Illegal removal of panels in Boljoon church ‘sacrilege’

MANILA. The National Museum of the Philippines received this series of early 19th century panels depicting the founder of the Augustinian Order from private collectors Edwin and Aileen Bautista.
MANILA. The National Museum of the Philippines received this series of early 19th century panels depicting the founder of the Augustinian Order from private collectors Edwin and Aileen Bautista.Photo from NMP

THE Archdiocese of Cebu has joined the calls for the return of the “stolen” religious panels of Nuestra Señora del Patrocinio de Maria Santisima Parish Church in Boljoon town that were donated to the National Museum of the Philippines (NMP) on Wednesday, Feb. 14, 2024.

Cebu Archbishop Jose Palma, in a statement Tuesday, Feb. 20, said there is no official record of any request for approval to deconsecrate the panels for removal. Removing a religious icon is a violation under the Canon Law, which stipulates the duty of administrators to safeguard church goods.

Palma stopped short of saying that the panels were stolen; however, he said these were taken without permission from archdiocese’s head at the time, which was his predecessor, Ricardo Cardinal Vidal.

“Their illegal removal constitutes a sacrilege,” he said.

In an interview with the media on Tuesday, Palma affirmed that the panels should return to their origin in Boljoon church, and they should be placed back to the pulpit where they once belonged.

The NMP received the panels depicting St. Augustine of Hippo from Edwin Bautista, chief executive officer of Union Bank.

The panels, which were reported stolen from Boljoon church’s pulpit in the 1980s and had been missing since then, were recently turned over to the museum as “a gift to the nation.” A pulpit is a raised platform near the front where the clergy stand to talk to everyone during church services. It’s been used for a long time before the sound system became popular to help people hear the priest better.

Resolutions

On Monday, Feb. 19, the Cebu Provincial Board and the Boljoon Municipal Council issued separate resolutions urging the NMP to return the four stolen pulpit panels to the Archdiocesan Shrine of the Nuestra Señora Patrocinio de Maria Santisima.

Palma said he understands the NMP’s desire to exhibit the panels to the general public; however, he said “we have to assert the sacred nature of these panels.”

The church leader added that the panels shouldn’t have been treated merely as artworks for museum display or private collector appreciation but rather as tools of evangelization.

He said the Archdiocese of Cebu is open to a constructive dialogue with the NMP and other parties concerned.

Reports said that the panels were lost in January 1988 during the time of parish priest Rev. Fr. Faustino Cortes.

Historian Jose Eleazar “Jobers” Bersales, Capitol consultant on museums and heritage, believes that the panels were also built in the same year the iconic religious landmark was erected in 1783.

Bersales said there were accusations that a priest had been involved in the theft of the panels; however, he pointed out that it is the responsibility of the church to explain how the panels went missing.

Thief’s identity

Asked about whether the archdiocese will exert effort to identify the thief, Palma said they would have a hard time finding the culprit behind the missing panels because the incident occurred a long time ago and remained unresolved even during Vidal’s tenure. Palma replaced Vidal, who had served as archbishop of Cebu from 1982 until his retirement in 2010. Vidal died on Oct. 18, 2017 at age 86.

The prelate said there are no documents to prove the panels were stolen, loaned, or removed under similar circumstances, but he is certain that no consent was given by the Archdiocese of Cebu during Vidal’s leadership.

“Supposed to be the person responsible for that is the parish priest or pastor, but they are now dead. We do not want to dig their graves and ask them,” Palma said.

Palma said that for now, he is grateful that the stolen panels have resurfaced after a long time. But he said that this should serve as a lesson to all, including members of the clergy, to always be extra careful in maintaining these cultural parts of the religion.

Capitol’s intervention

The archbishop commended the efforts of others sectors, including Gov. Gwendolyn Garcia as the Cebu Provincial Government is also sending a formal letter to NMP, asking for the return of the panels, which the governor said are part of the Cebuano heritage.

Garcia acknowledged Monday that there should be a division between the state and the church, however, the Capitol must address this issue because Boljoon church was recognized as a National Cultural Treasure by the NMP in 2001.

She assured that there will be adequate security for the panels if they are brought back to Cebu. She emphasized that unlike in the 1980s, such matters were not a significant concern back then.

The Boljoon Municipal Council issued Monday a resolution urging the national museum to return the four stolen pulpit panels.

The resolution was sponsored by Councilor Eva Lowela Moraca and co-sponsored by all members of the council. Separately, the Provincial Board approved a resolution en masse, requesting the NMP to return the panels to Boljoon church.

MANILA. The National Museum of the Philippines received this series of early 19th century panels depicting the founder of the Augustinian Order from private collectors Edwin and Aileen Bautista.
National Museum open to dialogue with Cebu officials over 'stolen' 19th century panels
MANILA. The National Museum of the Philippines received this series of early 19th century panels depicting the founder of the Augustinian Order from private collectors Edwin and Aileen Bautista.
Gwen: Return Cebu's cultural heritage

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