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Standing Steel: Delivering a church away from rust

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A thick layer of bluish green paint hides the heavy-duty secrets of The Basílica Menor de San Sebastián, better known as the San Sebastian Church. Constructed entirely of metal, it is the country’s only building with this architectural feat and one of the few all-metal churches of this scale in the world. In 1867, four reconstructions had been made to the basilica before Engineer Genaro Palacios, then Director of Public Works for the colonial government of Spain, designed a new church to withstand natural calamities such as earthquakes, built out of the material that was highly popular during the time of the industrial revolution—steel.

For more than a century, the friars of the Order of the Augustinian Recollects greatly protected and supported the maintenance of the basilica. The San Sebastian Basilica Conservation and Development Foundation, Inc. (SSBCDFI), headed by architectural conservator Tina Paterno, has been receiving grants from the Ambassador’s Fund for Cultural Preservation, through the United States Embassy in Manila and the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA) for the church to undergo diagnosis, which is the first crucial phase of the its restoration. The findings so far have been discouraging, as the basilica has over 300 leaks and severe corrosion in critical areas such as the columns. Within ten years since their first grant, SSBCDFI aims to lengthen the lifespan of San Sebastian Church and set up a sustainable community focused on helping the basilica survive the next century. Together with the other heritage groups in Quiapo, the organization has been making efforts to get their goals known through their #emptyssb tours, giving guests the chance to visit some of the restricted areas of the basilica.

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Albeit old and decaying, the church is anything but spooky.

An exquisite treasure like San Sebastian Church needs to be truly prioritized to justify the National Historical Landmark title it has garnered 40 years back. But for the basilica to return to its shining glory, SSBCDFI needs supermen like conservators, volunteers, and donors as strong as the steel edifice they are trying to save.

European Union

Get to know some of the European countries that gave a hand in making this extraordinary structure:

  • Germany: Henri Oidtmann’s detailed stained glass windows
  • France: Original French chandeliers and the foundations by Magin Pers
  • United Kingdom: The basilica’s foreman, Frederic Henry Read Sawyer
  • Spain: Overall design by Spanish Engineer Genaro Palacios
  • Belgium: Steel structure produced by the same company that made the train cars for the Orient Express, general contractor Societe Anonyme de Travaux Public

San Sebastian Church is located at Plaza del Carmen, Quiapo, Manila. For more information on the basilica and private tours, contact San Sebastian Basilica Conservation and Development Foundation, Inc. at (+63 2) 708 5122 or follow them on FB savessbasilica.

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