Unlike the ancient churches here in Bohol that were mostly built by the Jesuits, using forced labor in some cases, the all steel San Sebastian Church in Manila was fabricated in Belgium and then erected in Quiapo.
The Order of the Agustinian Recollect (OAR) Parishes Manual cited that the San Sebastian church “is the first all-iron church in the world and the first iron edifice in Asia.”
The church has its beginnings in 1621 when Don Bernardino Castillo, a generous patron and a well-known devotee of San Sebastian donated his lot for the church to be built on. The original church, which was made of wood, was burned in 1651 during a Chinese uprising. The succeeding structures were destroyed by fire and an earthquake in 1859, and 1863. They then rebuilt using stone, but it was also destroyed by an earthquake in 1880.
The exasperated parish priest, Fr. Esteban Martinez approached the Spanish Architect Genero Palacios who proposed the novel idea of a steel church. It was approved by the Recollect Provincial Council and Palacios was commissioned to design it. His concept for a Gothic revival structure was approved on June 14, 1883. Hence, San Sebastian Church also became known as the only Gothic church ever built in the Philippines.
In 1886, the Societe Anonyme d’Entreprise de Traveaux Publics of Brussels, Belgium was awarded the contract to undertake the construction of this grandiose design for an all steel church. The steel parts with a total weight of 1,527 tons were manufactured in the Societe Anonyme’s foundry in Binche, Belgium and were shipped to Manila during the steel temple’s fabrication phase.
On June 12, 1888, the ship William Burkitt docked in Manila bringing with it the first shipment of steel parts of the church. And for the next two years, the church was assembled with local artists and craftsmen joining the Belgian engineers in applying the final finishing touches on this magnificent new church made of steel.
The idea of fitting stained glass windows in the design of the Basilica was also conceived by the architect, Genaro Palacios. He thought of it while in Belgium monitoring the progress of the fabrication phase of the church and was introduced to the products of the Henri Oidtmann Company, a German stained glass firm which had won in various international competitions during the 1880’s. This company produced the stained glass windows for Palacios.
Eventually, the all steel San Sebastian church was completed and inaugurated in 1891.
The Augustinian Recollects quietly celebrated the church’s centennial. Perhaps, they consider it a sacred space -- a house of worship -- more so than an architectural gem.
Incidentally, the hearsay that this all-steel church was designed and built by Gustave Eiffel is false.
Another story was that the Recollects were the original owners of the San Miguel beer formula, which they supposedly sold to the Sorianos with a stipulation that they also receive a royalty fee of one centavo for every bottle of beer sold. This I do not know whether true or not. However, the church is a mere walking distance from the original San Miguel brewery compound.
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