Cover The Minor Basilica of San Sebastian represents the revival of gothic architecture in the Philippines. It takes pride as the only all-metal church in the country. It is under the care of the Augustinian Recollects and home to the first Carmelite image in the country, the Nuestra Señora del Carmen, since 1621 | Mariano Sayno / Getty Images

Tatler investigates why the San Sebastian Basilica in Manila needs a collective effort to be saved and protected

Manila was once called the “Paris of the East” for its splendid architecture and art. The French connection, however, has been erroneously attributed to the all-metal church on Pasaje del Carmen Street in the Quiapo district for years—that Gustave Eiffel himself had something to do with its construction. The locals of the parish, particularly the Augustinian Recollects who supervise the church, and the individuals fighting for the structure’s preservation take this as a mere urban legend. Still, they firmly believe that the towering San Sebastian Basilica is a treasure of Philippine architecture.

People flock to the Minor Basilica of San Sebastian to worship God and venerate the beautiful image of Nuestra Señora del Carmen, or Our Lady of Mt Carmel, that has been enshrined in the parish for 400 years now. The church was founded in 1621 on what was once a marshland called Calumpang. The land was donated by Don Bernardino del Castilla, a military commander of Fort Santiago, whose only request to the receiving Augustinian Recollects was to dedicate the church to San Sebastian, the patron saint of soldiers and athletes. Fires and earthquakes prompted the friars to rebuild the church in a magnificent neo-gothic style, with cast iron and steel, infused with baroque architecture characteristics.

With industrialism changing the face of the world in the 19th century, the Recollect friars commissioned the Spanish engineer, Genaro Palacios, then head of the Public Works office of the Spanish colonial government in the Philippines, to build the all-metal church we see today. With its uniqueness in the country and the entire Asia at the time (preceding the Bulgarian St Stephen’s Church in Istanbul, Turkey by seven years), it became the first church in the Philippines to be declared a Minor Basilica by the Vatican even before it opened in 1891. With German stained glass, Belgian steel, French foundations, Chinese flooring and Filipino craftsmanship, San Sebastian Basilica is a true architectural marvel that has withstood the test of time.

Until today, when its life is hanging in a balance.

Over time, the salt air and breeze coming from the Manila Bay, air pollution from the city and the ever-increasing volume of rainfall in the country have caused the structure to corrode, leak and disintegrate in some areas. Though stable as of now, one can never predict what will happen in the next decades. What is certain today is that the ongoing construction of the 31-storey University Tower Recto by Summithome Realty Corp on Calle San Sebastian (less than a hundred metres behind the basilica) would damage its ongoing restoration. The modern structure expected to house big store chains would also drastically alter the period image of this community dotted with Antillean heritage houses as well as threaten its medium to small business enterprises.

The Augustinian Recollects and San Sebastian Basilica Conservation and Development Foundation, (SSBCDFI) officially launched on 7 January 2021 the #SaveSanSebastian online petition “as a public call for support for the ongoing restoration and the movement opposing the construction of the condominium behind it”. The problem is more than just a “photobomber”, said Samantha Pacardo, SSBCDFI fundraising and communication manager. “San Sebastian is not just a heritage site; it is actually being used by people,” she said. “The devotion is even older than the current structure. There’s a deeper meaning why there are all of these people coming in to stand up with San Sebastian.”

Primarily because the church has been recognised as a National Cultural Treasure and a National Historical Landmark, three government entities have given the condominium developer some requirements to meet. In a letter dated July 16, 2019, the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA), the National Historical Commission of the Philippines (NHCP) and the National Museum of the Philippines (NM) said they will grant clearance for construction only after the developer has fulfilled the following conditions: 1) the approved development plans are properly implemented; 2) the structure is not constructed within the San Sebastian Basilica property; 3) the approval of the stakeholders of the basilica is obtained; 4) all necessary building permits and requirements from national and local authorities concerned are secured; and, 5) archaeological materials recovered during excavation reported to the National Museum.

“There was no consultation done [by the developer] with [us], the stakeholders,” said Atty Kid Gayos, the executive director of the Sebastinian Office of Legal Aid (SOLA), who clarified at the time of the interview that there is no legal battle yet against the developer. “We are still trying to gather information if permits were actually granted and whether there are violations of any ordinance or laws.” The developer, however, has already posted online photos of the ongoing construction and has begun pre-selling units.

“It is important to determine if the condominium’s construction is a threat to people’s homes, and if there is a possibility of displacing families,” read the initial statement of the SSBCDFI. “At the heart of this issue is the safety of the community, which guides the decisions made by the team alongside the data of our engineers and architects.”

Over the century, the all-metal San Sebastian Basilica has withstood natural threats with much resilience. Many believers allude this to the ever-growing faith of its parishioners and devotees. The basilica has housed the first Carmelite image in the country, affectionately called Del Carmen, right from the beginning. Wearing the brown scapular throughout the country was propagated by the early devotees of San Sebastian. And the church has contributed to the rich religious tradition of the country with the recent revival of the Dungaw rite. From recovered old documents, researchers discovered that part of the procession route (Traslación) of the Black Nazarene on its feast day is the basilica; as such, in the Dungaw, the image of Del Carmen comes out every time the venerated image of the suffering Christ passes by.

“It is a very emotional moment,” recalled SSBCDFI executive director Claire Vitug. “People would just stop, hum and pray. Even non-believers would be able to say that there is so much spirituality going on in that moment. People also see this campaign as our way of protecting the home of Del Carmen,” she explained.

The elaborate and comprehensive ten-year restoration project for the San Sebastian Basilica may not be the first effort done, but it is the first of its scale. Vitug shared that they are now in the design phase for the actual intervention, but immediate repairs have already been made during the diagnostics phase. With a team of experts comprising of international and local consultants, the SSBCDFI is relentless in helping the basilica see better days, hopefully centuries. Though it was removed from the tentative list of pending UNESCO World Heritage Sites, Vitug and her peers are doing their best with the restoration to work. “Of course, that is something we consider,” Vitug commented on earning a World Heritage status. “But it’s not just the prestige [it brings]. Economic and social development comes with it. More importantly, a World Heritage Site enjoys safeguards... multiple layers of protection befitting of a structure with multiple layers of significance. We’re more after the protection and safety of the individuals who are actually using the church and, at the same time, the community that surrounds it.”

“[The signature campaign] does not mean that we are trying to do some sort of trial by publicity in order to save San Sebastian,” said Gayos. “Rather, we are trying to show the world how much San Sebastian means to the people—a physical manifestation of support.” As of date, the signature campaign accessible via has garnered over 30,000—still a long way from achieving the 400,000 goal. Part of the campaign includes sharing of personal stories of devotees and parishioners and exhibition of art inspired by the basilica and Del Carmen. “If we get to really inspire lawmakers to come up with policies that would protect San Sebastian, we hope it reaches out to other heritage sites that we have in the country,” said Vitug. “If we can put a spotlight to San Sebastian, some of the focus will also shine on other heritage sites which are in danger,” Gayos agreed.

He also strongly believes that with more eyes focused on this issue, propriety will occur. As of now NCCA, NHCP and NM haven’t responded yet to the basilica’s request to update them on the status of the requirements given to the developer. Although SOLA and SSBCDFI are still focused on gathering more information and restoring the basilica’s structure, other stakeholders are already preparing for possible litigation.

A historical, religious, architectural and cultural gem, the San Sebastian Basilica is a treasure of many facets we, Filipinos, should be proud of. Its heritage and legacy demands reverence and protection from all of us. And though it may not be a Gustave Eiffel masterpiece, it stands tall enough to merit a people’s reverence.

Sign the petition and stand with us to #SaveSanSebastian by visiting this link