“I have here a magnet, and anyone can borrow it. You can place it anywhere, and you will see that what I am saying is true,” said Tina Paterno to a small group of people standing at the entrance of a church. One man took the magnet and placed it on the church’s heavy door; it stuck. It was obvious that it would because even without using a magnet, you could easily tell that the door was made of steel. What was not, however, was the next spot that the man chose. It was the base of a pillar near the entrance, which looked like it was made of either stone or cement, but the magnet perfectly kissed its surface. These were not the only parts of the church that were made of steel. Its pillars, which looked like marble and stone, were also made of steel, as well as all of its walls, ceilings, window frames, pulpit, and of course, its roof and spires. This church, as you can tell, is not an ordinary church. The Basilica Menor de San Sebastian, in fact, is the only all-steel building in the Philippines and the only pre-fabricated steel church in the world. This unique Gothic architectural masterpiece, which was celebrating its 125th year, was the highlight of the first ever Q Festival and the main reason why I decided to join the event on its last day.
The Q Festival was a nine-day event held last August 12 – 20, 2016. The “Q” in the festival’s name stood for Quiapo, an area in the City of Manila, known for its numerous thrift stores; the Quiapo Church, which is the home of the Feast of the Black Nazarene; fortune tellers; and vendors who sell herbal concoctions, amulets, and potions – quite ironically – just outside of Quiapo Church. Unfortunately, Quiapo does not exactly have the most pleasant reputation. It is messy, harsh, and crowded – an image, which Q Festival would like to change by giving people the opportunity to explore its streets and historical sites, and realize that there was more to Quiapo than just a popular church, chaos, and snatchers.
There were many activities lined up for the Q Festival such as food fairs, a sports tournament, exhibits, and concerts, but it was the walking tour that got me interested the most. Months before the festival, I had the opportunity to visit San Sebastian for the first time and get to know it a bit when I did an impromptu DIY Visita Iglesia in Manila. Tina Paterno, Executive Technical Director of San Sebastian Basilica Conservation and Development Foundation, Inc. (SSBCDFI) was actually there, too. She was one of the people who gave a 30-minute talk about the historical background of and the conservation efforts being done on San Sebastian. The church fascinated me so much that when I found out from an online advertisement that it was going to be included in Q Festival’s Walking Tours, I did not hesitate to sign up.
My journey to re-discovering Quiapo started at the Far Eastern University (FEU), where the student tour guides were from. I must admit that I did not think that FEU had much to offer. From the entrance, it looked small, and I thought its beige edifices did not hide much history or art. Obviously, I was mistaken.
The theme of FEU’s buildings are dominated by Art Deco, and many were designed by Architect Pablo S. Antonio Sr. A lot of geometric shapes and lines and mirror imaging were apparent in the design. Art works such as those done by Vicente Manansala and national artist Botong Francisco were also present in the university.
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Aside from the ones listed in the itinerary, there were also a handful of heritage houses and buildings that my group and I passed by. One of them was the building of Gota de Leche, a foundation that was founded by Trinidad Rizal, sister of Dr. Jose Rizal, and Concepcion Felix in 1906. Its primary goal back then was to help lower down the mortality rate of Filipino children by providing milk and nutrition programs to mothers. More than a hundred years later, it continues to provide nourishment and assistance to less fortunate Filipino mothers and children. Other heritage buildings that we saw in passing were the Paterno House and the Manuel L Quezon University.
The next part of the itinerary brought me to Casa Consulado, also known as Iturralde Mansion. From the outside, you wouldn’t have any clue that this was once the house of the honorary consul of Monaco in the country (1950s – 1960s). Like many of the heritage houses around in Manila, it, too, looked forlorn. Some of its parts were warped or hanging loose. Its paint looked like it had been scrubbed off, and some of its metal work had been damaged by rust. Once inside though, the group and I were greeted with warmth by some people who were busy preparing something. We were told that on that night there was going to be a chocolate tasting event. We were encouraged to look around, which we happily did.
It was obvious that the house was in need dire of repair. The wooden floor squeaked and felt shaky as I walked. I made my way upstairs via the staircase, which was made of some solid hardwood. One of the people I met there, who was also just visiting but lived around the area, mentioned that there were indeed plans of restoring it. Details, however, were still unclear.
After a quick visit at Casa Consulado, we then made our way to San Sebastian Basilica, which was just a few steps away. Its mint green color (not its original color, by the way) stood out; a bunch of unsightly cables drawing black lines on its walls.
As I have mentioned earlier, the San Sebastian Basilica is one-of-a-kind. It is the product of an international collaboration from start to finish. Designers, engineers, workers, hailed from Spain, Belgium, France, China, England, and of course, the Philippines. It has withstood more than 10 earthquakes since its inauguration. However, because of its old age, some structural challenges are already present.
Since it is made entirely of steel, the main enemy of the structure is rust, which is already apparent even from the outside. Away from plain view, corrosion has eaten away the insides of some of its columns. (Don’t worry, the damage is not enough to bring the whole structure down.) Leaks, holes, and falling parts are also on the list of its weaknesses. Despite its problems, San Sebastian is still magnificent. The level of craftsmanship and detail poured onto it is astounding – from its trompe l’ oeil walls and the paintings on them, to its stained glass windows, and vaulted ceilings. And in order to preserve this beauty, San Sebastian once again would be using an international team of experts coming from diverse fields to address them. San Sebastian Basilica Conservation and Development Foundation, Inc. is the organization leading the way to the church’s comprehensive decade-long restoration program.
Unlike during my first visit, I was able to gain access to other parts of the Church like in the choir loft and the belfry, where I, on my way there using this narrow and shaky spiral staircase, saw this structure that resembled a part of a ship. (Trivia: the Conservation team actually consults with ship builders and people who are experts in that field because of the manner and material used in its construction have similarities to building a ship.)
It was an exciting part of the tour, being at the belfry of the Basilica. I had visited a lot of churches both here in the Philippines and abroad, but it was the first Philippine church for me to be able to reach that section. From that point, you can see the colorful Manila skyline against the backdrop of gray clouds, giving hints of imminent precipitation.
We had to say goodbye to San Sebastian Basilica to make way for the Padilla Gallery, an ancestral house built in the 1800s, located somewhere on Hidalgo St. Surrounding this long white house were a few street vendors, stores, and tricycles. Once inside, the members of the group were surrounded by numerous art pieces that reflected the vivacity of Philippine culture particularly of Manila and Quiapo. These are owned and done by artist and real-estate scion, Manny Padilla.
We were entertained by one of his employees who supplied us a brief background of the mansion and the artworks it housed. This was also the time when we welcomed a break from walking and the sun as we were served some snacks here.
On our way to the next destination, Bahay Nakpil, we passed by the Tanduay Fire Department. Here, we were given a brief historical background of the fire station by the firemen themselves and saw Manila Fire Department’s first fire truck, which was no longer in good condition, unfortunately.
The second to the last stop of the tour was Bahay Nakpil-Bautista situated on A. Bautista St. Built in 1914, Bahay Nakpil-Bautista is a typical bahay-na-bato with details inspired by the 1900s Viennese art movement, Secessionism. Apart from its architectural value, Bahay Nakpil-Bautista also was the residence of several historical personalities such as Andres Bonifacio’s widow, Gregoria de Jesus, who later on married Julio Nakpil, a musical composer and the Vice-President Supremo of the Katipunan appointed by Bonifacio himself; Francisco Nakpil, member of La Liga Filipina; Dr. Ariston Bautista, a doctor and member of The Propaganda Movement; Juan Nakpil, architect of the Quiapo Church (after the 1929 fire); and Angel Nakpil, architect of the Rizal Park complex. Nowadays, it is a museum, library, exhibit venue, and community center.
Unfortunately, I was no longer able to join the tour of this house and the one for Quiapo Church since I had another appointment set for that day. I thought five to six hours was enough to visit all the places, but clearly, it was not. The reason why the tour took so long was not because the destinations were too distant from each other or that we had long breaks but because there was really no set schedule to begin with, and that for me was the walking tour’s biggest weakness. There were delays and instances when too much time was spent on particular areas that were not even supposed to be included in the tour. Although it was an added bonus – visiting places that were not part of the itinerary – the tour did not take into consideration the time of the participants. I had been on several walking tours abroad before and each one had a fixed schedule and most of them ended on time. (One was delayed for 30 minutes because there was an unexpected change in train schedules.) I hope the schedule is one aspect that the organizers improve next time around.
And I do hope that there really is a next time for Q Festival because it has another significant goal apart from showing people the heritage sites and changing people’s perception of the area. In a chat I had with the Director of FEU’s President’s Committee on Culture, Martin Lopez, he mentioned that walking tours such as this was also meant to engage the residents of Quiapo themselves in heritage conservation. The organizers wanted to show that they themselves would greatly benefit in such activities, not only because there would be money coming in from the tourists who would visit Quiapo, but also because they will be able to take part in reviving the spirit of Quiapo, which was primarily their home. They are a part of what makes Quiapo what it is. If there’s anyone who should cherish it first, it should be the people residing there. The essence of the place does not merely lie on its historical sites but also on the people who molded its past and will continually shape its future.
As I have mentioned many times before, the City of Manila is steeped in history and beauty, but at first glance, they are not quite obvious. The city’s social problems can get in the way of people’s perception. But if you are open, curious, even daring enough, walk its streets and you will find the richness and potential of this old city.
Be a part of the restoration of San Sebastian Basilica! Visit its Facebook page for more details.