been written and said about the San Sebastian Basilica in Manila’s Quiapo district. It is, after all, an iconic structure that has pretty much defined the city’s skyline for more than a century. And if we are going to dig deeper, two reasons can be determined as to why and how it became such an icon. One is the Neo-Gothic inspired architecture that is akin to the churches in Europe. And the other is the method of construction used in building this church, as the first and only structure in the country that is built entirely of metal.

What many do not realize though is that San Sebastian has quite a long history, all the way back to 1621 when the Augustinian Recollects (not to be confused with the Augustinians) built San Sebastian 1.0 to be the shrine of the Marian image of Our Lady of Mount Carmel. Hence, the basilica is also known as the Our Lady of Mount Carmel Shrine. The story goes that a man named Bernardino Castillo donated the land where the Augustinian Recollects would build their church. He also happened to be a devotee of St. Sebastian, a Catholic saint who was struck with arrows like an urchin for his faith but managed to survive so he was clubbed to death instead in c. 288 AD. Whether the decision to name the church after St. Sebastian was a tribute of sorts to Castillo or if Castillo requested to have the church be named after the saint, it is something the Urban Roamer has yet to be determined.

San Sebastian 1.0, constructed by means of masonry, unfortunately was burned down during the Chinese revolt in 1639. Thus, San Sebastian 2.0 was constructed soon after, also built by masonry. However, 2.0 only lasted a few years as it was felled down by an earthquake in 1645. San Sebastian 3.0 was built soon afterward, but another earthquake in 1863 knocked it down. San Sebastian 4.0 was built soon afterward and while the earthquake of 1880 did not knock it down, it did cause enough damage for it to be condemned.

It can be supposed that by then, the Augustinian Recollects finally had enough of fires and earthquakes knocking down their church. So for the construction of what was to be San Sebastian 5.0, they decided to go on a different direction. It just so happens that Europe was in the middle of what is known as the Industrial Revolution, an era of new technologies were being discovered and innovative concepts were being introduced. One of those innovations was the concept of an all-steel structure, exemplified by the Eiffel Tower in Paris that was built from 1887 to 1889. More on that Eiffel bit later.

Thus, the decision was made to make San Sebastian 5.0 an all-metal structure, from the roof to the pillars, that is earthquake proof. For this ambitious project, Spanish architect Genaro Palacios was tapped to design the structure. The result was a largely Neo-Gothic church, said to have been inspired by Gothic Burgos Cathedral in Spain, with Earthquake Baroque elements so it can withstand the strong earthquakes. Since the country did not have any steel factories, all the steel to be used for the San Sebastian had to be imported from Belgium, totaling to about 52 tons of steel that were imported. The Belgians also assisted in the construction of the church which began in 1890. In addition, famed artisans of the period worked on the church, such as the German glass maker Heinrich Oidtmann Company which did the glass windows and 19th century visual artists from the nearby Academia de Dibujo, Pintura y Arte. In particular, the school provided the church the services of famed painter Lorenzo Rocha and students and future established artists themselves, Felix Martinez, and Isabelo Tampingco. Eventually, it would turn out that Rocha’s works on the church would turn out to be his only surviving works today.

San Sebastian would be completed by the following year and was consecrated on August 16, 1891 and has been an iconic landmark in Manila since then. Partly because it was something the city, or the country for that matter, has never seen before and a rare sight at that. Seeing San Sebastian and stepping inside its premises was like experiencing a piece of Europe right at home while marveling at what was then a fairly new technology to create this work of art.

Now there have been stories that Gustave Eiffel, the French engineer who designed the Eiffel Tower, had a hand in the design and construction of the church. Sadly, no documentary evidence exists that would have validated this connection. Thus, the purported “Eiffel connection” of San Sebastian is best left treated as a rumor that has no factual basis, at least for now until sufficient evidence arises.

Nevertheless, San Sebastian was recognized as an important structure, even during its construction. In fact, in 1890 as the construction was in full swing, the Catholic Church under Pope Leo XIII already gave due recognition to the church by elevating to the status of minor basilica. San Sebastian would thus become the first church in the Philippines to be elevated as a minor basilica. Later on, it would receive state recognition as well by being declared a National Historical Landmark by the National Historical Commission of the Philippines in 1973 and a National Cultural Treasure by the National Museum in 2011.

To be continued

Acknowledgements as well to Wikipedia, Philippine Daily Inquirer, and the San Sebastian Basilica Conservation and Development Foundation

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