While everyone is trying to get all fixed and cheesy on Valentines’s Day, I found myself wandering in the most unlikely place - the La Loma Cemetery in Manila. This was a date that I gladly said yes when the opportunity was presented to me. It was a date with history and how it hopes to bring back to life one of the amazing heritage structures in the metro - the Lumang Simbahan of the La Loma Cemetery.
The Campo Santo de La Loma is a beautiful Spanish-period chapel located in the oldest functioning cemetery in the metro. Completed in 1884, it served as a funeral chapel until a new one was opened in 1962. It was used an office and mass celebrations were occasionally held here until it was locked and abandoned. At present, the chapel’s facade is undergoing restoration works with the hope that it is the beginning of its full restoration.
La Loma Cemetery
The La Loma Cemetery is a 54-hectare Spanish-period cemetery that was opened in 1884. It was originally called Cementerio de Binondo and was under the local district of Sta. Cruz. It was an exclusive burial grounds for Catholics during the Spanish period. It is the second oldest cemetery after Paco Park but it is the oldest in the metro that is still in use to this day. The cemetery sits along the borders of Caloocan and Manila with the diocese of both cities sharing jurisdiction.
La Loma is not your typical cemetery. Apart from its history, it is a microcosm of Philippine society where you get to see the line dividing the rich and the poor, even at death. It has a collection of grand mausoleums of the rich, the simple burial plots of the middle class, and the apartment-style niches for the poor. What will catch your attention when you visit La Loma are the beautifully designed family mausoleums, from baroque to art deco architecture. There’s even a mausoleum that has three floors! It was like entering a posh village of the rich and dead.
Apart from the mausoleums, the cemetery has a collection of sculptures of religious figures commonly seen on cemetery niches. These figures in various sizes give the La Loma Cemetery that classy and artsy vibe of the old times. It is like a space where you can time travel on how cemeteries evolved in the past decades.
Capilla de San Pancracio
At the heart of La Loma Cemetery’s history is the Capilla de San Pancracio or more commonly known as “Lumang Simbahan”. This campo santo was opened in 1884 and functioned as the cemetery’s funeral chapel until 1962. Apart from funeral services, the chapel also served as a fort by Filipinos freedom fighters during their fight against the Americans at the turn of the century. It is one of the few sites in Manila that escaped the destruction during its liberation from Japanese forces.
The cemetery church is made from adobe blocks. The facade features intricate and detailed carvings giving it an elaborate and beautiful baroque look. The sides of the chapel is highlighted by buttresses similar to Franciscan churches which makes it sturdier against natural calamities like earthquakes. The dome of the chapel dominates the skyline of the “city of the dead” like a guard watching over its land. The front stairways are highlighted by stone marker bearing “Evangelio”, Spanish word for “gospel”. A circular carved inscription is found atop its front door bearing the words “Blessed are the dead who die in the grace of the Lord” in Latin. A couple of meters from the church are two stone columns where the original gate to the chapel once stood.
The interior of the church is as grand as its exterior. The black and white flooring tiles and the intricate carvings on its pillars gave it a classy look. The altar, with a Crucified Christ as its main figure, shows that the chapel was still in use even after it was de-commissioned. Two doors, adjacent to the altar, leads to the backroom of the chapel which once served as an office. One could also see some tombstones on the flooring but it is said that the bones of those buried inside the church were already exhumed and transferred.
The chapel facade is undergoing restoration spearheaded by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Kalookan, in partnership with the Escuela Taller de Filipinas. The 4M project aims to restore the grand beauty of the chapel’s facade and, hopefully, roll out the full restoration of the capilla. The diocese understands the historical significance of the structure that is also recognized as a National Cultural Treasure.
Architect Jeffrey Cobilla, OIC of Escuela Taller de Filipinas, walked us through the project that is now on its final stages of completion. He shared with us the tedious and delicate processes that his team had to go through to restore the facade. Interestingly, I learned that one of the biggest threats that heritage structures face is vegetation. Those small plants, shrubs, and even trees, that grow in this structures, that we find cute and we thought gave the structure a more “heritage” feel, does more damage than good. Its roots can erode and allow water to seep in through the crevices that it burrows through the structure. They shared with us that they cannot just pluck out or cut down the vegetation to avoid further growth. It is a slow process of applying herbicide and then carefully weeding the plant and the roots out.
The team also had to work through the “remedies” done on the structure by its previous occupants/tesidents. In the case of the Lumang Simbahan ng La Loma, the application of incompatible materials to the adobe structure, like cement, was not beneficial. Adobe blocks expand and contract with the weather and applying cement, as a quick fix for breaks and cracks, inhibit this particular “behavior” of the blocks. In the long run it damages the adobe blocks. The team had to carefully strip off these incompatible materials before they can work on the restoration.
Architect Jeffrey is confident that the Capilla de San Pancrio is structurally stable and that the full restoration is highly probable. The materials used to replace worn out blocks are similar adobe blocks sourced from Bulacan. Something to watch out for is how the team was able to restore most of the beautiful and intricate stone carvings of the chapel’s facade. The initial phase of the project is nearing its completion and is expected to be done by March of 2021.
POST TRAVEL NOTES
The restoration of the Capilla de San Pancrio is just the first phase of the full restoration of the chapel. It is not an easy task to plan and execute and the budget that go with it is in millions. That is why we need to raise awareness on heritage conservation because, with this awareness, comes the support for such programs. Restoration of heritage sites should be a collaboration between the government and the community. We need to ramp up our efforts to raise the needed investments before it becomes too late.
My unusual Valentine date at the Lumang Simbahan of La Loma Cemetery is definitely one for the books. It was a day of learning from the restoration walkthrough and the exchanges among heritage experts and enthusiasts. As an enthusiast myself, I realized that we, especially the local communities, need to get a basic understanding on heritage structure preservation so we can take concrete steps on long-term solutions rather than quick fixes. Again, these quick fixes do more harm than good. We need to take a more active approach in raising awareness on preserving and restoring the physical links to our colorful past because these beauties starts the learning and understanding of the present.
Getting there: You can take the LRT 1 and go down at R. Papa Station. You can walk to the La Loma Cemetery from the station.
Marc del Rosario
I believe in education, entrepreneurship, and caring for the environment.