National Museum cautions vs labeling heritage church panels as ‘stolen’ property

Max Limpag

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National Museum cautions vs labeling heritage church panels as ‘stolen’ property

DONATION. National Museum of the Philippines Director General Jeremy Barns (far left) and NMP Chairperson Andoni Aboitiz (far right) pose with private collectors Edwin Bautista and Aileen Bautista as they present the panels from Boljoon town donated to the museum.

National Museum of the Philippines

'Please stop calling the pulpit panels stolen. Nothing has been decided yet,' says National Museum of the Philippines Chairman Andoni Aboitiz

CEBU, Philippines – National Museum of the Philippines Chairman Andoni Aboitiz on Tuesday, February 27, said an investigation into how old pulpit panels from a heritage church in Cebu province was underway even as he cautioned against those referring to them as stolen.

“Please stop calling the pulpit panels stolen…. Nothing has been decided yet,” Aboitiz, who met with Cebu Governor Gwen Garcia, told Rappler. 

The pulpit panels being referred to are the ones from the Archdiocesan Shrine of the Patrocinio de Maria Santisima in Boljoon town, which were thought to have been lost for decades but resurfaced as a donation to the National Museum.

Local Catholic church authorities and the provincial government have separately referred to them as stolen pulpit panels.

Boljoon residents and Cebuanos, especially those in heritage circles, have been up in arms at how the panels were allegedly stolen and ended up in the hands of private collectors Edwin and Aileen Bautista before these were donated. Edwin is the president and chief executive officer of the UnionBank of the Philippines, a bank belonging to the Aboitiz group.

Aboitiz reached out to the governor, whom he called his “old friend,” so that she would hear directly from him, and for a “constructive dialogue.”

Garcia, however, was firm that the panels should be returned to the heritage church.

“The owner already said it never allowed the panels to be removed and sold. That’s controlling. Unless they have documents that show that the [owner] sold it,” said heritage lawyer Kay Malilong, responding to Aboitiz’s pronouncements.

Malilong, a native of Boljoon, said she remembered that the panels were still attached to the pulpit when she was writing her thesis in the late 1980s.

In a statement, Cebu Archbishop Jose Palma said the removal of the panels was never authorized and constituted sacrilege. 

Fr. Brian Brigoli, who heads the church’s commission on heritage, said the panels were considered stolen, whether thieves carted them away or a parish priest sold them.

Aboitiz said they would meet other stakeholders, including other local government officials. He asked Cebuanos to “give some space,” assuring that they were working to resolve the issue.

Garcia sent a letter to National Museum Director-General Jeremy Barns on Monday, with the heading: “Urgent request for return of stolen Patrocinio de Maria Parish Church pulpits.”

In the letter, she said the panels were “unlawfully removed” from a declared national historical landmark, an act that violated “the trust of the community and the anti-fencing law.” 

She attached to her letter the resolutions of the Boljoon Municipal Council and the Cebu Provincial Board asking for their return.

“I respectfully urge you to initiate the prompt and rightful return of these panels to the Patrocinio de Maria Parish Church in Boljoon. Doing so would uphold the law, demonstrate the National Museum’s commitment to ethical practices, and deeply restore the trust and goodwill between the museum and our community,” read part of Garcia’s letter.

Cebu 2nd district Representative Edsel Galeos has also filed a resolution at the House of Representatives urging the NMP and the National Commission for Culture and the Arts to return the four panels to Boljoon.

Growing clamor

Elsewhere in Cebu, support continued to snowball for the return to Boljoon of the four wooden relief panels. 

The Augustinian friars of the Province of Santo Niño de Cebu-Philippines issued a statement on Tuesday expressing their support for the Archdiocese of Cebu’s demand that the panels be returned.

“We express our full support to the Archdiocese of Cebu on its declaration of ownership of the four pulpit panels and the demand for their immediate return to the rightful owner and sanctuary, the Boljoon Parish Church and Shrine,” the Augustinians said in their statement.

The Boljoon church used to be under the Augustinians since it became a parish in 1690 until it was turned over to the diocese in 1948. –

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