When we first heard that new coats of paint were applied to the rusting San Sebastian Church, we went to see it for ourselves. As we saw our country’s all-steel church last Sunday, it is as good as new.
When it was first completed in 1891, the pre-fabricated all-steel church of San Sebastian was the talk of Asia. It was an engineering marvel that showcased the latest in building technology at the dawning of the age of steel.
Yet, while new buildings in Europe and America at that time were designed to glorify men, the San Sebastian Church was built to glorify God. The structure was described in church documents to be “a sanctuary for the sacred statue of the Nuestra Señora del Carmen” which was brought to the Philippines from Mexico in 1618.
Although Gothic in design, the church appears to be less ornate than it might have been when executed in stone. There are neither flying buttresses nor gargoyles. In fact, some exterior sections looks more like exterior sections of a ship.
To counter the monotony of steel, the finely-proportioned halls of San Sebastian are painted to look like marble –from the columns, walls, ceilings to the trim, scrollwork and ribbing. The main altar and pulpit are made of wood and trimmed with gold leaf. Equally impressive are the huge fonts that hold holy water for the ritual benediction.
The stained glass windows commissioned from Germany are finely crafted and well maintained has remained expressive and original through the years.
As San Sebastian Church remains the only steel church in Asia and probably the only large steel church in the world its survival is still the main point.
The architect Don Genaro Palacios meant for the steel church to be permanent as a solution to the frequent earthquakes that destroyed the first three churches. The building was engineered to rock like a boat rather than crumble during a tremor. San Sebastian was unscathed by the Spanish-American War and spared from damage during World War II. It also has survived the onslaught of countless earthquakes and typhoons.
Today the increasing humidity brought by the changing climate that may speed up the rusting of steel is responsibly responded by applying new coats of paint to this one-of-a-kind structure that stands only in the Philippines.