This post was originally my final project for the News Gathering and Reporting course of my Diploma in Photojournalism at the Konrad Adenauer Asian Center for Journalism at the Ateneo de Manila University.
Last March 28, at 1 AM, a fire broke out in the room of the parish priest in the “kumbento” or parish house of the 178 year old church of Oslob, a southern municipality in Cebu and three hours ride from Cebu City. Of the two firetrucks available in the town, one was broken and the other cannot start that the townsfolk has to push it near the church. However, despite their efforts, the fire raged on. It was only contained when firemen from the neighboring towns of Argao and Santander came in to help. After eight hours, the “kumbento” burned down. Faulty wiring was suspected as the cause of the fire. The roof of the church crashed with only the galvanized iron sheets, blackened and crumpled, remained. Every wooden part: the pews, doors and ceiling, were consumed. It is now an empty shell with its belfry and cut coral stone walls left standing. Miraculously, the town’s icon and patroness, the Immaculate Concepcion, an antique wooden relief said to have been brought from Mexico during the Spanish colonial era and located at the central niche of the “retablo” at the presbytery was spared. Just like what happened during the second fire in 1955 that gutted the same church.
“I was so devastated since the church became a part and parcel of my life. As if everything crashed on me when that incident happened,” said Ryan Cabanlit, a 36 year old architect and landscape designer who was born and raised in Oslob but now based in Cebu City. “Everything that I used to feel proud of this building, the fond memories that I had are now on ground zero. Nothing remained, but walls that stood still,” he continued.
For Trizer Mansueto, 30, a full bloodied Cebuano historian and curator for research and documentation of the Cathedral Museum of Cebu, it was disbelief on his part when the news of the fire was first conveyed to him by a reporter of Cebu Daily News. For one who stood in awe the first time he gazed on the church and admired the tisa-roofed (tiled) “kumbento,” one of a handful still existing in the province, was deeply sad on what happened.
“I was shocked because the Inmaculada Concepcion church in Oslob is one of the most beautiful that I have seen in Cebu,” said Arnold Carl Sancover, 26 years old, a registered nurse and member and volunteer of the Committee on Archives of the Cebu Archdiocesan Commission for the Cultural Heritage of the Church.
The church foundations were first laid on May 4, 1830 by Fr. Julian Bermejo, the dynamic Augustinian priest of Boljoon, a town north of Oslob. The design was based on plans done by Bishop Santos Gomez Marañon. Finished 18 years later, it has undergone additions and restorations across the years. According to Pedro Galende, OSA, in his book, “Angels in Stone,” the church was first gutted by fire, though a minor one, in 1942 when guerillas burned it and another bigger one that entirely consumed the interior, in 1955. The church’s design, done in neoclassic style, is one of a kind compared to the other colonial era churches in the province built by the Augustinians.
Three months after the fire, plans are afoot to rebuild and restore the church back to its former self. But it would not be cheap. According to Architect Melva Rodriguez-Java in her lecture last June 21 regarding the findings of experts who checked the stability of the foundations and walls, restoration is possible but will cost from P25,000 – P30,000 per square meter or P30 million. Daunting it might be, Arnold Carl thinks that the church will rise again as “a lot of stakeholders have their eyes on this and are following developments closely.”
This recent disaster brought to light conservation efforts and awareness in the province. For Ryan, he laments that it is still a long way. “It’s just mere awareness. Cebu is very rich in heritage but little is done to inform how important these structures are to us, to the whole nation.” Arnold Carl also thinks that there is a need to educate the people about the value of heritage especially the stakeholders. According to Trizer who is in the forefront of heritage advocacy, admits that it is still in its infancy but added that the event was an eye opener for Cebuanos. He considers the Oslob experience as something that should not be taken at a negative light. He noted that a few days later, parish pastoral councils called for meetings to address various issues regarding safety and security of their heritage churches. “Cebuanos are catching up. Some are now beginning to realize the value of heritage. I believe, it is gaining strength and this certainly is something to be happy with.”