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Restoring a Catanduanes icon

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One of the most iconic churches in the Bicol region — the church of San Juan Bautista in Bato, Catanduanes — has been restored, thanks to the efforts of a heritage-minded priest who studied and crafted its conservation management plan (CMP), bringing it back to its old glory.

It was in 2017 when Fr. Roberto Sanchez of the Diocese of Virac crafted the CMP, the main guiding document in the management and conservation of a heritage asset as part of his master’s thesis on cultural heritage studies at the University of Santo Tomas Graduate School
It is the first CMP of this scale done by a priest, a rarity since clerics are often embroiled in heritage conservation issues despite a concordat between the Philippine government through the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA) and the Vatican on the preservation of church cultural patrimony.

Sanchez, a Virac native, assessed the church through the technical assistance of professionals and checked the conservation, stone surface, and structural conditions of the church as well as the previous interventions done.

In an article about the priest, a Catanduanes paper said, “The boyish-looking 41-year-old member of the Diocese of Virac clergy was into his final year at the University of Sto. Tomas for his masteral course in Cultural Heritage Studies when he decided to use the island’s oldest church for his final requirement for graduation — a thesis that would bear the title “Pag-ataman: Developing A Conservation Management Plan for St. John the Baptist Church, Bato, Catanduanes.”

Conservation

After a thorough study of the structure, Sanchez recommended a number of approaches for the conservation to ensure the integrity of the structure.

These include the proper sealing of moisture sources, using lime plaster instead of cement plaster on the walls to allow the stone to breathe and the moisture absorbed from the ground to evaporate, damaged floor tile replacements with same materials used, and the cleaning of the walls from algae and moss.

He also suggested the removal of the steel mesh over windows, the reinstating of the original stonework and mortar and the peeling off of the cement pointing and repoint with lime mortar.

Sanchez likewise recommended the removal of the adoration chapel under the choir loft added some years ago which in effect blocked the main entrance of the church.

For the mid- to long-term goals, his proposals included the regular check of roofs, gutters, downspouts; the regular re-plastering for the maintenance of church stone fabric which is comprised of river and boral stones; a landscape management plan; and inventory of church properties.

Restoration

Soon after, the National Historical Commission of the Philippines (NHCP) embarked on the restoration of the Bato Church using Sanchez’s recommendations.

The church, located at an elevated area overlooking the Bato River, is now restored, the first to undergo such process in the province.

These present intervention works have been hailed by both the residents and the heritage sector, setting standards for future church-initiated conservation projects.

AFTER conservation work.

Bato Church

The church of Bato was first constructed of light materials in the early 19th century.

Construction of the present stone church started in 1852 with the transept and convent added in 1866 and 1873, respectively.

The church constructed by the secular clergy was completed 1883.

It is a single-nave structure following the Latin cross plan. It served as defense structure against pirates in the 19th century.

Aside from being picturesque due to its location, the most interesting feature of the church is that it was constructed in a sloping area with the base of its facade elevated to conform to the terrain.

These present intervention works have been hailed by both the residents and the heritage sector, setting standards for future church-initiated conservation projects.

Nowhere else in the country can you find a similar structure except for Bato.

For over 165 years, Fr. Sanchez wrote, “Bato Church has become not only a cultural symbol but a cradle of faith of the community, an instrument in promoting evangelization and, in times of disasters, a literal refuge for believers and non-believers alike.”

In this Lenten season, such a cultural and religious symbol is that much more significant.

Author’s note: Most of the information in this article was sourced from Fr. Sanchez’s master’s thesis at the University of Santo Tomas.

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