A Basilica Named Baste


After a storied past, the San Sebastian Basilica is given another lease on life, revived by the interplay of heritage conservation and community-driven tourism.‍

Photography by
Story by
Miguel Nacianceno
Read Time
Location Tag
No items found.

The architecture of old churches have a grandeur to them that evokes a quiet sense of awe. Step through the wrought iron doorway of the Basilica Minore de San Sebastian in Quiapo and you enter a house of God so beautifully made, you’d think divine intervention must have taken part in its design. 

But every Quiapense calls the San Sebastian Basilica “Baste,” spoken with familiarity more than reverence. This affection was born out of how the church has been a pillar of the community for generations–the collective memory of countless Quiapense baptisms, weddings, and masses–for so long that it was time for their turn to take care of Baste.

Fourth Time’s the Charm

The story of San Sebastian could belong in the bible, a history made visible on its worn facade. Where the church stands along Pasaje del Carmen Street, its original predecessor had been built in 1621 by the Augustinian Recollect, the custodians of the church until today. But earthquakes had reduced it to rubble, as did the two succeeding iterations of the church. In 1881, Spanish engineer Genaro Palacios—then Director of Public Works of the colonial government in the Philippines—recommended the Recolectos friars to build with steel instead of stone. Structural steel of seismic design would survive what masonry could not. For their fourth try, the friars went with his novel approach.

What has made Baste can also be its undoing: Most of San Sebastian is original, a case of enforced preservation because of the metal construction. 

It was Palacios who helmed the project. He designed the all-steel Gothic Revival church, coordinated with the Recolectos of Manila and Madrid, bid the project to European firms, and sourced the materials. It took a decade and six countries to raise the church: A marriage of devotion and craftsmanship, made of Belgian steel, French foundations, German stained glass, Chinese flooring, and Filipino murals. 

All the while, Palacios had been in Catalonia during the construction. With a trial mount in Belgium to make sure everything fitted together, the church had been prefabricated and shipped to Manila in over 1500 tons of steel parts. (Yet there is no documentation that Palacios had revisited Manila to see for himself his Obra Maestra.)

The Patina of Time

San Sebastian was inaugurated in 1891; it was the first Philippine church to be declared a Minor Basilica by the Vatican. At the time, the all-metal structure was unique in all of Asia, preceding its contemporary in Istanbul by seven years. In 1973, the San Sebastian Basilica was designated as a National Historical Landmark and given the distinction of National Cultural Treasure in 2011.

As an architectural triumph, there are layers to the church’s significance. Architect Gerard Lico, a professor at the College of Architecture at the University of the Philippines Diliman and a specialist in heritage conservation, remarked on the technologically-advanced design for its period. The all-metal structure has withstood the earthquakes and fires that periodically razed Manila throughout its history; this includes ten major earthquakes with a magnitude above seven on the Richter scale. Made of plate steel, its walls and columns are hollow. This allows the structure to be lighter and soar higher in its neogothic design, towering over other colonial-era churches in the country that were built in a squat form because of earthquakes.

When you visit the basilica, the metal is not as pronounced as you might think. Every inch of the San Sebastian interior was painted: walls were made to look like marble, ceilings in a faux fashion of jasper, and at the dome, trompe l’oeil paintings of religious imagery and saints. These were done by Lorenzo Rocha and his students at the Academia de Dibujo y Pintura, the country’s first art school, most known for its students Juan Luna and Felix Resurreccion Hidalgo. Coupled with the German-painted stained glass depicting the mysteries of the rosary, it creates an unexpected depth and warmth to the basilica.

But what has made Baste can also be its undoing. While it has held up well for so long, eventually, over a century has caught up to San Sebastian. Most of San Sebastian is original. Not many historic structures can say the same. Especially those of masonry construction, interiors can easily be repaired and, in some cases, reworked until it departs from the original design. But the basilica is a case of enforced preservation because of the metal construction. 

Conservation balances both heritage and contemporary values. Just as much as structures are warped by time, so do the ways people occupy these spaces.

As explained by Architect Cesar Ramirez, Cultural Heritage Resource Associates Inc. (CHRA) Vice-President and the project architect for the restoration of the San Sebastian Basilica, heritage conservation is an even more delicate process with metalwork–painstakingly so with incomplete historical documentation and thus, limited knowledge of the original structure and interiors. Compared to masonry, the country lacks skilled metalworkers in conservation. Replacing a panel could mean losing a trompe l’oeil. It could take as long as three years to repair an entire column, needing to cut through steel cladding that has been welded together for over a century. 

Structural integrity has been compromised by ground movements from the construction of high-rise developments in the area, as well as inadequate repairs that have proved detrimental to the building. But above all, corrosion is the most terminal. Baste is under threat by over 300 leaks, which have corroded many areas–creating holes in columns and walls, severe rust that flakes off the paint, and causing over forty kilos of steel to fall. In our tropical country, the increasing torrential rains and saline air of Manila have only exacerbated its decline. 

To be loved is to be changed

The CHRA started its restoration efforts in 2016 as contracted by the San Sebastian Basilica Conservation and Development Foundation, Inc. (SSBCDFI). Initially, the conservation team proposed to close the church for a year because of safety risks, but amended to accommodate the foundation and the parishioners. 

“The goal of conservation is to retain the significance of the structure, the use of the building. What is the point if it is not used?” said Ramirez.  San Sebastian was rebuilt over and over so the people could go to mass, the architect understood that the basilica could not be taken away even for the sake of restoration.  “Had we gone with the plan to close the church, it would defeat the purpose of Baste.”

By the end of 2020, the conservation team compromised by closing off the altar, and a temporary one was built in time for Simbang Gabi. Flexibility is part of the dynamics of heritage conservation: one cannot only listen to what a building needs, but its stakeholders too. 

Conservation strikes a balance between heritage values and contemporary needs. Just as much as structures are warped by time, so do the ways people occupy these spaces. Another practical concern was to mitigate the all-metal church heating up during the summer. For the comfort of parishioners, the conservation team integrated passive and mechanical cooling methods by reinstating the original vents around the clerestory to facilitate the egress of warm air.  

Scaffolding stands where the original altar is, tall enough to reach the dome as its rose windows undergo repairs. The first phase of the ten-year restoration project of the SSBCDFI is the stained glass replacements made by Kraut, the same German-Filipino family business from Quiapo that replaced a window of the basilica after the Battle of Manila in 1945. The funding for the windows has been raised by donations and the basilica tours by Bukas Quiapo. With every hundred pesos raised, a square inch of a 8,458 square inches stained glass window is saved, and so far, an entire window has been fully restored. 

Bukas Quiapo is a community-driven initiative of heritage tourism, co-created by the SSBCDFI and Fundación Santiago. It started in 2018 with Annabel Hatol, a Quiapense parishioner and their first-ever tour guide. For Hatol, tourism plays a role in connecting the community to their local heritage and in raising awareness of Quiapo’s need for protection. 

While the Quiapo Church most famously houses the revered Black Nazarene, Baste is also home to the first Carmelite image, Nuestra Señora del Carmen, enshrined in 1621. Every January 9, millions take part in the long-held tradition of the Translacion: where the Black Nazarene is taken from the Quirino Grandstand to the Quiapo Church. The procession passes by San Sebastian Basilica, as the Our Lady of Mt. Carmel is brought out to meet the suffering Christ. This ceremony is called Dungaw: For a few moments in the twelve-hour procession, the sea of bodies reaching to touch the miraculous image is still and silent as the mother and child meet.

Hatol aspires Quiapo to be a destination for pilgrimages, “Bakit ka pa punta sa malayo. Mula sa Quiapo Church ka magdadasal, lalakad ka lang, madadaan mo na yung Holy Face of Jesus, and pagkatapos, yung San Sebastian. Dalawang basilica, dalawang devotion as isang lugar. Saan ka maghahanap ng 2-in-1 na pwede din mamili at mag food trip sa isang lugar?”

To make heritage conservation sustainable, “the community needs to develop a sense of ownership of its heritage sites in order for these to be better integrated into the evolving fabric of the city,” says Lico. Hatol is living testament of this: In spite of not being Quiapense by birth, Quiapo is where she raised her family and where she has chosen to live for 35 years and counting. She is as much an extension of Quiapo. In her tours, every visitor is imparted with the ins and outs of the community, learning to love Quiapo the way a local does.

Perhaps divine intervention took part in its design, but every Quiapense calls the San Sebastian, “Baste,” spoken with familiarity more than reverence.

From their heritage tours of the heart of Manila, Bukas Quiapo allows locals and visitors to relate to these structures and contribute to conservation. The continuous use of a space gives people a sense of pride and nostalgia to maintain their built heritage: Each with their own interpretation of what the basilica signifies in the present, another layer of meaning is imbued until Baste is made anew.

Editor’s Note: This story was originally published as “Sanctified Wonder” in the 2022 print issue of Made in Manila, commissioned by the Department of Trade, Culture, and Arts of Manila (DTCAM) for the City of Manila. Edits were made for the GRID website.

  • Reviving the Heart of Manila

    At its prime, Quiapo was home to the most affluent families of Manila and the nouveau riche. In the mid-19th century, Spanish colonial mansions adorned the streets of F.R. Hidalgo and Ariston Bautista. Meanwhile, the theaters, parks, and flea markets of Old Downtown Manila catered to a spectrum of social classes. Then there is the revered Black Nazarene that has spawned a culture of devotion like no other in the country. While great bargains and devotees still remain, most of Quiapo has been lost to gentrification post-WWII. House Bill 3750 (or The Quiapo Heritage Zone Act) authored by Congressman Joel Chua, Third District of Manila Representative, hopes to save what history is left. If the bill is passed, the immediate environs of Quiapo Church, Plaza Miranda, San Sebastian Church, and Plaza del Carmen will be declared a National Heritage Zone for the restoration of their infrastructure, preservation of culture, and the rehabilitation of the community as a whole. This includes organizing the street vendors, restoring the surrounding ancestral homes, and beautifying Calle Hidalgo which connects the Quiapo Church to San Sebastian. Other Philippine heritage zones have found success in the cities of Vigan, Iloilo, and Angeles. The Quiapo Heritage Zone Act was filed in August 2022, and the first committee hearing of House Bill 3750 in October was met with widespread approval by Congress. In hopes of the Quiapo Heritage Zone as a starting point, many expressed wishes to save the heritage sites all over Manila.

Others Also Read these

Home Is a Bowl of Warm Soup

Home Is a Bowl of Warm Soup

A photographer returns home to Sulu after 13 years, and rediscovers the heritage of his people through food.

Stories From the Rink

Stories From the Rink

In a tropical country, a group of players and fans spend after hours in a mall, making the case for ice hockey.

The Houses They Left Behind

The Houses They Left Behind

On the eastern side of Oriental Mindoro sits Pola: a small, coastal town full of ancestral homes that no one's paid attention to—except the residents who want to keep the town alive.


Watch & Listen:

At GRID, we have always believed that the pretty destinations are secondary to the various reasons we travel. In Issue 10, we honor the people who have enabled us to experience the Philippines in different and better ways with a series of short films

Changing The Way We Travel

At GRID, we have always believed that the pretty destinations are secondary to the various reasons we travel. In Issue 10, we honor the people who have enabled us to experience the Philippines in different and better ways with a series of short films
Watch >>Listen >>
There's something about Sorsogon. This land of plenty has always been in the shadow of Albay, and even its own town, Donsol, which has exploded in popularity for its whale sharks.

Sorsogon: Design By Nature

There's something about Sorsogon. This land of plenty has always been in the shadow of Albay, and even its own town, Donsol, which has exploded in popularity for its whale sharks.
Watch >>Listen >>

Related Products:

Volume 3 | GRID Expedition 2

Volume 3 | GRID Expedition 2

PHP 500 

We tackle the idea of getting lost, and dive into the country's marine protected areas in our second GRID Expedition.