The story of the Manila Cathedral is not only a story of the Church, it is also a story of Intramuros, a story of Manila, a story of the Philippines. Manila Cathedral is a time narrative; it is about ruins and ravages, rising and restorations.”—www.manilacathedral.org/History
The Manila Metropolitan Cathedral Basilica, or Manila Cathedral, is one of the oldest and most famous churches in Asia. With a storied history and legacy that spans over four centuries, the structure has seen the best and worst of time and humanity, among them fierce battles and defining triumphs, heart wrenching tragedies and poignant celebrations.
To preserve the glory of the Manila Cathedral, leaders of the Philippine church embarked on major renovations and restorations that lasted two lengthy years, temporarily closing its doors for religious rites.
On April 9, the Manila archdiocese finally celebrated the re-opening of the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception—now more beautiful than ever—with a liturgical mass officiated by Manila Archibishop Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle.
An investigation begins
It was in February 2012 that Cardinal Tagle officially closed the Manila Cathedral to give way to the painstaking renovation and restoration of the Neo-Romanesque church. It marked the first major decision of the highest priest in the country after he was installed in December 2011.
Unknown to the general public, the plan to improve the Manila Cathedral began with Tagle’s predecessor, Manila Archbishop Emeritus Gaudencio Cardinal Rosales.
In an exclusive interview with The Sunday Times Magazine, Henrietta de Villa, the vice chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Manila Metropolitan Cathedral Basilica Foundation (MMCBF), revealed that the huge undertaking dates back to the mid-2000s.
“From 2004 to 2005, a series of earthquakes hit the country and the world. Because of this, Cardinal Gaudencio Rosales worried about the integrity of the church’s structure,” de Villa said.
De Villa further explained that the structure had already been five decades old in those years after being rebuilt for the eighth time from the ground up.
“Age was also a factor that was considered,” she added.
The situation prompted Cardinal Rosales to quickly identify individuals who could capably handle an investigation on the condition of the Manila Cathedral, which led to the establishment of the MMCBF.
“He activated a foundation that will look into the soundness of the church. And when we [MMCBF] were finally registered with the Securities and Exchange Commission in 2008, his first directive was for us to begin an investigation,” the MMCBF pioneer told The Sunday Times Magazine.
To accomplish its first task, the foundation tapped the help of Angel Lazaro & Associates Inc. (ALAI), an architectural and engineering firm, which performed a thorough study on the structural state of the church. But by the time the company completed its research, Cardinal Rosales had also retired as Archbishop of Manila.
Despite this, the work was not lost because as Archbishop Emeritus, Tagle passed on the responsibility to his successor, Cardinal Tagle, who immediately continued the important project.
In his homily on Wednesday, Cardinal Tagle recalled, “When I took the seat of the Archbishop of Manila, one of the first decisions I had to make was to close my own church.”
Similarly, de Villa shared, “When Cardinal Rosales gave the findings to Cardinal Tagle, he acted on them right away. Tagle decided to close down the cathedral, because we needed to carry out excavations, and we couldn’t have done them if the church remained open.”
The excavations comprised the most major repairs on the cathedral since the ALAI investigation revealed soil liquefaction under the structure due to the seeping of groundwater into the church flooring.
Work in progress
The Manila Cathedral is considered the Mother Church in the Philippines since it is the only minor basilica to be decreed by the late Pope John Paul 2nd after he visited the country in April 1981. It also serves as the seat of the nation’s highest prelate.
With the Manila Cathedral’s significance, and its responsibility to serve thousands of parishioners in Manila City, The Sunday Times Magazine asked de Villa why it took so long to finish renovation.
She explained that the ALAI recommended the reconstruction of the structure’s foundation by retrofitting with carbon, which is not an easy task. Moreover, de Villa likened it “a house infested with termites.”
“Once the work began, we saw all the other defects. The cracks were not just in the walls and ceilings, but also in the altars, the arches and the pillars. There was also discoloration in many parts especially the marble [because of the seeping water],” she enumerated. “So while we were retrofitting, we also restored the defects as well. It was a work in progress.”
Other works included the cleaning up of mosaics, re-polishing of metal wares, and repairs on the seat of the archbishop. The baldachin where the image of the Immaculate Conception, the cathedral’s patroness, is placed has also been illuminated.
“She is [now]shining,” de Villa exclaimed.
Take note that the restoration did not just involve improving the overall look of the cathedral but also “modernizing” the church.
De Villa explained, “All the wirings were replaced, as well as the lighting. LED is now being used so we can save energy. Even the sound system was changed since it’s very important for people to [clearly]hear the Word of God. All of these are now digitally operated because we also need to move with modern times.”
She added, “These were small works that were very meticulous and lengthy so that it took two years to complete most of it.”
A discussion before the Eucharistic celebration on Wednesday summed up the whole process into three stages namely, “engineering, system enhancement and architectural repair.”
However, de Villa also told The Sunday Times Magazine that there were remaining works yet to be completed such as replacing the carillon bells and the air-conditioning system. There is also a need to fix the cracks on the ceiling but fortunately this can be done without affecting church services.
According to Cardinal Tagle, the reopening of the Manila Cathedral was done in time for the Holy Week, which begins today, Palm Sunday, and ends on April 20, Easter Sunday.
For everyone involved in the project, a huge part of the renovation’s success was due to the donors—from big corporations to ordinary individuals—who whole-heartedly and generously contributed to the restoration fund.
Cardinal Tagle thanked and blessed everyone in his homily.
“How do we reconstruct a church? What does it take to strengthen and renew a church?,” Cardinal Tagle began. “There are two things. First is the generosity of the people . . . The second is expertise coupled with real dedication. The generosity, dedication [and]expertise fueled by faith and love of God [are the reasons behind the successful reconstruction of the cathedral].”
Meanwhile, MMCBF president and former Chief Justice Artemio Panganiban, who gave a speech at the reopening rites, named and thanked the restoration’s two biggest donors namely San Miguel Corp. headed by its president Ramon Ang, and the Metrobank group led by George and Mary Ty.
He also thanked the Lina Group of Atty. Joey Lina, which is sponsoring the new carillon bells to be imported from The Netherlands. Lastly, the Cardinal thanked DM Consunji Inc., the renowned construction company, who had given a sizeable percentage of its services for free.
De Villa, for her part, acknowledged the parishioners for their help. “Pero ang mas nakakatuwa [but what was more touching]was that even the small Filipinos, the parishioners, also donated [to the fund]. It is indeed, the project of the people of God,” she said.
She further revealed that a new donor pledged a generous amount on the day of the opening in the person of TV and movie celebrity Kris Aquino.
She said, “During the opening, Kris pledged to donate five percent of the P30 million that would be needed for the air-conditioning.”
The actress and host attended Wednesday’s mass with her brother, President Benigno Aquino 3rd and other sisters.
Asked how much in total was spent to bring the Manila Cathedral to its present state, de Villa answered, “In the beginning, we estimated only P50 million. But as of now, I can safely say that we have spent over P100 million.”
This figure, she noted, still excludes the budget needed for unfinished repairs.
Over the last four centuries, the Manila Cathedral has been crushed to the ground by wars and earthquakes a total of seven times. But by the grace of God, the church continues to rise from the ashes.
“This is the church that refuses to be buried. It rises,” described Cardinal Tagle.
With this, the Cardinal called on the Filipinos who have suffered last year’s Zamboanga standoff in Mindanao, and 7.8-magnitude earthquake and Super Typhoon Yolanda in Visayas, to be inspired by the Manila Cathedral.
“Naniniwala ako na kung paano ang Manila Cathedral gumuho, nasira at tumayo [ganoon din]ang bayang Pilipino, kaya ring tumayo [I believe that the Filipino nation, in the same way that the Manila Cathedral has been crushed and destroyed, can rise again].”
He added, “This is not just a building but a living symbol of the community, of faith for centuries . . . As we strengthen a place of worship, we should learn how to truly worship.”
The prelate also called for Filipinos to commit themselves to the true God and ignore false gods like money and lust. He explained that people who aim for power sacrifices the lives of many and even their own family, while those who are driven by physical desires harm women and children.
“Let us radiate the beauty of the church by the beauty of true worship,” the Cardinal concluded.