A Cemetery Chapel on the Way to Recovery

Photos courtesy of Escuela Taller

Way back in 2017, The Most Rev. Pablo Virgilio S. David approached Escuela Taller de Filipinas Foundation, Inc. (ET) and requested for an assessment of the general condition of the Chapel of St. Pancratius that’s located in the La Loma Catholic Cemetery (Campo Santo de La Loma). Left unchecked and untreated, the chapel, also referred to as “Lumang Simbahan,”could deteriorate beyond restoration and repair.

This century-old structure is the funerary chapel of the cemetery since its opening in 1884. In 1962, church services were transferred to the newly built St. Pancratius Church, near the cemetery’s entrance and, in the 1970’s to the 1990’s, the old chapel served as a Cursillo retreat house.

St. Pancratius Church has a Pseudo-Baroque façade with Roman era triumphal arch that needs to go under restoration along with other conservation works.

With walls made of adobe stone blocks, the chapel has an elaborate Pseudo-Baroque façade with the middle segment unusually protruding like a Roman-era triumphal arch. Within the arch is a semicircular arch main entrance with an ornate steel grill gate and guarded by two white-painted fu dogs, Chinese guardian lions. Above the door arch is a keystone with the year “1884” carved on it and a circular marker inscribed with the classic Latin text Beati mortui qui in domino moriuntur (Blessed are the dead who die in the grace of Lord). All around are ornamental bas reliefs with floral and vegetative designs. Unusually for a church, flanking the façade is a pair longitudinally tapering buttresses topped by urn-like finials.

Rows of similar buttresses are found at the sides of the chapel, in between which are windows. At the front and rear of the chapel are flights of stairs, each with two stone markers with the Spanish words Evangelio (gospel) and Epistula (letter). The chapel has a cruciform plan with a dome, topped by a cross, over the central aisle. About 100 meters from the chapel are the two original stone columns of the iron grill main gate (now long gone) of the cemetery.

The chapel is within the confines of what is said to be the oldest active cemetery in Manila. To be precise, the cemetery itself is largely located in Caloocan City with its southern part portion located in Manila). Opened in 1884, this slightly less than 54-hectare (130-acre) cemetery was originally known as Cementerio de Binondo (Binondo Cemetery) since the area was then under the jurisdiction of Sta. Cruz during the Spanish colonial period. In World War II, the site served as a Japanese execution site for Filipino guerillas, and was also an important battleground during the Philippine-American War.

St. Pancratius Church, sits inside the La Loma Catholic Cemetery, the oldest one in Manila. The walls of the century-old La Loma Church, a.k.a. Lumang Simbahan, are made of adobe stone blocks.

Today, the cemetery is a National Cultural Treasure and is one of the most beautiful in the country, housing some great mausoleums and old tombs. It is the resting ground to some of the country’s prominent personalities and heroes, including Chief  Justices Cayetano Arellano and Victorino Mapa; Girl Scout of the Philippines founder Josefa Llanes Escoda; Philippine flag creator Marcela M. Agoncillo, husband Felipe Agoncillo and daughter Lorenza; among others.

Fr. Paul Woo, director of the Diocesan Commission on Cultural Heritage, said, “the diocese and the community said they wanted the La Loma Chapel to become a center for worship again, not only during All Saints’/Souls’ Day. Of course, we want to return the old chapel to its glory.  The plan is to make it more accessible and functional as a place of worship again and to provide any liturgical services available.

“It is important to educate the community about heritage and heritage sites. The value that comes from every artifact is a gentle reminder for all of us to appreciate the richness of history, culture, and heritage that come from within. It is also an opportune time to educate everyone else in the Diocese and perhaps even other natives or residents who belong to other faith traditions to give importance to structures, find meaning in it, and develop a sense of appreciation as each artifact turn back time for all of us such that we can also pass it on to the next generation.” 

Representatives from the Diocese of Kalookan led by Bishop Virgilio Pablo David and those from Escuela Taller de Filipinas Foundation, Inc. pose before the La Loma Chapel at the launching of the chapel’s conservation program. FRr. Paul Woo, Architect Carmen Bettina Bulaong, Bishop David, and Architect Jeffrey Cobilla band together in an effort to save the La Loma Chapel in a conservation project.

According to architect Jeffrey Cobilla, the project will begin with the restoration of the façade. Their initial inspection showed advanced plant growth and stone deterioration were the major problems. As they continue the documentation and condition mapping to assess the chapel structural conditions, more details of those issues are expected.

To address the vegetation overgrowth, ET group will conduct deep plant removal by introducing appropriate herbicides and, possibly, disassembly of some part so the masonry wall to completely remove the plant, including the root system. “Usually, stones adjacent to sizable roots are damaged so removing the stones would allow proper repair, if not replace some altogether. In doing stone repairs, they use similar, or the most compatible material that is available. Fortunately, adobe (volcanic tuff) and apog (lime) are still commercially available,” said Cobilla. “Escuela Taller graduates, who will be the primary workforce of the project, are familiar with the building type, materials, and methodology in treating historic structures through their training and experience in similar projects.”

As the project’s consultant, ET will manage the conservation program. Their graduates who are trained in masonry and other traditional building skills and, through their training and experience in similar projects will serve as the skilled workers who will implement the program.

Back then, the Cementerio de Binondo (La Loma Catholic Cemetery) was the burial ground exclusive for Catholics. With its rich past, La Loma Catholic Cemetery is a National Cultural Treasure.

Apart from the physical conservation, the Diocese of Kalookan and ET will partner to draft a Conservation Management plan to inform and guide the Diocese and the community in preventive maintenance and continuous care of the heritage site.

On June 19, the restoration was officially launched and the start of the mobilization is scheduled on the last week of June or first week of July. The expected time frame for the main façade’s restoration is eight months, but ET expects several more years to conserve the entire chapel and its site. And now that they are taking on the equally demanding task of rehabilitating the Lumang Simbahan, let’s all hope they succeed so that this chapel can reclaim its old world charm and glory.

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