Wednesday, April 6, 2011

The Renovation of the San Lazaro Church in Manila

Since the 1990's a considerable number of Catholic churches in the Philippines have been adorned with stained glass, sacred art and church furnishings in traditional (normally Baroque) style, much of it lavishly gilded or made of precious materials. This trend developed independently of any "reform of the reform" or "new liturgical" movements in the Latin Rite, and by and large it has been divorced from liturgical discussions and developments, save for the vexed question of the proper location of the tabernacle in the Catholic sanctuary. (For instance, in many of the renovated churches, the tabernacle's central position in the sanctuary has either been restored or retained and enhanced, while in a number of churches the "tradition-oriented" renovation either retained the tabernacle at the side, or banished it to that location. It is also noteworthy that many of the enormous retablos that have been constructed in recent years have no high altar attached to them, thus leaving a post-1964-style "altar-table" as the main or only altar.)

I refer to this as a  "trend", and not as a "movement", because this revival of sacred art in the Philippines, far from being the object of a pressure group or school of thought within the Church in the Philippines, seems to be more of a cultural reaction -- with roots in traditional Filipino piety -- to the colorless, sterile and "modern" church architecture that had begun to spread in the Philippines beginning in the 1950's.  

As a lifelong resident of Metro Manila I have seen this trend spread from parish to parish, and I have witnessed several drab, sterile and lifeless church interiors (normally dating to the 1960's and 1970's) enlivened by this latter-day revival of Filipino church art. Hopefully, this trend will soon become the topic of a formal academic dissertation or two, before photographs and memories fade and fall victim to the strange Filipino propensity for not keeping records for long, thus forgetting any but the barest outlines of the past. 

Perhaps the most recent such renovation in Manila is that of the Spanish-era San Lazaro Church, located inside the Department of Health compound alongside Rizal Avenue ("Avenida") in the Sta. Cruz district of Manila, a stone's throw away from the Tayuman station of LRT-1. A new retablo based upon photographs of the Spanish-era retablo of this church (which was destroyed during World War II) has been set up (albeit without a high altar attached to it), along with a more elaborate altar-table and ambo.

The pre-World War II sanctuary:

The sanctuary until early this year:

The new retablo, ambo and altar-table:

A detail of the retablo:

The ambo, featuring the symbols of the Four Evangelists:

From the altar-table:

Many thanks to my Facebook friend Mr. Roberto Cruz for the photographs!


  1. Notice the domed ceiling in the old photo? We were constrained by the height of the existing ceiling but hopefully, the present administration would push through with the proposal to raise the roof and recreate the old ceiling. It would then be possible to bring the retablo back to original proportion (higher) with only a few minor alterations. It is also interesting to note that this was not the original location of the sanctuary. In the pre-war chapel, the sanctuary used to be at the opposite end where the choir loft and main entrance are now located.

  2. The retablo goes well with a baroque-style church architecture, not with modern or nondescript church architecture. I suspect--I may be wrong-- that many of our young clergy are not familiar with this characteristic of the retablo, and simply think of it as the "sacred" fad of the moment, just as so-called "renovations" were applied on churches after Vatican II. I suppose the best solution to this problem is to include the topic of Sacred Art and Architecture in Liturgy courses in the seminaries... but do we have competent professors to deal with this subject?

  3. I loved that fact that even though renovation has been done, but that authenticity of the church still remains. You can check out Top Notch Construction Services PH, one of the best leading house and renovation services in our country.