Manila: The San Sebastian Basilica

I have always wanted to go to the Minor Basilica of San Sebastian in Quiapo ever since I found out that it is the only all-steel church in the country. This being the Philippines, I was used to churches being squat and made of stone. I had, of course, seen the spires of San Sebastian rising up from the Sta. Cruz area, though I had never ventured inside until now.

Shot Through the Heart

Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian by Il Sodoma

Saint Sebastian is thought to have come from either southern France or Milan and is believed to have been martyred during the Christian persecution during the time of the Roman emperor Diocletian.

He is often depicted as tied to a tree or post and shot through with arrows, which he survived. He was rescued by St. Irene of Rome. After he was healed, he returned to tell Diocletian to repent, and was clubbed to death.

In Medieval times, he was thought to protect people against the plague. Today, he is the patron saint of soldiers, archers, athletes, and of the provinces of Tarlac and Bacolod.

Steel Bells

The Basilica Menor de San Sebastian sits on land that was donated to the Church in 1621. The Basilica is actually its fifth iteration, the original and succeeding structures being destroyed by fire or earthquakes in 1651, 1859, 1863, and 1880 respectively.

The last disaster led San Sebastian’s parish priest, Esteban Martinez, to approach architect Genaro Palacios, about building a structure that could withstand storms, earthquakes, and fire. The current San Sebastian Basilica is a fusion of Neo-Gothic and Earthquake Baroque, and is said to have been inspired by the Burgos Cathedral in Spain.

A steel rivet used in the church’s construction. No nails were uses to build the church.

The church is constructed from prefabricated steel from Belgium, which were first assembled in Belgium (to make sure everything fit properly) then shipped to the Philippines whee it was reassembled by Belgian engineers (because they were the ones who practice-assembled them in Belgium). The bottom was made to resemble a ship’s hull so that the structure would sway during an earthquake.

The stained glass windows were made by a old company in Germany who specialised in the art. The church was supposed to come with a similarly prefabricated altar, but it was lost at sea, so was replaced by a locally made wooden one.

Use Your Illusion

The church interiors are a triumph in tromp l’oeil, an art technique where a painting is made to look three dimensional. Walk inside and you forget that the church is made of metal. Its posts look like wooden pillars holding up a ceiling painted to look like an open sky populated with the heavenly host. This artistic illusion was the work of local artisans, which is an indication of the level of craftsmanship the Philippines had, even back then.

The biggest rumor surrounding the church is that it was designed by Gustave Eiffel, the same guy behind the Eiffel Tower in Paris. This is false. Eiffel may have been involved with supplying the steel for the San Ignacio church in Intramuros, but not the San Sebastian.

Keeping It Metal

We were taken on a tour by Ysabel de Dios, Tour Program Head of the San Sebastian Basilica Conservation and Development Foundation. A church this old needs a lot of upkeep, especially since a lot of the materials and craftsmanship are highly specialised and/or need to be sourced from abroad. The biggest enemy of steel is rust, which is slowly taking over much of the church.

The church needs to be properly conserved to stop things like this from happening.

Much of the church’s history was explained in the main hall, with a side trip to the bell tower, which was once the highest point in the area.

Aside from being a house of worship and a gathering place for the community, the legacy of the Basilica of San Sebastian is an important part of the story of Quiapo, and of Philippine history.

I’m glad to have been able to finally visit this fine building and to hear about how it came to be. I hope that it keeps standing, a steel sentinel watching over its area of Quiapo, withstanding anything nature throws its way.


San Sebastian Basilica Conservation and Development Foundation


Yvette Natalie U. Tan is a multi-awarded author of horror fiction and the Agriculture section editor of Manila Bulletin.