By Mary Josefti Nito
The Immaculate Concepcion or La Purisima Concepcion Parish Church in Guiuan, Samar is a declared National Cultural Treasure, which meant that though local it possesses outstanding historical, cultural, artistic and/or scientific value that’s important to the whole country. It is most famous for its shell ornamentation and considered as the only church in the country whose interior walls were extensively decorated with natural shells in its interior walls. The church was originally made of wood and then underwent reconstructions for stone edifices in the early 17th (1630s to 1660s) century.
In 1688, as quoted in Shell Ornamentation of La Purisima Concepcion Parish Church by Angel Bautista, Fr. Raymond Clermont described the church, already made of stone, as “…measuring 73 yards long, 17 yards wide, and nine yards tall. It was built of stone and mortar. There was also a cemetery surrounded by stone walls two-and-a-half yards high, 94 yards long, and 91 yards wide. The convent measured 94 yards long and 24 yards wide.”
By 1718, a more permanent structure was built but later burned down because of an accident. Records show that a newer structure was built later, one that would last until the church was transferred to the Augustinian Recollects in 1768. But the Augustinians will eventually pass the management of the church to the Franciscans, who will come in by 1795, and their first action was to rebuild the church. Historians’ surmise that during the intervening years when the church was being passed from the Augustinians to the Franciscans, a cyclone or a big typhoon, as some accounts would describe it, destroyed the 1718 structure. Under the care of the Franciscans, the church underwent major renovations and reconstruction in the 19th century, such as the construction of additional side chapels and the campanario. The long history of the church indicates that it did not only serve as a place of worship but also as a fortress.
“The church located, in the center of the poblacion, has withstood those threats as well as gales brought by storms from the Pacific, and stands magnificently as a major landmark of Guiuan,” Lope Carlos Robredillo observed in an essay.
In November 2013, Typhoon Haiyan made landfall in the Philippines. According to a 2014 report by USAID, the typhoon triggered heavy rains, widespread flooding, and landslides. Official data records 1,774 deaths, but local officials claim that in Leyte province alone, some 10,000 people died due to Typhoon Haiyan. Citing data from the National Disaster Risk Reduction Management Council (NDRRMC), the USAID report noted that about 23,200 public and private infrastructures across the country were either damaged or destroyed.
Though not a priority in disaster response and rehabilitation, heritage sites are likewise vulnerable to the destruction caused by climate change. Among the damaged properties is Guiuan’s Immaculate Concepcion Parish Church. According to some locals I interviewed, the church’s roofing collapsed during the storm surge, exposing the interiors to the destruction caused by the heavy rain and sustained winds. Aerial shots of the church, taken days after the typhoon struck, substantiated these claims. Fortunately no one was inside the main church area when the roof collapsed, because the parish priest did not allow it to be used as an evacuation center for the townspeople, aware of the structural vulnerabilities of the church.
When I first visited Guiuan in May 2016, the locals were celebrating their masses in a makeshift chapel beside their still roofless and ruined church. Though closed to the general public, I was allowed to see the interior. The remaining parts of the retablo (altar) were covered with big USAID tarpaulins. There were cracks in the flooring, and there were some debris from the roofing, which looked very unstable. The walls of the main chapel were left bare, with only a faint mark of its previous ornamentation. But the side chapels fared better. For example the baptistery’s walls were protected and more preserved. When asked regarding the impact of the destruction of the church to the local community, the parish priest responded saying, the trauma of experiencing Typhoon Haiyan was more devastating for the people who did not only lose their houses but also lost their church, which was supposed to be the community’s symbol of hope and strength.
I was also able to interview various Guiuan residents, which I first did in May 2016 when the National Museum, with the help of the US Embassy, was still just clearing the debris and doing an inventory of the church. The second set of interviews took place later in May 2017 when, after four years, efforts to rebuild the church finally started. One of the residents interviewed was Mila, a 47-year-old mother of three, whose main source of income was her work as a cleaner in the church. She talked about how, the day after the typhoon struck, she wanted to go right away to help in the cleaning.
“The day after the storm, I told my children that I would go to clean the church. We were excited to go there, but we were shocked when we saw, from a nearby store, how my co-worker Linda was praying while standing by the door of the church, praying even when the altar was gone,” she recalled, sobbing. Mila’s case is a good example of the church’s economic value, not just as tourist destination, but also as a source of livelihood for some of the locals.
The active role of the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA) and the National Museum in restoring these heritage sites, which is mandated by law, facilitated the coming in of international aid and funding for the rehabilitation of these places like the Guiuan’s centuries-old church. For example, the Cultural Heritage Preservation Project of Guiuan Church under the National Museum is funded by the US Embassy. From the different interviews I conducted, there is an obvious need for cultural workers to be integrated in national disaster responses. But current post-disaster heritage management efforts focus more on safeguarding the structural and architectural integrity of these sites and monuments, which is good but not enough. There is a need for heritage management to be more inclusive in accepting the different hierarchy of heritage values, particularly for the community, and to allow the articulation of the people’s sense of place in the process.