A crying shame – Bambi Harper’s article on Argao

The now gilded altar of Argao Church. Almost 3 centuries of old beauty erased in an instance

Below is the article of Bambi Harper in the Philippine Daily Inquirer. I posted this one since the original link at the old inq7.net website is no longer accessible and I feel that this is an important article about the cultural desecration of the church in Argao.

Sense and Sensibility : A crying shame

First posted 00:40am (Mla time) Aug 06, 2005
By Bambi Harper
Inquirer News Service

Editor’s Note: Published on page A13 of the August 6, 2005 issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer

The beautiful baroque church of Argao built in the 18th century. CLICK TO ENLARGE

IF the real meaning of heritage is inheritance — that which past generations have handed down to us as stewards of the country’s collective memory — then like the foolish servant in the Bible parable, we have chosen to fritter it away. This is not to say that as a nation we don’t have problems other than patrimonial destruction that threaten to overwhelm us in their magnitude. A cursory glance at any newspaper makes it clear that what ails us isn’t going away any time soon or that our troubles can be cured with Band-Aid. If it would do any good, we could wonder how much we are to blame for these problems-whether economic or social-and if they aren’t of our own making. But then I don’t know that we’re really given to much introspection or accepting our share of responsibility. (These days the opposition isn’t zeroing in on blaming the Spanish or the Americans but trying to make us believe that one person is responsible for all our ills as though they had no hand in it despite many of them having been in government a donkey’s years.)

Close up of one part of the main retablo. CLICK TO ENLARGE.

Having said that, let me tell you a horror story that threatens to be worse than all the crimes against heritage I’ve run across (no, not as evil as demolishing the Jai-Alai building but close or claiming you’re God’s gift to preservation while obliterating Manila’s historic spaces). Over the years to our grief, we’ve encountered the destruction of a peoples’ patrimony due to greed, ignorance, political expediency, indifference and many times arrogance. This is a continuation of the sorry tale of our country and the senseless erasure of decades of history in the now woeful town of Argao in Cebu province.

The present church of Argao, whose first titular saint was Michael the Archangel, dates from around the beginning of the 19th century. It may have been the second or third to be constructed since the parish was founded in 1733. When I first saw it more than 30 years ago, it was a sleepy little pueblo by the sea although I learned later that antique dealers from Manila had already been there and the stunning ivory statue of St. Michael had long been gone.

Original side altar that escaped the paint job. CLICK TO ENLARGE

Romantically, there were cobwebs and dust everywhere but they didn’t obscure the baroque carving of the pews (since taken to the Cebu Cathedral, I hear) or the richly painted ceiling or the beautifully ornamented “retablos” that not even the apparent neglect could hide. Since the Filipino has lost so much of both his natural and man-made heritage, it was awesome to find a jewel like this one. In the intervening years, I would make an effort to travel to Argao whenever I was in Cebu to admire the gorgeous carvings and images. Some five years ago, they were still intact.

Last year, I began to hear whispers about the destruction of the images by a parish priest for reasons best known to himself (God knows what he told his bishop or whether he even bothered). Perhaps he saw the movie “Goldfinger” and imagined himself to be a latter-day Midas. Whatever insanity possessed him compelled him to go to the nearest hardware store, buy several gallons of gold paint and slather all the statues on the main altar. Perhaps he thought this was the way gold leaf was applied in the old days. During the Revolution, the donors from the town probably would have strung him up from the nearest tree and left him to the vultures.

Closer view of side altar. CLICK TO ENLARGE

The saddest part, it seems to me, is that we have so little left of this heritage. We like to say Bangkok has this or Bali has that and poor us, what do we have? Well, we had Argao, for one, but obviously it has been totally, thoroughly and terminally wasted on us.

Not satisfied with his grand feat of vandalism, Father Montecillo went off to continue the destruction of the town’s heritage. In the cemetery, he had the carved main arch of the gate demolished to make way for his own design because it is said he wanted to enlarge the space. You think perhaps these people do this on purpose or are they just stupid?

Having been a member of the Committee on Monuments and Sites of the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA) for more years than I care to remember, we had already zeroed in on parish priests as part of the problem in the efforts to conserve this country’s heritage. Ever since the NCCA was formed in the late 1980s, we kept trying to send lecturers on preservation to the seminaries. For years, we couldn’t even get an appointment with the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines. Our reasoning was that the value of patrimony and cultural identity had to be explained to the seminarians and the responsibility of their stewardship emphasized.

Remaining part of cemetery entrance arch. CLICK TO ENLARGE

More than a dozen years later, I don’t think the committee has succeeded in getting a toehold on the door of a seminary. Consequently, the Church has produced priests like Montecillo who hasn’t a clue about aesthetics or history and the concept of stewardship. Try to imagine what went through his brain that he dared put his mark on images that didn’t belong to him and erase more than 100 years of history.

If I were younger, perhaps I might have felt anger at such arrogance but what I feel now is regret. I’m sorry for us. I’m sorry that we don’t have the leaders who care enough or are enlightened enough, whether in the Church or in government. I’m sorry that our egos overwhelm us and we can’t seem to see beyond our noses. Here is a country where so much has already been destroyed and here was a treasure that had been preserved all these many years, only to be destroyed by some idiot.

Photos are mine


  1. Gi taga an ra ni Msgr. Montecillo ug negosyo iyang kaila nga tig gold leaf at the expense of the main altar. Pait ka au, pagkanindot gud baya sa mga mata sa mga anghel And Cardinal Vidal did not do anything to stop it.

  2. if the msgr. really wanted to accommodate a friend’s business interest, then he could have applied all the gold on the choir loft and spared the main altar

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