San Sebastian Basilica in Manila: the iron church

Its columns and walls are made of iron. The temple seeks help to undertake a thorough restoration that protects the metal from moisture and rust. The 400th anniversary of the arrival of Our Lady of Mount Carmel to the Philippines has been celebrated this year

Everything is absolutely made of steel. This is the Minor Basilica of San Sebastian, in Manila (Philippines). Its history, its devotion to the Our Lady of Mount Carmel that presides over the church and its particularity has made it one of the most important temples of the Order of Augustinian Recollects in the country. It is the only steel church in the Philippines, probably also in Asia and, according to researchers, it may be the first metal-built church in history.

Currently, the Basilica of San Sebastian is part of the national heritage of the Philippines. “He is an icon of the Filipino faith.” This is what the parish priest of the temple, the Augustinian Recollect Antonio Zabala, values. “We are proud as Recoletos that this construction belongs to us,” he says.

In 1880, the previous temple that was built on the same ground was destroyed. Public institutions closed the building to the cult – or what was left of it. The possibility was then suggested that it be constructed of metal.

“At that time steel was already being used in the railway, on trains, in public markets, but it had barely been used in the Church,” explains Rene Paglinawan, prior of the community of Augustinian Recollects in the parish.

What began as a suggestion, the Augustinian Recollect friars liked it approved that the new church that was built on the demolished should be made of metal.

Why a metal church?

The Augustinian Recollects decided to undertake the challenge of building a steel church with the aim of combating three problems. The first of them, the earthquakes that make the Philippine country tremble assiduously.

Likewise, a metal church would avoid fire, which are so common in the Philippines. Finally, because in this way the termites were prevented from eating the structures and collapsing the building again.

The architect of the great and ‘iron’ temple was Genaro Palacios. However, according to historians, Gustave Eiffel – who had previously built the famous ‘Eiffel Tower’ in Paris or the Statue of Liberty in New York. The official catalogs of Eiffel refer to a possible design and export of a church in Manila in 1875, thirteen years before the construction of the church of San Sebastian began. If this were true, this would not exclude the possibility that Eiffel had designed the metal structure of the church.

The threat of rust and the urgent restoration

The main problem of the Basilica of San Sebastian is in its conservation. “Rust has been a problem that is deteriorating the original steel structure,” says the parish priest of San Sebastian. For this, the Order of Augustinian Recollects is carrying out a restoration program for ten years to recover the splendor of the basilica.

“It is here that the Filipinos come together, and unite with one faith to work together, to make sure that this church is well preserved for the future generation of Catholics,” says Antonio Zabala.

The Virgin of Mount Carmel: Filipino devotion

Our Lady of Mount Carmel is for many Filipinos the main cause for which they go to the Basilica. Inside, the Augustinian Recollects preserve the first image of the Virgin that arrived in the Philippines. “It was a gift from the Carmelite nuns of Mexico to the Recollects,” says Rene Paglinawan. It was the first sanctuary of Our Lady of Mount Carmel.

This year, the Basilica of San Sebastian celebrates the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the devotional image to the Philippines. Coming from Mexico, he came to the islands in 1618.