Cebu officials secure NCCA commitment for return of ‘stolen’ heritage church panels

Max Limpag

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Cebu officials secure NCCA commitment for return of ‘stolen’ heritage church panels

MEETING. Cebu Governor Gwendolyn Garcia (center) engages in discussions with National Commission for Culture and the Arts Chairman Victorino Mapa Manalo during a meeting at the Cebu capitol on March 13, 2024. Also present are (from left) Cultural Properties Protection and Regulation Division Chief Joseph Patrick Lee, Dr. Jose Eleazar Bersales, and Commissioner Ivan Henares.

Max Limpag/Rappler

National Museum officials set meeting with Cebu Archbishop Jose Palma to discuss the controversy surrounding the four panels being claimed by the Boljoon heritage church

CEBU, Philippines – The old pulpit panels taken from the heritage church of Boljoon in Cebu will be returned, according to separate assurances provided to town officials and Cebu Governor Gwendolyn Garcia by heritage officials.

The assurance comes as heritage conservationists, church leaders, and local government officials continue to work towards the return of the church antiques.

The National Museum of the Philippines (NMP) has scheduled a meeting in mid-April with Cebu Archbishop Jose Palma to discuss the issue of the four panels that the church claims were stolen from the Archdiocesan Shrine of Patrocinio de Maria Santisima in the 1980s.

The panels, believed lost for decades, emerged as a donation to the NMP in February by collector couple Edwin and Aileen Bautista.

In March, National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA) Chairman Ino Manalo, Commissioner for Cultural Heritage Ivan Henares, and Cultural Properties Protection and Regulation Division Chief Joseph Patrick Lee visited Boljoon to engage with town officials. Later, they met with Governor Garcia on March 13.

During the Capitol meeting, Dr. Jose Eleazar Bersales, the provincial government’s consultant on museums and heritage, informed Garcia of a commitment to return the panels.

Ino, however, told Garcia that “it is the National Museum that will make the final decision.”

Henares said they were looking into the legalities of the issue, as a deed of donation transferred the panels to the NMP. He emphasized that the NMP is bound by this document, which provides that the panels should remain with the NMP.

Lawyer Ben Cabrido Jr., a capitol consultant, earlier said the NMP could secure a waiver from the donor regarding the restriction to avoid violating the terms of the deed. 

Henares stressed the need to investigate the circumstances surrounding the panels’ removal from the church, suggesting an inventory of all the items lost.

A former parish priest of Boljoon was accused of qualified theft and estafa in the late 1970s and early 1980s, although it was unrelated to the loss of the church antiques.

“We can include it in the Philippine Registry of Heritage because they were asking us why there was no due diligence or they did not do research before acquiring the panels. But you have to remember that none of the church items have ever been reported officially as stolen in any of our registries. So I think that this is a good first step,” Henares said.

He anticipated the case setting a precedent affecting collectors in the country.

Garcia, meanwhile, reiterated her stance that the panels were stolen, emphasizing the need for a clear policy regarding church artifacts.

“Obviously, it was stolen because it belongs to the church. So any stolen item, even though years have passed and these were eventually officially donated, is still stolen,” Garcia said.

She said that unlike artifacts found during archeological diggings, the church panels are church property.

Garcia said she told NMP Chairman Andoni Aboitiz during his visit to the capitol on February 27 that the situation provided an opportunity for the country to put in place a clear-cut policy regarding items or artifacts belonging to churches.

Garcia said the NMP can retain the heritage items temporarily only if the church cannot safeguard them. However, she pointed out that Boljoon boasts a local museum and a passionate community dedicated to heritage preservation, therefore, the old pulpit panels should “rightfully be returned to the church.”

Manalo, for his part, emphasized the need to rebuild trust. He told Garcia that they went to Boljoon and listened to the sentiments of people, including the town’s mayor, Joie Genesse Derama, who expressed their frustrations and kept on saying, “Gikawatan mi (We were robbed).”

Of the six panels that once adorned the pulpit of Boljoon’s heritage church, four are currently with the NMP, one is displayed at the parish museum, and one remains unaccounted for.

Archbishop Palma has described the panels not as art but as sacred objects, suggesting they were lost during the tenure of then-parish priest Faustino Cortes. –

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