Manila Cathedral: sad news, good news

The sad news, reminiscent of Black Friday’s woes, is that the Manila Cathedral has been closed due to newly discovered structural deficiencies. But the good news on this happy Easter Sunday is that during a recent private dinner with Manila Archbishop Luis Antonio G. Tagle, former Ambassador to the Vatican Henrietta T. de Villa and me, San Miguel Corp. president Ramon S. Ang graciously agreed to contribute P50 million to lead in saving this veritable center of Catholic worship.

About the closure. A month ago, Archbishop Tagle directed the closure of the cathedral upon the recommendation of the Manila Cathedral-Basilica Foundation (MCBF). The shutdown saddened the Mass-goers and devotees, especially the 200 couples who were scheduled to be married in the historic church this year.

However, the frequent earthquakes in the Philippines and in our region gave the humble shepherd very little choice. He thought it prudent to close it rather than risk the well-being, health and even the lives of the faithful who attend daily Masses, weddings, baptisms and other services.

Perhaps, what will be most especially missed are the cathedral’s annual pipe organ concerts celebrating the feast of the Immaculate Conception every December. Although not as famous as the “Bamboo Organ” of Las Piñas, the cathedral’s giant pipe organ was described by George Miller in his 1912 book, “Interesting Manila,” as the most modern in the Philippines. It has been improved several times since then, the latest in 2006.

Archbishop Tagle’s predecessor, Gaudencio Cardinal Rosales, already suspected the deterioration of the structure. Last year, he asked the MCBF to bring down the huge bells in the cathedral’s tower belfry. With the assistance of the New Golden City Builders and Development Corp. and architect William Coscolluela, the seven big bells on the tower, weighing 17 tons, were taken down and installed in a new garden on the north side of the cathedral.

In their lieu, computerized, top-of-the-line carillon bells made in Holland and donated by Alberto and Sylvia Lina were installed in the belfry tower by the foundation. According to the late Jaime Cardinal Sin, church bells and carillons speak the word of God because when they ring, the people come to the churches to pray and commune with the Lord.

But even these much lighter carillon bells have to be brought down in the meantime. A report of the structural engineering team commissioned by the MCBF showed that the church structure might not be able to withstand a major earthquake.

Headed by Dr. Angel Lazaro III, the team tested the slabs, beams, columns, walls, footings, piles, trusses, domes, parapets, cables and other church structures. After conducting extensive tests, including several 30-meter bore holes, the team determined that soil liquefaction could occur in an earthquake and endanger the church.

About the cathedral. More than mortar and brick, the Manila Cathedral is a symbol of our faith and a monument of our religious heritage. It is the bulwark of Filipino Catholicism and an enduring witness to the strength and depth of our people’s fidelity to our Lord Jesus Christ.

Indeed, from its original construction in 1581, the Manila Cathedral has become not just a church in the capital city but also the temple of faith of the entire country. However, while our faith has grown and strengthened throughout the whole archipelago, the cathedral has fallen to many disasters and natural calamities, like typhoons, earthquakes and fire, not to mention World War II, which practically ravaged it to the ground.

The present structure, with neo-Romanesque Byzantine architecture, was designed by architect Fernando Ocampo and reconstructed after World War II by Archbishop Rufino J. Santos, who became the first Filipino cardinal. The reconstructed cathedral was consecrated on Dec. 7, 1958, under the patronage of our Mother Mary, the Immaculate Conception.

In recognition of the Manila Cathedral’s centricity in the Christian life of our people, Pope John Paul II elevated it into a basilica 30 years ago. Hence, it is now referred to as the “Manila Cathedral-Basilica.”

About the foundation. Today, more than 50 years after its reconstruction, the Manila Cathedral truly needs major renovation, structural strengthening and rehabilitation. To undertake this rebuilding, the Manila Metropolitan Cathedral Basilica Foundation was organized.

The archbishop of Manila is the ex-oficio chair of its board of trustees. Ambassador de Villa is its vice chair; yours truly, president, Inquirer chair Marixi R. Prieto, vice president; Monsignor Nestor C. Cerbo, treasurer and executive director; lawyer Alex Erlito S. Fider, corporate secretary; and Bishop Bernardino C. Cortez, Fr. Domingo G. Asuncion, Fr. Rufino Sescon Jr., Cecile Guidote-Alvarez, Danilo L. Dolor, Cecile J. Oppen and Leticia C. Syquia, board members.

When the cathedral was closed a month ago, neither Archbishop Tagle nor the foundation had the funds to undertake immediately its rehabilitation. But with the heads-up generosity of SMC president Ang, we are now confident that the church can be reopened a year from now.

And beyond that, we know in faith that more of our countrymen would come forward with contributions, big and small, not only to reconstruct the cathedral but also to beautify it consistent with its role and character as the center of worship in the only Catholic country in Asia.

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