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What Churches Can Learn From San Sebastian Basilica

Have you seen this church? It’s the San Sebastian Basilica, located in the Quiapo district of Manila, in the Philippines. At first glance, it may seem like just another house of worship. Closer inspection, though, reveals there’s more to this impressive structure than meets the eye.

The San Sebastian Church


First, some basics. The church is a Gothic-style construction, designed in the mid-1880s and completed in 1891. Spanish architect Genaro Palacios takes claim for the design, though there are unconfirmed rumors that Gustave Eiffel, the mastermind behind Paris’ Eiffel Tower, may have had a hand in creating the San Sebastian Church.

Either way, influences from buildings like the famed Burgos Cathedral are clear. San Sebastian has prominent spires. It has Gothic portals and louvered windows. It has the eerie mystique of the Gothic Revival, and that makes the sources of inspiration for San Sebastian Church plainly evident.

What isn’t as readily discernable is that the church, in spite of its Gothic appearance, isn’t made of stone. San Sebastian Church is actually a steel construction. Craftsmen painted it to emulate other materials, but the edifice is by-and-large a metallic structure.

Why use such an atypical building material? Earthquakes and fires are common to the area. The first wooden church built on the land burned down during an uprising in the 16th century. Subsequent brick churches burned down in 1859, 1863, and 1880.

Palacios (or Eiffel) wanted to create a design that could withstand whatever nature might throw at it. The result was the all-steel San Sebastian Church. The design has stood the test of time, and there are three main lessons that newer churches can learn from this old-school marvel.


It seems like such an obvious fact, but it bears repeating. Steel is made to last. During the 1800s, the process of creating steel was still undergoing dramatic refinement. Cheap-but-durable mass-produced steel was in its infancy. In spite of this, the steel used in the construction of the San Sebastian Church is still going strong after more than 100 years.

The structure has undergone its share of water damage, to be sure. That damage, though, is more a result of a construction flaw than any inherent deficiency with the durability of steel as a building material. If steel produced more than a century ago is still viable, what does that mean for steel structures produced with the benefit of the modern era’s advanced technologies?

As a man-made option, steel fabricators can customize it to meet the specific needs of a particular building function. Modern steel enjoys an increased level of durability thanks to various enhancement techniques. Chemical treatments, like galvanization, make steel more resistant to corrosion. Physical improvements, like the use of external bonded composite epoxy systems, enhance steel’s structural performance.

Steel can resist the elements. It can withstand many environmental factors that would quickly degrade other building materials. It can hold its own against fires and the wind. Reports of steel buildings withstanding hurricane-level conditions, tornados, and other natural disasters only bolster the claims of their impressive strength.


Because of this, many steel structures have warranties lasting 50 years or more, as their manufacturers trust that their steel will last. The trust seems well placed, as at least one study puts the average lifespan of steel buildings at 77 years (compared to 51 years for wooden buildings).

This same study showed that of the buildings surveyed, the majority aged over 100 years were steel buildings. Though the report noted that many buildings are demolished before reaching their maximum life expectancy, the potential for steel’s longevity is unmistakable.

In addition, steel has a high strength-to-weight ratio. This means that it is more than adequate for long spans and ambitious designs that require a great deal of open space, i.e., a church. Taking a peek inside a structure like San Sebastian Church reveals just how useful this attribute is: ample space for confessionals, pulpits, altars, and the entirety of a large congregation are something any church can make use of.


Having a steel church doesn’t have to break the parishioner’s budget. Though some will point to the lower upfront material costs of wood, the steel process includes features that make it less costly than one might expect in the long run.

Namely, steel is almost always produced off-site. This reduces the costs of on-site labor, construction time, and waste. It adds predictability to a building process that makes it cheaper to manage. Finally, the shorter construction time translates to fewer resources sunk into interim measures.

This is, more-or-less, how things transpired with the building of the San Sebastian Church. In the 1800s, the price of steel dropped sharply, making it an ideal cost-effective building material. The 52 tons of steel used for San Sebastian Church came from Societe Anonyme des Enterprises de Travaux Publiques, in Brussels, Belgium. The building took a short three years to complete, remarkable for the period, scope of the project, and the fact that the steel had to arrive by boat in eight separate shipments.

Nowadays, customizable design templates and reliable sources of sturdy steel make erecting a new church, big or small, a swifter endeavor than ever before. Most companies can manufacture the components in 4 to 6 weeks. Construction then takes a few months on average. Moreover, eliminating the need for costly renovations and maintenance provides further savings for cash-conscious congregations looking to stick to a budget.


As the San Sebastian Church shows us, just because a building is made of steel, it doesn’t have to look like it was made of steel. Artisans provided a faux-finish to mimic marble, jasper, and other materials on the church’s interior. They painted the exterior to match the area’s rich cultural history.

Modern steel churches provide more examples of the same. Congregations can customize the whole of their churches to create whatever look they desire. The essence of the building, though, remains a sturdy steel and affords all of the advantages that come with it.


The San Sebastian Church may be an old building, but it holds wisdom that remains relevant to this day. If you want to learn more about San Sebastian Church, and other National Cultural Treasures in the Philippines, this article will serve as a handy primer.

Anyone interested in finding out more about steel and its incredible versatility as a building material should check out the Steel Market Development Institute. They have a ton of information about all the ways in which steel is used for projects around the globe.

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