‘Church of steel’ repair enters next phase

‘Church of steel’ repair enters next phase
Interior of San Sebastian Church. CBCPNews

Work is underway on the second phase of a roughly P300 million renovation project launched five years ago for the country’s iconic and only all-steel church.

The extensive restoration of the Basilica Menor de San Sebastian, more known as San Sebastian Church, includes excavation to repair the structure specifically the damaged columns.

Experts from the San Sebastian Basilica Conservation and Development Foundations, Inc., said the safety of churchgoers is a paramount concern before moving on to other structural issues.

“These problems are unseen and not perceptible to the general public since these are below the ground,” said Samantha Pacardo, project manager of the foundation.

Started in 2012, the process may take a 10-year restoration in at least three phases: diagnostic, design and construction.

The first phase revealed many shocking conditions: the church has over 300 leaks, large holes in critical areas, and pools of water in its columns causing rusts and weakening the structure.

“Fortunately, structural engineers calculate that despite the significant corrosion, its original strength override current weaknesses, for now,” Pacardo said.

During this phase, according to her, the team also conducted many emergency repairs.

The corrosion is also flaking the church’s interior paintings and warping the stained glass windows.

“The leak has affected the structural elements of the church, and has affected other parts of the building, including the art and stained-glass windows,” she added.

Now on its design phase, the technical team has been designing “unique solutions” to all the damages in the church, particularly structural and architectural repairs.

As of January this year, the team has identified and repaired the five most damaged columns with metal plates that were partially eaten away by corrosion and contained up to 2 meters of water.

The team also hired a corrosion and paint specialist to implement the designs and repairs.

However, much work still needs to be done to 132 other columns, original wall paintings, and stained glass windows.

“Each of these require their own unique repairs which have to go through a similar process of designing and international peer review before implementation,” Pacardo said.

Pacardo said she is appealing to the community to help in the preservation of the country’s “Church of steel” designed by Gustave Eiffel, a French engineer behind the Eiffel Tower.

“As Catholics, we should help each other to restore our church,” she said. “Not only that it’s a church but it’s also a work of art.”

“At the same time, for us Catholics this is one way of expressing our faith that it’s as strong as steel,” Pacardo also said.

Under the care of the Order of the Augustinian Recollects (OAR), the San Sebastian Church is the Philippines’ oldest basilica.

It is also the location of the first shrine to the Our Lady of Mount Carmel, housing its first image since 1617.

Since the said year, the OAR stewarded four San Sebastian masonry churches, which were destroyed by earthquakes or fire, and subsequently rebuilt.

Following an earthquake in 1880 that the destroyed another church, the Augustinians designed and built an earthquake-resistant structure made of steel.

Since its inauguration in 1891, the building has become an example of the revival of Gothic structure in the Philippines.

To date, it remains the only all-steel church in Asia and the only prefabricated steel church in the world.

The restoration project is being funded by grants from the United States Department of State through the Ambassador’s Fund for Cultural Preservation, the National Commission for the Culture and the Arts, and the US-based heritage preservation group Bakas Pilipinas. With reports from Maria Katreena Saguid and Aizha Anne Asiwagan/CBCPNews