When a horrifying 7.2 magnitude earthquake hit Bohol on October 15, 2013, the province’s centuries-old heritage churches collapsed, including one of the oldest and largest in the town of Loon — the Nuestra Señora de la Luz parish or Simbahan ng Birhen sa Kasilak (The Church of Our Lady of Light). It was completely ruined and left in rubble.
Built through stone masonry construction between 1855 to 1864 under the Augustinian Recollect, the church was considered as the “crowning glory” of Recollect architecture in Bohol and one of the grandest churches in the Visayas. Hence, Loon church was declared a National Cultural Treasure by the National Museum of the Philippines (NMP) on Dec 6, 2010. Also in the same year, it was declared a National Landmark by the National Historical Commission of the Philippines (NHL).
After the Spanish colonial structure was totally destroyed, national cultural agencies, including the NMP, were faced with the daunting task to restore the said treasure.
In a documentary video uploaded by NMP on Facebook, NMP’s Director General Jeremy Barns said that to bring back the church from almost nothing is something that has never been done in the country before. But lo and behold, after 8 years of comprehensive planning and grueling execution, the Loon Church was restored to its original form. And on September 7, the eve of the feast of Our Lady of Light (OLL), it was officially turned over by NMP to the Diocese of Tagbilaran.
The reconstructed church of Loon was formally accepted by Most Rev. Alberto S. Uy, D.D., Bishop of the Diocese of Tagbilaran, together with the parish priests Fr. Desiderio R. Magdoza and Fr. Milan Ted Torralba and former parish priests Fr. Joel Ruyeras and Fr. Ruel Tumangday.
Many parishioners and devotees got emotional to see its resurrection. One of them is Reigh Monreal, a patron devotee who lives near the church and witnessed how the view of the facade turned into dust after the disaster.
Reigh grew up as a churchman being an altar boy, choir, and leader of organizations in the parish. And as for someone who lost her mother at a very young age, he found solace from the Birhen of Kasilak. “So when it collapsed, it’s like a big chunk of my life was gone too,” he says.
Currently serving as a municipal cultural officer of Loon, Reigh was also part of the technical working group (TWG), whose role is to accept, reject, and compromise materials and constructions to ensure the restoration was in accord with the original.
The TWG worked closely with NMP’s personnel, including architect Nelson Aquino who shared some of the details to Manila Bulletin Lifestyle about how they successfully completed a seemingly impossible task.
According to Nelson, the Loon project is one of the hardest that they had to make a proposal for. Because of the severe damage, one of the plans is to rebuild only the façade to be the altar of a new church and make the site as evidence of the historical past, a memorial ruins.
Apart from the site being protected by the Republic Act 10066, they considered the intangible attachment of the faithful to come up with the decision to make the full restoration of the grand church, which occupies over 2000 sqm. lot.
The architect explained that the first phase was to clear and recover all the parts. They segregated and organized them from what side they belong to and had an inventory. “Fortunately, the site has a huge space we can use to arrange all the coral stones, figures, moldings, and other parts we can still use,” he said.
“We also preserve the footprint of the walls that are still standing, where we started puzzling over all the pieces,” he continues, adding “We’re also fortunate that there are architectural documentations of the church, mostly from students’ projects, where we based the reconstruction.”
Following the national code for safety, they replaced the rubbles with concrete and included steel frames, beams, footings, and columns for sturdy support, making it earthquake-proof. “We also used some of the original materials for cladding to retain its look. For the missing stones, we just replicate it based on the photos,” Nelson disclosed.
“On the other hand, the tiles of the flooring are all new. But, we are also lucky that Machuca, the tile producer, still has the pattern. For the ceiling we used steel sheets and had the local painter replicate most of the paintings of Rey Francia” he added.
Reigh said that they are satisfied with the outcome, and the locals were so amazed at it that they hardly notice the difference between its original Baroque and Neoclassical design. “We are still in euphoria. At nabuo ulit ang pagkatao ko. Higit sa lahat, masaya kami na may bahay na uli ang aming mahal na Inang Birhen (And my being became whole again. Most importantly, we are so happy that our beloved Virgin Mother has a house again)” intimates Reigh.
Through the collective efforts of both the national and local government units, contractors, and stakeholders, the church stood up again, even stronger than before. “To be entrusted with this project and successfully implement and complete it has been one of the milestones in the 120-year history of the NMP,” beams Jeremy.