Monday, January 29, 2007

Manila: We stand on a hill

Yesterday, I attended a Mass for Ateneo jubilarian classes at the Church of the Gesu in Ateneo. My high school batch is celebrating its tenth anniversary this year. The Mass really brought back memories since all of a sudden, I was an impromptu lector and altar server. Hehe!

The Church of the Gesu was built several years after I left the Ateneo and transferred to neighboring UP. It was a low hill during my twelve years stay at the Loyola Heights campus. Although we already knew that the University Church, one that would replace the grand San Ignacio Church in Intramuros as the landmark church and religious center of the Ateneo de Manila, would be built on that hill. According to the Ateneo website, it was in 1949 that "Fr. William Masterson, S.J. dreamed of a chapel on the highest point of Ateneo’s new campus in Loyola Heights, which was to be the icon of everything the Ateneo stands for as a Catholic, Filipino and Jesuit institution." More than 50 years later, that dream became a reality and the finished product is nothing but impressive!

Designed by Jose Pedro Recio and Carmelo Casas, "the Church’s striking triangular architecture symbolizes 3 things: the Holy Trinity, the outstretched arms of the Sacred Heart, and the Filipino spirit as embodied in the nipa hut roof it represents." Years from now, it's brilliantly-designed edifices like the Gesu which will fall in the category of heritage, and not those haughty, nouveau riche designs we see in many of our churches today.

Archt. Paolo Alcazaren gives us more information on the impressive design of the Gesu in his Philippine Star column: "The church is a modernist take on a long line of Jesuit churches that have their origins in the original Gesu in Rome. The Ateneo has had several of these churches starting with the one destroyed in Intramuros. The campus in Loyola, to which the school moved after the Second World War, was also a modern remake of a formerly urban campus with wide, open and green spaces (undefiled by telephone and power cables, which the original planners – thank God – buried underneath).

"The Ateneo chose the firm of Recio+Casas to design the new Gesu. Bong Recio, the principal in charge, is an alumnus. He took pains to study the site to find the best geometry and location for the building. The striking design was unlike anything seen since another geometric wonder (the UP dome by Leandro Locsin) was constructed 50 years earlier. The angle-roofed structure is an abstraction of a bird in flight (an eagle, of course) and is perched on a slight knoll with a large "sunken" quad in front of it – perfect siting for prominence despite the structure’s relatively small size.

"It’s not how large the church is that counts, it’s how appropriately configured the space is inside. Here, Recio is eminently efficient and stylish. Less is really more in this structure. It eschews frills, is airy and cool in addition to being dramatic from all angles.

"The drama, however, was a little off, or so I thought when I first saw the church in late 2002. The composition seemed to lack something and (I later found out) it was the carillon that had to wait until now to be built. Additional funds were raised (by High School Class ’60 and College ’64) in the interim and happily, the carillon, also designed by Recio+Casas, was finally built last year and inaugurated in October.

"The tall white bell tower is separate from the main structure and balances its geometry carefully. It houses 18 bells and an Angelus bell that now gives students and passersby notice of events, masses and hours of prayer. The 18 bells are named, following an old liturgical tradition, after the Blessed Trinity, saints and the blessed. Jesus, Mary, Joseph and the Holy Saints above! This carillon rocks!"

We had a lunch program in nearby Cervini Hall. While eating, it was announced that the Ateneo Football Team was up against UP at the football fields accross the Blue Eagle Gym. I managed the high school soccer team during my senior year so I decided to drop by to see if some old friends were there. I was right! Like die-hard football fanatics, they were still watching even after graduating. Coach Ompong Merida was very concentrated on the game in the players' box so I didn't get to greet him.

I always had a difficult time watching Ateneo-UP games. I ended up singing two alma mater songs after every game. Hehe! It was funny since I knew the cheers on both sides as the drums blasted their way to inspire the players to fight harder.

As I looked around, there were more childhood memories. Just across the fields was the statue of Saint Ignatius, another campus landmark. It was occasionaly the talk of town, especially when the sword disappeared, no thanks to some prankster. Right beside it was a field I used to play in after class during my grade school days since it was right beside the grade school parking area.

The field formed part of the Manila Observatory Complex which we would wander into after catching grasshoppers, bugs and other insects. I remember distinctly that we would knock on the doors of the observatory and ask the caretaker politely if they would allow us in to look at the exhibits. If we were extra nice, they would allow us to view the telescope to check out the sun. So did my childhood fascination for astronomy begin with those visits to the observatory.

Those were the days!

Photo credits: The smaller photos of the Gesu came from the Ateneo and EAPI websites and Paolo Alcazaren.
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