Tuesday, January 6, 2009

The old is new again (part 2): Restoring a grande dame

If you were/are a student in Manila or anywhere in Southern Tagalog, then you've probably been to our church during one of your field trips. If not, then you should come visit anyway. The Basilica of St. Martin de Tours in Taal, Batangas is the biggest catholic church in Asia. Not only is it massive, it's also turning out to be a beauty as well. It wasn't always that way.

I spent my childhood going to mass in this huge cavern of grayness, staring at its bare, unpainted plywood ceiling. At that time, our parish priest was Bishop Salvador Quizon, perhaps the only parish priest known by at least two generations of Taaleños. His tenure started around the time of Vatican II, and it was characterized by a dignified austerity. Monsignor Quizon was beloved by everybody, including myself, but I have to admit that during his time, I would look at the Basilica and think, this place deserves to look more beautiful than it is. When I was in high school, the walls were painted in pastel colors. Inappropriate, I thought, but it made the interiors look bigger, not like the catacombs of years past. Additional chandeliers were also added. Still, they weren't enough.

Not when there are old pictures to prove that the Basilica was truly a jewel once. For starters, there was the ceiling. Old folks have told me that the ceiling used to have elaborate paintings in them, not unlike those in the magnificent chapels and cathedrals in Europe. Indeed, if you've visited the Basilica before, you would have noticed that the ceiling of the altar was elaborately painted (in gray and white) with Biblical figures and European-style motifs. The ceiling of the altar dome is the only part that has survived of the original. It's a pity. It will probably take years and millions of pesos to try to bring back the ceiling to its former glory.

The good news is that restoration of the interiors has started (if indeed it is still ongoing hopefully). I'm not saying that the dear bishop should be blamed--probably just a coincidence--but things really started rolling after he retired in the '90s. And when Cardinal Ratzinger was made Pope a few years ago, then things really started changing.

First, there was the matter of the chapel that serves as repository for the Blessed Sacrament. It became controversial when conservationists protested that the structure planned to be erected in the churchyard will not jibe with the place. I'm all for conservation, but looking at the chapel now, it looks, well...nice! With matching white statues of the Holy Family and St. Martin of Tours near the entrance. I thought everything was tastefully done. Of course, instead of open space, there's this chapel now squatting there, but who's complaining? When I was a student, I used to cut grass in that churchyard. I can just hear students now high-fiving each other because there's one less chore to do.

Inside the church, the most obvious restoration work was done at the main altar. The railing that used to separate the public area and the elevated altar has been reinstalled (the last time it was used, I believe, was in the 60s). The walls are now adorned with elaborate floral patterns, though I'm not sure if they were the original designs, but as they are, they look good. Above the altar and below the cupola from which the main chandelier hangs, the corners have been painted with the images of saints.

Elsewhere around the church, the baptismal area has been similarly restored (when it used to be a mess), the crucifix near the exit has been relocated near the chapel entrance, and the hallway (that used to be the garage) that leads to the chapel has now been opened to the public as direct access to the chapel from outside the Basilica compound.

I'm not sure how extensive the restoration will be, but of course there are still so many things that need to be done, like the original belfry, and if possible, the ceilings.

Not to mention the other things that many people do not know about, like, was there really a tunnel that used to lead from the church to the mansion of Felipe Agoncillo half a kilometer away? Was there really a tunnel that used to lead from the Basilica to the Caysasay chapel a kilometer or so away downhill? I swear if nobody will clear up these long-standing rumors (that have teased the imagination of generations of Taaleños), then this restoration thing will always feel incomplete!

It's not just the church that has changed. I've noticed that in the past few years, there has been a noticeable change in the way ceremonies are held. For example, during the time of Monsignor Quizon, reading the Gospels meant the priest going to the lectern, reading from the Bible, giving his homily, then going back straight to the main table. Simple. Finito. Now, the priest is assisted by something like six people, three to hold candles, and the priest reads the Gospels in a billow of incense smoke. (Before, incense would be used only during really special occasions). I'm not sure if I like this return to elaborate, medieval-style ceremonies. What's next, masses in Latin?

Restoration or no restoration, the Basilica's flock remain faithful and continue to fill the enormous church to capacity every Sunday, especially on religious holidays when it's almost impossible to stake your claim to personal space inside the church. The Basilica remains the grande dame of Batangas. Sitting on top of a hill, it can be seen from surrounding towns. It was erected by the Spanish, not just to announce their arrival and to humble the "Indios" to submission, but also to serve as a lookout point for pirates and other enemies.

The Basilica has dominated the life of my hometown for generations. How can it not? It's this massive thing that's bigger than most malls. I live a minute away from it. We see it from our window. When the clock strikes 6pm, we hear its bell signaling the Angelus. We hear prayers and songs emanating from its speakers every morning. Local politicians jostle for space in its first few pews every Sunday during misa mayor. Bishops come to have mass in it. People from far away visit it regularly, even the Chinese. Celebrity weddings take place in it, mass weddings, baptisms, all the major religious what-have-yous. The church is still the heart and nerve center of this relatively well-preserved Spanish town. It has always been, ever since this town was founded hundreds of years ago.

The town, however, is under threat. Like in many other so-called "heritage towns" in the country, there's always the threat from creeping modernity. I heard there's a plan to build an SM mall in the next town. Does that mean more vehicular traffic? More noise? More toxic fumes from tricycles? God forbid the construction of a fast food joint within the boundaries of my hometown.

But more than any mall or any amount of carbon that can deteriorate antique buildings, possibly the biggest threat to a town like ours is simple apathy towards the care for what is old. I would like to think that Taaleños, having grown up surrounded by all these old, beautiful architecture, would not be heartless enough to let old houses and buildings deteriorate without a fight. But I may be wrong. In the last ten years, many old houses have been torn down, replaced by new structures done "in the style of" the old, but just managed to look cheap. Just last month, I was shocked to find out that the old cinema has been torn down, when just a year ago I saw it still standing (albeit closed for many years already). That cinema used to be a vaudeville theater before the war. I spent a good part of my childhood in that theater, watching double-features. My aunt used to run an authentic panciteria in front of it, complete with back-to-back-style benches and a jukebox by the entrance. Now everything is gone. The public market was restored. Yes, it's easier to find what you're looking for there now, but where are the massive iron gates that used to usher in shoppers? Where's the turn-of-the-century fountain that few from my generation remember?

This problem is compounded by the fact that the generations at the forefront of preserving the town are rapidly graying and decreasing in ranks, with no assurance of "replenishment." Like in most provincial towns in the Philippines, young Taaleños (specifically those who grew up in the poblacion) opt to study, work and live elsewhere in the country (myself included), or in many cases, take their whole families and migrate to America. The ones who are left behind are either out-of-towners who grew up at the outskirts of the heritage town, therefore may not be counted on to help preserve it as they did not really grow up in the place. Or those who did grow up in Taal, but may not care enough about things outside their personal and professional spheres. Or those, many would argue (typically towards provincianos), who were just not fortunate enough or are not bright enough, and simply just "did not make it," and are therefore not expected to care about such lofty things as "heritage" and "preservation." I hope these are not true and would like to be proven wrong.

My greatest fear for our town is that future generations of Taaleños will have nothing to preserve since everything has already been altered or destroyed, not a single thing to evoke even the faintest hint of nostalgia.

(Click any image to see more photos)
(Click any image to see more photos)


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