What? A national convention of church heretics?” I could almost imagine my friend jumping from her seat as I explained to her over the phone where I was. Blame it on the winds battering Samar as typhoon Bebeng swept by. We are back here in Tacloban on our last day now of the four-day 7th Biennial National Convention of Church Cultural Heritage Practitioners.
And far from being heretics, nearly 200 Catholic bishops, priests, nuns and lay heritage workers have been busy tackling the problems and issues confronting the Catholic Church in terms of the tangible and intangible legacies of its long and multifaceted history in the Philippines. Akin to a pilgrimage, the convention has been moving from place to place in Leyte and Samar doubling as a cerebral gathering and a visual feast at the same time.
The opening was held in Tacloban where Fr. Brian Brigoli’s discussion on the recent renovation of the Cebu Metropolitan Cathedral was among the highlights. The following day, the delegates moved to the Cathedral of Palo where everyone was awed by the magnificently regilded grand Baroque altar retablo, closed off for now from the public as the Cathedral is undergoing renovation. This is the same cathedral where Cebu’s Archbishop Jose Palma came from before assuming the leadership of the church in Cebu. (I could not help but overhear most of the delegates commenting that the Jesus Christ on the retablo seemed quite robust as be mistaken for Santa Claus!)
At Palo, we were enthralled by architect Mico Manalo’s discussion of the Intramuros version of the hugely successful Escuela Taller that the Spanish government created in the 1990s to train artisans to restore many of its churches destroyed during the Spanish civil war of the 1930s. Escuela Taller is both a school and a workshop where young people, aged 16 to 25, learn skills in restoring heritage structures. Workshops on wood carving, stone masonry carving as well as other hands-on trainings have been carried out since 2009 in Intramuros by a team from the Philippines as well as from Mexico.
The Archdiocese of Palo installed an exhibition at the Cathedral sacristy for the occasion and showcased the unique practice of the “Penitentes” during Holy Week, where men don Ku Klux Klan-like hoods and robes in red, blue or white, as a form of penance, following the Spanish tradition in Sevilla. The evening was also highlighted by the Flores de Mayo procession unique to the area where a huge cross fashioned out of bamboo and covered with colored cellophane containing lighted candles. It was quite a sight to behold with the candles burning brightly while “caged” inside the cellophane covered interior of the cross.
Our third day was spent yesterday in the progressive town of Guiuan, where its church joined Boljoon among the list of National Cultural Treasures (NCTs) of the Philippines. On our way, we stopped by Basey Church with its beautiful ceiling paintings and fortress walls and then at Balangiga Church to listen briefly to its painful but heroic role in the Waray fight against American aggression during the Philippine-American War of 1899-1901.
It was my second time to be in Guiuan, the first one was in 1993 to observe and write about the coastal resource management projects on Calicoan and Manicani islands for a book. This time, the church was the main reason why I was there and like the rest of the delegates, it did not fail to enthrall and amaze me. Guiuan Church is the only one in the country with not one but three altar retablos, one at the center, two each at a recessed portion of the nave near the chancel. The wooden retablo dates to the 1700s and is clearly Baroque inspired, in a church that is cruciform with its arms containing side altars that are interesting because of the shells appliqués on its walls forming different patterns. These triple retablos and the shells are unique to Guiuan and made for a very interesting visit.
Today we are back in Tacloban for the closing ceremonies. All told, I can say with utmost confidence that the church heritage workers of Cebu are never behind in blazing trails in heritage work. In fact, all of the practices discussed or planned during the convention have already been done or about to be carried out by the Cebu Archdiocesan Commission for the Cultural Heritage of the Church. My congratulations then even as I eagerly look forward to the next biennial gathering.