Deep within the hot, noisy, grimy centre of Manila, in the district of Quiapo, stands one of the most remarkable nineteenth-century churches anywhere. It’s not a place that many tourists reach, though it’s not far from Manila’s old walled town, Intramuros.
The Basílica Menor de San Sebastián, or San Sebastian Church in English, is fabricated entirely of steel: its exterior is unmistakably metallic because, painted white, it looks like a cardboard wedding cake; the interior is a scholarly and innovative essay in pure Gothic Revival, designed by a Spanish architect, Genaro Palacios, then the director of public works in Manila, and fabricated by a Belgian company, the Societe anonyme des Enterprises de Travaux Publiques, which sent over fifty tons of castings to be erected by local labour.
San Sebastian Church was intended as a permanent replacement for the last of a succession of earlier churches, the first in timber, the others in brick, that had succumbed to fire or earthquake since 1651. Its priest, Esteban Martínez, was a member of the Order of the Augustinian Recollects, a contemplative order that had played a major part in evangelising the Philippine islands from the seventeenth century onwards. He was determined that the new church should be fire-resistant and earthquake-proof.
Before construction began it was designated as a Minor Basilica by Pope Leo XIII and it was completed, from first column to consecration, within a year in 1890-1.
Inside, the steel looks like stone, most of the surfaces painted gloomy grey with faded images of saints. The proportions are authentically European Gothic: indeed, the only real giveaway is that the piers are square in section with rounded corners. The transepts don’t protrude from the aisles, and the crossing between the transepts is lit by a vaulted octagonal tower very like Ely Cathedral.
The interior is light and airy because there are plenty of stained-glass windows, and the great steel doors at the west end and each transept are left open, so the nave chandeliers sway gently in the breeze. As often in Catholic countries, a constant stream of people came in to pray and go again.
There’s no evidence, and indeed little likelihood, that Gustave Eiffel was involved in its design. Perhaps his name has attached to the building by association, like the Martinique buildings of Pierre-Henri Picq (1833-1911) – or the numerous late-seventeenth century English buildings that were once hopefully ascribed to Inigo Jones.
As an island of calm in the bustle of the city, it is a welcoming place.