All-Steel San Sebastian Church

Right at the heart of Paris stands the Eiffel Tower. This colossal steel-structure was named after its maker –Alexander Gustave Eiffel. He is same genius who designed the steel frame of the Statue of Liberty.

Standing majestically on Plaza Del Carmen surrounded by rows of old houses in Quiapo is a structure having connections with this world famous artist-engineer.

The prefabricated steel parts were manufactured in the Societe Anonime des Enterprises de Travaux Publiques in Brussels, Belgium and were delivered to Manila using six ships. For two years, the church was assembled like Lego™.

Local artists and craftsmen joined the Belgian firm in applying the finishing touches on the new church. The interior of the church resembles that of gothic churches in Europe. Although it is Gothic in design, the church is less extravagant than it might have been had it been built on stone. There are no flying buttresses or gargoyles.  

Trompe l’oeil painting was used to decorate the church’s interior and the crossed vaults on the ceiling, along with walls and column were painted to resemble marble and jasper. European-made decorative iron mouldings were also used.

Figures of saints, most of them painted directly of the iron walls are uniformly high quality. The work was done by Filipino artist Lorenzo Rocha and his students.

The only pieces that are made of wood are the exquisitely carved confessionals, the highly ornate pulpit and altars. These were designed by Filipino artist Lorenzo Guerrero. Eulogio Garcia carved the statues of holy men and women. The stained glass windows were imported from Henri Oidtmann Company of Germany.

For years, many have declared that the church was designed by monsieur Eiffel himself, however there were no known document (building permit?) that supports that claim. A Chinese-American, I.M. Pei visited the Philippines in the late 70’s confirmed after inspecting the church that the metal works and the overall structure were no less designed by Gustave Eiffel.

Ambeth Ocampo discovered information in Europe proving that Eiffel’s steel engineering firm’s participation in the building of church. However, the discovery of Ocampo did not say that Eiffel was the architect of the San Sebastian Church. Thus, the closes connection of Eiffel with San Sebastian Church could be his ideas behind the innovative use of steel that was incorporated to the building of the church and that he was working as a structural engineer for the Belgian firm where the metal parts of the church was manufactured. 

During our walking tour of the San Miguel district, Ivan Dy showed us a marker located at the aisle near the main entrance of church. The marker is in honor of church’s architect –Genaro Palacios.

Although unscathed from World War II (it was used by the Japanese as an observation post) and it has survived countless of earthquakes and typhoons, the main disadvantage of steel is rust. With the humidity and frequent rains in Manila, the church needs to be repainted every five years with several layers of paint.

Ivan Dy shared that San Sebastian was once listed under the World Monument’s Fund list of 100 most endangered structures. For some unknown reason, the church did not accept the grant of $25,000 and whole thing was return to the agency.

Rust can be seen on the exterior of the Church giving an impression that the San Sebastian Church is rusting away. Ivan narrated, that every year, the caretakers of the church deal with rust by chipping away paint and rust so that it doesn’t spread. With needed manpower and other related expenses, surely it is costly to keep an all-steel church in good shape. The grant could have been used for the upkeep of the church.

National Historical Institute states that, The Church of San Sebastian is a declared National Historical Landmark per Presidential Decree No. 260.  State funding was accorded to the church through the National Historical Institute which undertook restoration of the church since 1982.  The Recollect community has likewise expended funds for the church’s maintenance and restoration.

The San Sebastian Church may not have the same Eiffel-fame that both the Eiffel Tower and Statue of Liberty have. But it’s good to know that such one-of-a-kind structure stands only in the Philippines of which only the Filipino can proudly say Atin ito!

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7 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. After intensive researches , i can tell you that Gustave Eiffel had nothing to do with San Sebastian church . UIs is a pure legend! But Eiffel fabricated in 1875 the steel structures for San Ignacio church in Intramuros , Manila , which was destroyed in 1945 by the japanese troups

  2. “Ivan Dy shared that San Sebastian was once listed under the World Monument’s Fund list of 100 most endangered structures. For some unknown reason, the church did not accept the grant of $25,000 and whole thing was return to the agency.”

    Likewise……!!!

    “National Historical Institute states that, The Church of San Sebastian is a declared National Historical Landmark per Presidential Decree No. 260. State funding was accorded to the church through the National Historical Institute which undertook restoration of the church since 1982. The Recollect community has likewise expended funds for the church’s maintenance and restoration.”

    It’s interesting to know why??? Are they expecting divine intervention to refurbish the rusting church? Since it’s been long enough and publicly declared as a “heritage site” why not use their freaken heads and set the hypocrisy aside for the sake of this magnificent work of engineering!!! If they have any other reasons well it’s not helping for crying out loud………

  3. I have a question. Where did you get the information on the people behind certain parts of the Basilica? (e.g. stained-glass windows, paintaings, etc.) I am doing a case study on San Sebastian for my History and Heritage class. Thank you!

    • You can get in touch with Ivan Dy of Old Manila Walks Frances. We got all the information about San Sebastian Church from him during our tour of San Miguel.

  4. Well, until now when I asked people about the San Sebastian Church they would always refer to Mr. Eiffel as its architect.

    Nothing’s wrong with that (I think). It’s just that for someone who takes the trouble of knowing the details and facts, that information is of value. Also, I think it’s only fair that we give the credit to Mr. Genaro Palacios and the other designers for their efforts in building this church.

    Thanks to Ivan Dy’s old manila walks for sharing this truth about San Sebastian Church to us.

    I’m glad you think my blog is informative. Thank you.

  5. Mr. Ambeth Ocampo didn’t proof anything. It’s clearly a hoax.
    Anyway I am happy you pointed this out.

    By the way, a very informative blog. I hope you will continue. There are so many unknown buildings and places in Manila which deserves an in depth description. Keep up the good work.

    I will link you to my blog next week.

    • “It’s clearly a hoax.”

      And you used the word “clearly” confidently. Very well then — prove to all of us that it is CLEARLY a hoax.


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