San Sebastian Church, Manila

San Sebastian Church is the only all-steel church in Asia and the only prefabricated steel church in the world. Located on a quieter side of Quiapo, the church site was first established in the 1600s, but earlier buildings were destroyed in a series of fires and earthquakes. The current one dates back to 1891 and features a Gothic Revival architecture style – quite distinct from other churches in Manila.


Its mint green facade, coupled with twin spires, is an instant eye catcher. It was said to have been inspired by the Gothic Burgos Cathedral in Spain. 

I guess people were tired of having the church razed, so the new one was made to be fire-proof and earthquake-proof as much as possible. 52 tonnes of prefabricated steel sections were made in Belgium and shipped to the Philippines, while the stained glass was imported from Germany with local artisans putting on the finishing touches. All in all, this magnificent structure is the perfect example of European engineering married with Filipino artistry and culture.


The church’s exterior actually reminds me of icing on cake lol trust Eris to see food in everything 😀



Adjacent to the church is a college managed by the church committee. established in 1941.



Stepping inside, I was impressed by the design, which reminded of Gothic churches in Europe. They had just finished mass so the mini chandeliers, dangling in two rows above the church pews, were lit up – casting a warm and cheerful glow to the halls somber interior. Pillars rise to the ceiling, forming an arched shape, and at the back is a dome painted over with the original ‘3D’ style of painting or trompe l’oiel.

PS: The pillars are painted over to look like marble and jasper, but they are actually steel (!)


The main altar has an image of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, gifted by Carmelite sisters from Mexico City in the 1600s. The image withstood all the natural disasters that have destroyed previous buildings, but ironically, the ivory head was stolen (by people, always people are the worst culprits) in 1975.


Colourful stained glass on the sides depict scenes and characters from the Bible. Some are so delicate that a simple touch with a toothbrush could cause the designs to fade away.

Sadly, this is not the only thing in danger of disappearing. The building’s materials have rusted over the years due to corrosion, and it’s structural integrity is in danger. Here’s hoping that conservation efforts will be put into place to prevent that from happening.

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A pulpit where the priest can deliver sermons. The elevated wooden structure is decorated with elaborate carvings and images.


Plaza Del Carmen, Quiapo, Manila, 1101 Metro Manila, Philippines

Ash Wednesday @ Antipolo Cathedral, Rizal

Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent for Christians, which includes 40 days of fasting that ends with Easter. In the Philippines, a major Catholic country, the practice of Ash Wednesday is even more pronounced.

E wanted me to experience it for myself, so we hopped into a jeepney in the early morning from Manila to Antipolo Cathedral, in neighbouring Rizal. Antipolo is also called Pilgrimage City, due to the high number of religious sites and attractions there. 


I haven’t really done a proper post about Jeepneys. They’re colourful, loud, smoke-belching things. Most are painted in bright hues; some sport famous political figures such as Jose Rizal, others movie stars, angels, Jesus.. even Pokemon. This creative, outlandish and sometimes downright bizarre streaks make the jeepney so inherently charming. They are so entrenched in Filipino culture that it’s difficult to see them ever being banned, despite the obvious pollution from their diesel engines and the massive traffic jams they cause (from stopping and picking up passengers everywhere). It’s part and parcel of life in the Philippines.


The ride took over an hour, even though Antipolo is only about 24 kilometres away. Well, that’s Metro Manila for you. 


Like many churches in Manila, Antipolo Cathedral was built at the height of Spanish proselytisation in the 1600s and housed the Marian image of Our Lady of Peace and Good Voyage. Set on fire by Chinese revolts, damaged in three earthquakes and bombarded in World War II, the new shrine was completed in 1954. Today, millions of people go on pilgrimage annually to seek blessings and pray.


The building’s dome-like top reminded me of a mosque – if not for the stained glass windows and saint figures.


E lining up to get his forehead blessed with ashes.

So why put ash on devotees’ foreheads on Ash Wednesday? There’s a very good, detailed description here. I think long story short, they are supposed to represent the repentance of the devotee and their willingness to start over in their devotion to God.


The church was having mass (which runs hourly) when we arrived. The priest was reading the Bible (?) in Tagalog while everyone stood, listened, and uttered Amen periodically. There was a large gold tapestry flanked by two paintings and the Marian image of Our Lady of Peace and Good Voyage encased in glass.

The statue, brought over from Mexico in the 16th century, is said to have miraculous powers. There is a peculiar story about how the statue, which is done in a medieval ‘Black Madonna’ style (where Mary is portrayed with dark skin), would vanish from its shrine and reappear atop a tipolo (breadfruit) tree: hence its location in Antipolo of which the name derives from the same tree.



Just outside the church were rows of souvenir shops selling candles, prayer paraphernalia, incense sticks, snacks, keychains and touristy stuff.



The place is apparently famous for their cashews, so we bought some cashew boat tarts to take home. Also tried these glutinous rice rolls cooked in bamboo.. which was exactly like the Malaysian lemang – except that Filipinos dip it in sugar instead of curry.


Dela Paz Street, Antipolo, Rizal Province, Philippines

GETTING THERE: useful website here

Church Hopping in Manila – Quiapo, Sta Cruz & Binondo

IF there’s one thing you’ll come across a lot in Manila (other than malls), it’s churches. Not surprising, seeing that 83% of the Philippines (about 84mil people) are Catholics.

The Filipino love for religion isn’t just about praying – it’s a way of life. I mean, when the Pope turned up, a whopping 6mil people came to attend Mass at Rizal Park. That’s like the entire population of Selangor (an entire state) in Malaysia! Mass is a big thing and religious symbols are everywhere – I’ve never seen that many figures/pictures/paintings of Jesus and the saints anywhere else on the planet. Even the Jeepneys have names like ‘God Bless the Philippines’ or  ‘Santa Maria’.

So it would be poor form as a traveler if I didn’t at least drop by to visit a couple of churches – to understand more about how this religion pervades the life of the average Filipino. Also, I had the perfect guide for explaining stuff to me, since E is Catholic


Our first church for the day was Quaipo Church, or the Minor Basilica of the Black Nazarene. It is famous as the home of the Black Nazarene, a black statue of Jesus carrying a cross over his shoulder. The church site has been there since the 1500s, even though earlier structures were destroyed in fires/earthquakes. The current building was reconstructed in 1899. It is done in the Baroque style.


Only got one picture in. I think they were having mass so we were told not to take pix.


Exterior of church.


There were a few Black Nazarene statues; some are copies while the original is enshrined in a glass case at the back of the church. Believed to have been carved by a Mexican artist from black wood, it is reputed to be miraculous and was brought to the Phils in a Spanish galleon in the 17th century. Every year, there is a procession to honour the Black Nazarene and thousands of people turn up for the devotion. Some men carry the statue as a way of purging their sins for the year.


The statue’s detailing was exquisite, and it wore a rich dark red gown embroidered with gold stitches, and wore a golden, three-pronged crown. The artist did well with the face – Christ wore a sad yet compassionate expression. I followed what E did : wiped the statue with a cloth and then kissed the feet. It was surprisingly fragrant and smelled like sandalwood, with a velvety, oiled texture.


Devotees lining up in the rain to touch the statue.

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Other side of the church, which had figures of saints lining the walls.


Behind the church was a small chamber with more religious figures.


The original Black Nazarene. The statue’s foot was outside the case and devotees touched, wiped and kissed it for blessing.


At the marketplace outside the church, prayer candles and other paraphernalia were on sale. Rosary beads, figures of Jesus on the cross, Santo Nino (child Jesus), Mother Mary and etc.

But there is a dark side to Quaipo. The streets surrounding the church are a popular spot to find abortion elixirs. Abortions are illegal in the Phils, and people resort to unsafe practices to get rid of their unwanted foetuses. This despite teachings that discourage pre-marital sex; and abortion is definitely a no-no that would earn you a free pass to the fires of hell.

Idk, I find that ironic.

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Our next church was the Santa Cruz church, also done in a Baroque style and built by Jesuits in the 1600s. It was completely destroyed in the Battle of Manila, then rebuilt in 1957. The interior had a Chinese flavour – red lanterns hung at the entrance. Maybe because Chinatown is just nearby.

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Outside Santa Cruz.

Exiting the church, we were assailed by small children selling flower garlands. They were dressed in old, worn out clothes, slippers worn down to thin rubber soles, and looked at us with huge puppy eyes. This was a common sight throughout Manila. It was really sad. Here there were churches and everyday people attending mass, and outside were poor children running around, sniffing glue (we saw a row of them by the streets) and scraping by for a living when they should be in school and getting an education. The contrast is jarring. The tranquil interior of the holy place vs the sweat and tears of poverty stricken people outside.

Sometimes, I wonder.


Our last church for the day was in Binondo, or Chinatown. This looked the grandest among all of the churches we had visited, and it was decked out for a wedding ceremony with white drapes and flowers lining a red carpeted aisle. Founded in 1596 for Chinese converts in Manila, it was destroyed by British bombardment, and then the second world war, before being restored. Once upon a time, it was considered to be the most beautiful church in the Philippines.


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Peddlers selling everlasting flowers,

20160206_133318-tileRed and gray granite facade of Binondo Church.

My church hopping experience in Manila was an interesting one, to say the least. It was an insight into not only a religion, but a way of life for the Filipinos.