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Christmas among the ruins

/ 08:37 AM December 29, 2013

Only a few things are probably quite as sad as Christmas mass right beside a ruined church. And so it was a muted Christmas in Bohol province. All that was left of the churches of Loon and Maribojoc were a flattened heap of what seemed like sticks and powder. The Baclayon Church still has a roof but her walls and belfry were damaged, the tower seemingly beyond repair.

And so the faithful attended mass in tents beside the ruins, perhaps wondering if the once grand edifices could ever really be restored to their previous state. There will be a lot of arguments about the restoration for surely it will be cheaper all around to simply build a new church of a more modern and practical design. But there will be something that would be lost. We would all carry with us a feeling that nothing will ever be the same again.

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It is most likely that some churches will be restored. Others will most likely be replaced. It will be good to use whatever original materials can be salvaged, the hand-cut coral stone blocks for instance. This at least will give us a sentimental reminder of the church as it once was. But always, every act of remembering from hereon will point us to this year, 2013, when we lost most of our beautiful old churches.

And yet, all this was a catastrophe waiting to happen. James Bateson, a geologist and this writer’s brother-in-law, once pointed out how he could detect aspects which defined the contour of the Bohol island. This told him that the island was transforming itself not slowly but in sudden cataclysmic upheavals.

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He would find his view verified if he were to walk now on the shores of Maribojoc and Loon. The shoreline here actually moved several hundred meters from its previous position indicating that this section of land had actually risen after the quake. This tells us, as well, that earthquakes in these parts had always come at certain intervals. Consider that the buttresses you still see at the Baclayon Church were placed there originally to repair the church walls after they were damaged by an earthquake ages ago.

Earthquakes had always visited these parts. They will happen again in the future. Whether or not the ruined churches will be restored, any construction from hereon will have to consider this fact. It will have to be the major part of this particular discussion. But how can one really reconstruct old churches so that they will withstand earthquakes?

A cursory view of the earthquake damage near Maribojoc and Loon seem to indicate that anything made of concrete suffered the greatest damage. In Baclayon itself, none of the old balay nga bato houses suffered much damage. The structure of these houses might have something to do with this:

These houses actually stand several meters from ground level on wooden posts most often of molave. The stone walls at the bottom level are not structural walls. They do not carry the weight of the house itself. They are what builders commonly call curtain walls. Thus, the wooden posts would give the structure sufficient flexibility to withstand even strong earthquakes. This, for as long as they are not directly attached to the stone and cement wall which will most likely be the first to collapse. If both are attached, the collapsing stone wall will most likely bring down the rest of the structure. As what might have happened with some churches.

The earthquake-proof character of the traditional Philippine balay nga bato is easy to understand. We had always been visited by earthquakes. The fact that the houses have withstood earthquakes much better than new houses made of concrete and hollow blocks attest to this fact. Consider that some of these houses are over a century old. Now is a good time for builders to make a careful study of this even as they might plan either the restoration or reconstruction of ruined churches.

We all have a bias, of course, for restoring what we understand to be our most treasured heritage. But at the opposing end of this argument is the fact that churches are inherently places of prayer and worship. At a certain point in the future the faithful will have to be redeemed from the tents where they now pray. The sooner the better. To restore the old church or simply build a new one? That choice will certainly require much discussion and plenty of God’s guiding grace.

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