Monday, February 02, 2009

Joint Statement of the Heritage Conservation Society and ICOMOS Philippines on the Dingras Church

A call to arms and a sound of alarms! Once again, a historic structure in our country is threatened. What makes it even more alarming is that it happens in the same province, Ilocos Norte in almost the same period of time. First the planned demolition of the Laoag Central Elementary School, a perfectly usable, intact and beautiful example of 1920s education architecture in exchange for a mall, and now the proposed demolition of the centuries old façade of the Church of San José de Dingras to be replaced by what would most likely be a poor replica of the former.

What gives? Dingras is one of the most picturesque facades in the country not due to its Baroque grandeur, but because of its perfectly beautiful proportions, the patina of the ancient bricks and more importantly its enduring and eternal visage of a ruin. The church of Dingras like most colonial churches in the country experienced numerous re-buildings during its course in history, and like similar structures in Ilocos have conflicting information. An earlier structure, presumably made of light materials was built before 1620, which was damaged during the earthquake of November 11 of the same year. Another conflicting report this time by Captain Don Lucas Mariano de Ochoa, together with his barangay heads in 1710, mentions that the church of Dingras had been constructed by their minister Fray Alonso Cortes OSA 30 years ago, c. 1678-1680 and that by the year of writing, 1710, only the brick walls remained. Noted Church historian Regalado Trota-Jose on the other hand mentions a brick church being built in the late 1670's collapsing in the earthquake of 1707. Whichever information is correct it is presumed that this solid structure may be surmised as the second church of Dingras.

This structure may have undergone rebuilding but was subsequently consumed by fire in 1838, which also gutted the whole town. Father Pedro Galende OSA mentions that in 1879, Fray Damask Vieytez OSA built the present church, which is described as being huge and massive. But Trota-Jose corrects this by stating that the church was built sometime during the priorship of Fray Vieytez from 1846 to 1854, the year the said builder died. The church again underwent renovation, this time fixing the roof and replacing it with metal sheets during the incumbencies of Fray Ricardo Diaz OSA (1879-1893) and Fray Fidel Franco OSA (1894-1898), whom Galende identifies as Saturnino Franco. Fire and earthquake again destroyed the church in 1914 and 1931, which made the structure unsafe and subsequently abandoned. A smaller concrete structure was built on the plaza across the street, which served as the house of worship for the town. The ruins of the old church remained standing throughout this time and became a beautiful and nostalgic setting for pictorials and even concerts. In the past decade the church has been re-opened and masses again have been conducted inside the refurbished and retrofitted structure.

The architecture of Dingras is also significant not only in the annals of Philippine architectural history but more importantly Ilocos Architecture for this together with the facades of the churches of San Nicolas, Piddig, and the original pre-1984 facades of Sarrat and Vintar follow the manner and character of the Vignola masterpiece of the Church of Il Gesu in Rome. Sadly with the proposed demolition of this façade gone would be this fine example, with only that of the Church of San Nicolas serving as the only remnant to this once popular style.

Why demolish this ancient brick façade? It would appear that the ruin is precariously leaning on to the newly built gym like shed built by the parish during the early parts of this century. After standing and buffeting typhoons, earthquakes, wars, pollution and other unknown forces, the façade, though showing its age is still massively strong and with the proper methods of conservation and shoring would allow it to continue gracing and serving the populace of Dingras and people who appreciate and understand the meaning of continuity.

Other leaning facades have been shored up and made safe for people to appreciate. One does not need to travel far to see how, through a concerted effort, a historic ruin was saved and even elevated to become not just an icon of a community but a whole promotional tool of a region, a people and a country.

Macao's world renowned ruins of the Jesuit Church of Saint Paul are a prime example of how a façade could be shored up, strengthened and saved for generations to come. Began in 1602, the church like those in the Philippines suffered numerous travails in its colorful history. In 1835 fire destroyed the church leaving only a pile of rubble and a wonderful façade standing. Restoration efforts in the early 1990's resulted in supporting the ruins by building a concrete inner stencil that would serve as a reinforcement of the Baroque façade. Today, the ruins of St. Paul are the must see tourist destination aside from the Casinos that litter today Macao's quaint islands.

What was done in Macao, can be done in Dingras. Economically speaking it may even be more prudent to just build a retaining inner wall than to tear down a heavy masonry façade and rebuild it following the same lines and specifications of the original. Artistically and technically speaking, the methods, know-how and artistry of today compare poorly to the craftsmanship of the 19th century. Finally, do the people of Dingras understand the repercussions of loosing a vital piece of their heritage even if the façade were to be replaced by a replica! A replica remember does not replace the original, for whatever reason one gives. The best is still the original, and a replica is but considered a fake.

One wonders why this project is even being considered. True, the need to shore up the façade is pressing. The safety of anyone visiting this shrine of faith is the paramount concern of the parish. But do the necessary agencies both local and national know of the proposed demolition of this historic façade? If they do, are they inept enough to even suggest the demolition instead of alternative processes of rehabilitation of a vital monument? One wonders again at the ineptitude of government and the people elected therein in suggesting the opposite of the complete conservation, preservation and rehabilitation of such vital infrastructure. Though the building is a private structure, its heart and soul lie deep in every Catholic and Filipino that roams the land.
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