Our Lady of the Abandoned, endangered

In case you have not heard of Our Lady of the Abandoned ( Nuestra Señora de los Desamparados), she is the patroness of Santa Ana,  the 6th district of  Manila.  Santa Ana used to be called Sapa,  the capital of the Namayan kingdom that included Quiapo, San Pedro Macati, San Juan and San Francisco del Monte, Mandaluyong and Pasay. Some bloggers are inexplicably annoyed when  the word ”kingdom” is applied, albeit loosely, to large pre-Hispanic communities.  Sorry,  I cannot find a more appropriate term at the moment.

The street named after journalist and legislator Pedro Gil (formerly Herrán)   traverses Ermita, Malate, Paco and Santa Ana where it hits (tumbok)  a baroque-style stone church on a gentle promontory. One of the oldest in the Philippines, it was constructed by the Franciscan Order in 1578, seven years after Adelantado Miguel Lopez de Legazpi built Intramuros on the cinders of Sulaiman’s Maynila. It must have been a vital center of Christianization. Like other churches built during the Conquista, its location was purposefully selected, the elevated area was sacred to the natives because it was their burial ground. In 1717, a Franciscan friar brought a replica of Nuestra Señora de los Desamparados from Valencia, his hometown. Santa Ana is dense with cultural capital.

Fast forward to 1966: While landscaping the church patio, portions of the ancient burial ground were inadvertently exposed, to the amazement of the parish priest and parishioners.  Enter the National Museum (then located on Herran street)  and its Department of Anthropology team headed by an American, ex-GI turned archeologist,  Dr. Robert Fox. Excavations were conducted in a scientific and systematic manner. First Lady Imelda R. Marcos was informed that the excavated artifacts were evidence of flourishing trade relations with our Asian neighbors centuries before the Spaniards came to stake territory. Coincidentally, Manila was hosting an  Asian and Pacific leaders summit, Mrs. Marcos made the Santa Ana dig the must-see destination of all First Ladies.

In August 1973, barely a year after martial law was declared, Pres. Ferdinand  Marcos, Sr.,  signed Presidential Decree No. 260. It said:  “ Pursuant to Article XV, Section 9, Paragraph 2  of the Philippine Constitution Filipino culture shall be preserved and developed for national identity… “  The PD had a long list of National Treasures and Landmarks which includes the Santa Ana church, its 18- niche retablo and the camerin ( dressing room ) of Nuestra Señora de los Desamparados where the ceiling has 11  oil paintings depicting the life of  Jesus Christ, the oldest extant religious artwork. To name only a few, the churches of Paoay ( Ilocos Norte) San Agustin and San Sebastian (Manila)  Barasoain (Bulacan), the mummy caves of Benguet, Sagada and Banawe rice terraces, petroglyphs and rock shelter (Angono), agricultural stone calendars of Bontoc are also listed.

Now that we are about to sadly commemorate the  Japanese invasion of 8 December 1941, the role of  Santa Ana during those dreadful times comes to the fore. Thousands of Manileños crossed the Pasig river to seek refuge in the arms of Our Lady of the Abandoned during the Battle for Manila.  It was one of the few churches left standing when the “Pearl of the Orient” was reduced to rubble.  From its belfry,  church bells heralded the consoling news that American forces had crossed the Pasig River and we’re about to rout the enemy.

The Our Lady of the Abandoned church may have survived revolutions and foreign invasions, but once again, it faces real and imminent danger.   Can it survive Ascentia, Suntrust/ Megaworld’s massive project?   Ascentia has  3  towers, each 36-story high on New Panaderos St. The parish priest, parishioners, barangay and neighboring communities have been vocal in their objection because Ascentia is right smack in the buffer of the Santa Ana’s Heritage Zone. There are requests for the developers to design something less obtrusive, less storeys  so as not to encroach on the vista corridor.  L heard the many meetings ended with no consensus, then Covid struck and all was quiet. However, in early November of 2022, heavy equipment suddenly rolled in at night, alarming residents and some local officials who went to the  National Historical Commission of the Philippines (NHCP) to have the project reviewed. Exercising its mandate, the NHCP  sent a letter of Cease and Desist to Suntrust/Megaworld; for its part, the barangay also sent demand letters.

At this writing, Suntrust/Megaworld continues to excavate within the Heritage Zone, despite the NHCP order. It seems Ascentia is within the 200-meter buffer zone covered by the NHCP 2014 Resolution. It has no Heritage Impact Assessment. Massive drilling and pile driving will destroy any still undiscovered archeological remains, and compromise the church foundations.  No archeological assessment is being made by the National Museum. Culture, history, tourism and national identity are intimately related, why can’t property developers connect those dots?