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Everywhere there are structures from the past that speak to us of our collective identity, which have so much to share about the lessons of history. What to do to save them?

I. Start with Yourself
Interestingly, you should begin by asking yourself why are you fixing your church? Are you really concerned about preserving your heritage? Or do you just want to change things for the sake of change or to raise funds? You must approach heritage work without a blown-up Ego! You must be careful that your heritage project is NOT just for your won self-promotion. Heritage work is about Humility.
We must first accept that No one is an absolute expert on the past. When you are restoring something from memory please remember that your recollection could be wrong. Consult others in your community. Consult experts. Discuss. Keep the decision process transparent. Reach a consensus whenever possible. If you’re not sure what to do, don’t touch anything that isn’t about to collapse. Get help.

II. Respecting the Past
Ask yourself if what you’re fixing is really broken. It just might be faded or run-down. Remember: If it’s not broken don’t fix it. We must learn to respect the past. Old structures are like diaries. They are records of our history allowing us to take part in the on-going story of our community. Old walls with bullet holes can be left alone because they remind us that our grandparents may have fought a war and died to save our town. There are bullet holes for example, in the walls at the back of Pulilan Church in Bulacan. Think twice before repainting something that has achieved a lovely patina after many centuries. Old paint has a quiet faded beauty that is impossible to duplicate even with a lot of money.
Only fix something if it threatens to destroy the integrity of the structure in the long run. Often, it is important to change and replace as little as possible. If part of an old tiled roof is leaking then simply fix or replace the leaking section (with old-style tiles if possible). Remember, heritage structures do not belong to you alone. You share it with many others in the past, present, and future. It’s better to make your mark as someone who respected the labors of your ancestors.

III. How to Start the Documentation

A. Know what you have.
Photograph the structures you might be working with as they are today. Photograph as much as you can, paying attention to details. You may need to consult your documentation later on. Inventory what you have and keep your inventory in an organized logbook or filing system. Make more than one copy so you have a back-up set. This way, it will be harder to steal your church’s things if the thieves know you have the documentation and photographs to track them down. Due to proper documentation, the church of Baclayon was able to track down the stolen statue of San Blas. The thieves had brought it to an antique dealer. He very graciously returned the statue he had already paid for when he learned that it was stolen. He flew all the way to Bohol to personally turn over the piece to a rejoicing church community. Sadly, the statue was stolen again.

Document everything, not just precious objects. Even old vestments, old jars, old books are all part of your church’s history, your community history. Remember that it’s not just the material, tangible things you can touch which form our heritage. The intangibles, the music, the prayers, the rituals, the stories are all part of heritage and must also be documented. All the precious objects in the church would mean nothing if the spiritual dimension of prayers and rituals were absent.

B. Research/Consult/Discuss
Interview the old people about the church. This will make them very happy and will remind everyone that old people are vital resources for a community. Record their memories. Ask people for their old photos of the church. Remember that in old photos of baptisms and weddings, parts of the church can be seen in the background. Look up books and documents in Archives like that of the Archdiocese of Manila which has records on most of the old towns of the Philippines. You might even find old plans of your church. Don’t forget souvenir programmes, fiesta, brochures, school year books and even old diaries! Part of your research and documentation is to make a good site plan of your church. Remember to consider your church in the context of the whole town. What are the related structures? Is there a cemetery chapel? Was your church a site of pilgrimage for the region? Where did the original materials come from? When and how did they get to your church? All of these can make for an interesting story. Discuss your ideas with other people and with local and national experts. Check if there is a heritage commission in your diocese.

C. Plan
Make a master plan of your restoration project. Are you just fixing a leaking roof? Or is your activity part of a larger project? Get others involved. Network with similarly-minded people. Ask experts to help you plan. See your activity as part of a longer-range program. If you fix this leak today, will there be other leaks in the future? Is it just the ceiling that is affected by the leak? Work out your vision together with your community. Visualize your next moves.

IV. Considering Options
Consider your options carefully. Many church retablos were changed because of certain fads. But fads come and go. Tastes change. Do you want to be stuck with yesterday’s trendy look? And what do you do if your old retablos have already been thrown away and you’ve grown tired of the new ones.

Here are some specific concerns:

A. Bells
Some old bells have cracks. There’s no need to melt these bells down to create new ones. Cracks in bells are part of history. This is why the crack in the United State’s Liberty Bell was never fixed. A bell in Tumauini church in Cagayan, for example, has bullet holes. Bells have special designs and shapes which can tell many stories. They may contain dates as well as names of parish priest and bellcasters. Some bells like those of Balangiga were stolen as war souvenirs by the Americans.

B. Belltowers
One church in Batangas decided to rebuild their own bell tower based on pictures. Unfortunately, the original proportions were not followed, and today, everyone agrees that the rebuilt tower is a great eyesore. What a waste of money that could have been used in other parts of the church! Worse, the rebuilt tower is so heavy that it threatens to cause the church’s collapse! Some architects and engineers will claim to be experts in restoration. Be careful. Remember that the materials and techniques of the past are not the same as today. Be sure that whoever you contract knows what she or he is doing.
Sometimes it is better not to rebuild the tower whose destruction and absence is an irreversible fact of history. In the town of Morong, Rizal, a new bell tower was built. So as not to ruin the beauty of the church’s famous facade, the new tower was built at the back.

C. Baptismal Chapels
Many Baptisms are no longer carried out in the old Baptismal chapels. Often, these chapels are converted into Perpetual Adoration Chapels. Perpetual Adoration is a worthwhile movement. But old baptismal chapels are not the best places for such a devotion. For one thing, baptistries were not meant to hold people for long periods. The usual solution taken is to install air-conditioning systems and carpeting at great cost. But this goes against the way the old churches were designed (thick walls, small windows). The air conditioning system and carpets trap dust and moisture creating more problems including lingering odors! A good solution is to build a new and separate Perpetual Adoration chapel discretely at the back just as in the church of Calaca in Batangas. There is a symbolic reason why baptistries were near the entrance of the church. Baptism was meant to welcome new Christians into the Body of Christ hence it made sense that it be performed near the door. Imagine being able to baptize your children and your grandchildren at the very spot, at the very same font as your ancestors. Sadly, some perpetual adoration chapels are often empty resulting in the thefts of precious chalices and other church properties.

D. Palitada
It is wrong to remove the lime palitada to expose the old stones or bricks of churches. This does not make them look more “authentic.” This can destroy the church. The palitada protects the walls from moisture. When it is removed, the bricks or stones will crumble. Often the palitada had beautiful carvings and decorations, too. Some even bear the markings and names of masons who worked on the church. Some of the old church decor was meant to be viewed against a background of neutral white palitada. Exposing the brickwork beneath can create a very busy effect which distracts one from prayer and contemplation. Please remember that there are different kinds of palitada. Coral stone commonly used in the Visayas is less fragile than bricks. Cagayan Valley bricks are sturdier than their Ilocos counterparts. So palitada layers in the Visayas and the Cagayan tend to be thinner than in Luzon. Know thy palitada and know thyself! Lime palitada is better than cement because cement is quite heavy and may overburden the structure. Do check however if your lime is from an environmentally-acceptable source.

E. Roofs and Ceilings
If the roof trusses and beams of your church are damaged especially by termites, try not to replace everything in one blow. Large logs that are the right size for ceiling beams are now impossible to find. Be careful about changing the pitch of the roof. Church’s roofs were built at a certain pitch for precise reason which had to do with the amount of rain that they had to deflect. For that matter, most of the features of traditional structures had a purpose. Do not just change things without understanding their original function.
Some parishes want to restore their dilapidated ceiling paintings. Always remember though that, unless you have precise records of what your ceiling paintings used to look, it is difficult to reconstruct ceiling decor just from old photographs. It is also very expensive and probably not worth the cost. Remember that it is cheaper to maintain a plain ceiling than one with elaborate designs. Rather than create a new design for the ceiling, it would be best just to make sure that the original patches of ceiling paintings that remain do not fall off. This will give you a sense of the glory of the original. An example of this approach can be seen in the cemetery chapel of Nagcarlan, Laguna as restored by the National Historical Institute.

F. Windows
There is a fad to add horrible resin windows to churches that cannot afford stained glass. There is no need to do this. Resin windows have awful acidic colors, which do not match the church interiors. Resin is made of plastic and is not environmentally safe. It also becomes brittle with age and is easily broken. It is a mistake to replace old capiz windows with resin ones. The beauty of capiz windows is that they can be replaced one shell at a time and are therefore easy on the budget. They also admit a soft luminous light that is unique to our country as well as conducive to meditation.
G. Church Museums
There is a trend to set up small museums on the church premises. This is a good idea especially if the exhibits are well done and well labeled. Consider, however, that many of the objects usually placed on display such as statues of saints were meant to be objects of prayer and veneration. By putting them in museums, we are actually pulling them out of their original context. Also please be sure that your museum is well-secured and that we are not just making things easier for thieves by putting all the church’s holdings conveniently in one place.

V. The Church of the Poor

The church has made it very clear that it is the Church of the Poor. As such it stresses simplicity. Often, renovation projects are quite extravagant. It can be cheaper to restore things with a lighter touch that allows the beauty of centuries of faith and fervor to shine through. Remember that not every church was meant to be ornate or spectacular. That not every church has to be the “largest” or the “oldest.” Do not change things just because things has to be elaborate. Some churches are beautiful simply because they are simple and sparse. Often, the most important ways to help your church cost nothing, except some small practical ways: keeping the church clean; keeping bodegas and closets orderly so that they do not become fire hazards and breeding places for vermin; checking that the back of the church does not become a garbage dump or a urinal. Yes, the most effective preservation projects need not cost money.

Related Links:

The article on demolition of Avenue theater/ deterioration of Avenida Rizal (posted June 13, 2006)

Save the Avenue Theatre and Hotel! (posted May 23, 2006)

Philippine “Then and Now” Photos (photo comparisons of “Philippines at the turn of the century to present-day Philippines):

Heritage Watch – collection of photos, articles, forum discussion on “endangered” heritage sites:

Intramuros thread: a “then and now” tour of Intramuros and attached photos with annotations from Nick Joaquin’s “Sa Loob Ng Maynila”:

*Some People and Agencies You can Consult About Heritage

National Commission for Culture and the Arts
633 General Luna St., Intramuros, Manila

Tel. no.: 527-2192 local 505

National Historical Institute
2nd Floor, National Library Building

T.M. Kalaw St., Ermita, Manila
Tel. no.: 523-0905

College of Architecture

University of the Philippines
Diliman, Quezon City
Tel. no.: 920-5301

Bambie Harper
Heritage Columnist

Adriatico St., Malate, Manila
Tel. no.: 819-5401

Regalado Trota-Jose
Heritage Advocate


Augusto Villalon
A. Villalon Associates Architects

107 Wilson Circle, San Juan City
Tel. no.: 724-1654
Fax: 722-5745

Arch. Clarissa Avendaño
University of Sto. Tomas Museum, España, Manila

Tel. no.: 740-9718

Reprinted from “Araw,” a publication of The National Commission for Culture and the Arts, 2001, issue no.3
About the Author:
Regalado Trota Jose specializes in research and writing on historic Philippine church art. Apart from studying Anthropology and Philippine studies at the University of the Philippines, he also learned about about churches and culture while concertizing for 9 years with the UP Madrigal Singers. For his work on art history, Jose was named one of the 100 Centennial Artists by the Cultural Center of the Philippines in 1999.