Church authorities are often ignorant of the historical value of church contents. Probably not a rare case, Franciscan chronicler Fr. Felix de la Huerta mentions a relicario containing a relic of Santa Ana given ca. 1755 by Gov. Gen. Juan Josė de Obandó to Manila’s Santa Ana church. I inquired about it and was answered with a blank stare.
In a kind of priestly competition, treasures are sold as being old fashioned or dated, to finance a porte-cochere at the church’s main entrance, to paint the nave’s ceiling with clouds, to replace old pews, to modernize. Taste changes and what is out of fashion now will surely be back in favor sooner or later. People practically gave away Art Deco furniture of the 1930s and now their grandchildren save up to buy a piece or two.
The first time I was in Bohol (in the 1970s), there was a bodega upstairs in the Baclayón convent filled with silver candlesticks, sanctuary lamp, altar frontal and other altar decorations, urnas, large chests, ivory-headed santos, liturgical vessels, etc. evidently brought out for special occasions and accumulated over the centuries. The room was bare the next time I was there—a later parish priest reportedly got rid of them supposedly to finance church renovation.
Horror stories are recounted by Antonio “Tony” Martino in a paper he read at a 1999 Convention of Church Heritage Workers:
An antiques agent was in Carcar, Cebu when he saw the priest busy feeding a bonfire with old pews and “rags” that were actually old gold thread embroidered chasubles. He offered to buy them and the priest gladly gave them to him.
The antique collector arrived too late at a Bulacan church. Old santos, documents, and “rags” had been torched the day before.
Old church documents were stored downstairs in Bohol’s Loboc convent. They were soaked by a flood and were thrown away. Genealogists looking for church baptismal, marriage and death records often hear stories about leaking roofs, fire, and termites.
Many churches are casual about security and thieves easily do their work. Certain groups were known to specialize in churches. Martino continues, “Much of the losses sustained by churches is due to thefts but a greater toll can be attributed to the priests either directly or indirectly. Indirectly … [through] neglect which in turn makes the artifacts vulnerable to damage, destruction, and loss. Directly because many priests take it upon themselves to dispose of said artifacts… purportedly for some parish project or other, but often to bankroll some private necessity.”
He cites a parish priest of Boljoon, Cebu who needed to support a family and another of Majayjay, Laguna who had a gambling habit.
In the old days, there was a formal turnover of church contents itemized in a detailed inventory whenever a parish priest left and a new one took over. The rule may still be in the books but is evidently implemented loosely, thereby concealing losses and clandestine disposals.
Missing items are frequently untraceable in the absence of photographs, measurements, and other identifying marks. I am told, for example, that the ivory head of the patroness of Dauis, Bohol, stolen in the 1970s, could be the one that was lent by a collector to a museum exhibit a couple of years ago. The owner tells me he bought it long after it disappeared but he is willing to return it with solid proof of its being the lost image. Regretfully, no one has a recognizable picture of the lost head.
Regalado “Ricky” Jose has designed an inventory form for church valuables. Supported with detailed professional photographs, there would be enough information handy to identify stolen objects and be a basis for recovery.
Interpol maintains the Stolen Works of Art Database with descriptions and pictures of some 50,000 objects, including paintings, sculpture, jewelry, furniture, objets d’art. The database has helped recover numerous missing valuables. A comparable database could be established by an appropriate national agency, possibly the National Bureau of Investigation, thereby enabling owners to disseminate information and recover their losses and dealers and collectors to validate the legitimacy of objects offered to them. This will be a big help in preserving an important part of our tangible heritage.
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