San Sebastian Basilica: ‘Our problem is more than a photobomber’

Here’s how you can help the iconic cultural heritage site 

Inside the San Sebastian Church (Photo from San Sebastian Conservation and Development Foundation, Inc.)

While some of the heritage buildings in the country are being refurbished and gaining new attention, one of which is the Metropolitan Theater in Manila City, the same cannot be said for San Sebastian Basilica. The historic church launched an online petition last January to stop the construction of a 31-story condominium behind it that, according to the church, poses danger to its site and community.

Faith and design

Built in 1891 by architect Genaro Palacios, the San Sebastian Basilica is among the buildings in the country that present a neo-gothic style. Owned and run by the Order of the Augustinian Recollects, the church is known for being built by a team of mixed nationalities, each adding their own flavor into its design and making it a one of a kind church in the country and the world. 

“Its designer was Spanish, three million pounds of metal were forged in Belgian foundries, foundations were built by a Frenchman, the floors by a Chinese, foreman was British,” say the San Sebastian Conservation and Development Foundation, Inc. “All with the help of Filipino craftsmen and laborers.”

San Sebastian Basilica façade (Photo from @savessbasilica)

While the façade of the towering basilica is a sight to be seen in Recto Ave., Quiapo, what lies inside are marvellous works of art. Its walls bear paintings of statues and saints by Academia de Dibujo and Pintura y Arte, headed by multi-awarded painter Lorenzo Rocha. The church ceiling is decorated by the works of artists Isabelo Tampico and Felix Martinez. Among its key elements that add to its beauty are the stained glass windows manufactured in Germany by Heinri Oidtmann, depicting the life and story of the Messiah.

“Compared to other historic churches, San Sebastian Basilica is also one of the country’s last remaining churches whose interiors have remained authentic, and survived the ravages of earthquakes, war, and heavy-handed restorations that replace the original,” the foundation says.

One of the church's stained glass window (Photo from @savessbasilica)

With its architectural beauty and history, the basilica garnered various recognition. It was declared as a National Historical Landmark in 1973. It was honored as one of the World Monuments Fund’s Watchlist of Cultural Heritage at Risk in 2000 and 2010, and in 2011, it was named a National Cultural Treasure.

Setting its splendor aside, much like other churches, the basilica is a home for many devotees. It houses one of Quiapo’s beloved images, the Our Lady of Mt. Carmel de San Sebastian. It holds a great role during the annual traslacion, where Our Lady meets the Black Nazarene in what is called the “dungaw,” a significant event for the followers of the two images.

A replica of the 400-year-old image of the Our Lady of Mt. Carmel de San Sebastian (Photo from @savessbasilica)

“Kapansin-pansin ang pagbabago sa emosyon ng mga deboto (The change in the devotees’ emotions is noticeable),” Prior Provincial Fr. Dionisio Selma describes the meeting. “Ang iba pa nga ay hindi mapigilan ang kanilang pagluha habang taas-kamay sa kanilang panalangin (Others can’t help but cry as they pray with their hands outstretched).”

Extending its lifespan and legacy

While the basilica has survived major earthquakes since its inauguration, it has been undergoing a restoration process that started in 2011. Among its issues were 300 leaks that corroded many of its areas, creating holes in columns and walls, severe rusts, and paint damages. Having a history of being an all-metal church in Asia, the basilica used to be included in the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization’s (UNESCO) list of World Heritage Sites to consider. But due to its structural decay, it was removed in 2015. 

“An international team of conservators, structural and geological engineers, architects, historians, and fine arts conservations are banding together to study the problems and find solutions to prolong the lifespan of this building while retaining as many original components as practicable,” the foundation says. “Together with its custodians, the Augustinian Recollects, the team is close to completing this assessment and embarking on its emergency repairs. This is the first phase of a comprehensive 10-year restoration program.”

A snap image the basilica'd restoration activities (Photo from @savessbasilica)

But apart from its structural concerns, the basilica is facing an even greater threat as a highrise building is about to be erected at its back. A project of Summithome Realty Corporation, the building dubbed as University Home is said to ruin the chance of putting the basilica back in UNESCO’s tentative list. 

Aiming to put a stop on the new building’s construction, the church and its foundation foundation launched last January the #SaveSanSebastian, an online campaign that calls to support the site's continuous restoration process. Joining the basilica in its digital petition are the Manila Cathedral, Quiapo Church, and the Association of Major Religious Superiors. 

“We collaborated with them to make this larger call for action,” says the Manila Cathedral. “To save this basilica, we need your support for the ongoing restoration and the newer movement opposing the condominium building scheduled for construction behind it.”

More than a “photobomber,” the same term used to describe the Torre de Manila for obstructing the Luneta skyline, the approved building project also poses damages to the community, according to the foundation.

“The foundation focuses on the need to protect the architectural integrity of the basilica and the surrounding homes in the neighborhood—both of which directly affect the lives of the residents,” the church’s foundation says. “Again, it’s the community and their safety that is at the heart of this issue which guide the decisions made by the team alongside the data of our engineers and architects.”

“Our goal for this petition is to raise 400,000 signatures by this August 2021. This is also the year we celebrate the 400th year anniversary of the very first San Sebastian church,” it continues. “The signatures from this general petition will be recorded to show the public there is a community of people who care about the basilica and the neighborhood.”

Help #SaveSanSebastian by signing the petition here. Learn more about the cause at