Parishioners, National Museum of the Philippines Staff and University of Melbourne students working collaboratively. Photograph: John Morrison

Restoring and Conserving the Parish Church at Guiuan, Eastern Samar

In the wake of Super Typhoon Yolanda in the Philippines, National Museum of the Philippines conservators, heritage professionals, architects and anthropologists, have been working with parishioners and local craftspeople and artists to restore and conserve the historic church of La Inmaculada Concepción at Guiuan, in the province of Eastern Samar. The Grimwade Centre for Cultural Materials Conservation joined the effort. Graduate students Annabel Livingstone and John Morrison tell us about this important collaborative heritage work.

Super Typhoon Yolanda, also known as Typhoon Haiyan, was a powerful tropical cyclone that devastated regions of southeast Asia in 2013. Its effects upon the islands of Samar and Leyte in the Philippines were particularly profound. Haiyan made first landfall at the town of Guiuan, where winds reached speeds between 315 and 380 kph. Buildings were destroyed, and lives were lost. Locals were cut off from the outside world as communication channels failed, and people were desperate for the basic necessities of life. Fifty thousand people were left homeless in Guiuan. Their church, too, was totally destroyed.

The Immaculate Conception Parish Church, also known as La Inmaculada Concepción, or Guiuan Church, was founded by the Jesuits in 1595, and completed by the Franciscans in 1844. It is considered to be one of the finest examples of Spanish colonial architecture in the Philippines, and it is one of only a few churches to retain its original architectural design and interior fittings. Furthermore, it is the only church in the Philippines that is decorated with natural shells and coral throughout the interior. The church is treasured by local parishioners and others for its outstanding beauty and decorative features. Indeed, it is a designated National Cultural Treasure of the Philippines.

The decorative retablo, restored by Alfredo Menosa, Guy Custodio and their teams. Photographer: John Morrison

When Yolanda ripped through the town, the coral stone church was entirely ruined. Its façade crumbled, the painted ceiling panels fell, and the retablo with its many santos, collapsed. A retablo is frame or shelf behind a church altar that houses revered objects, such as relics, images, or santos. The latter, in Spanish and Hispanic Catholic churches, is a wooden representation of a saint, often painted. Santos can vary in size from one foot tall to lifesize. Many of the shell decorations were also lost. The destruction of the church, which was the centre of spiritual life in Guiuan, was a sore blow to a community suffering through the physical and emotional effects of a natural disaster. However, as the Guiuananon began to recover and rebuild from the typhoon, they turned their attention to the ruins of their church. With assistance from the National Museum of the Philippines, the Philippine government, and a grant from the United States Ambassador’s Fund for Culture, a plan was soon in place to restore the church.

Discussions between these groups focused on what the rebuilt church should look like, and what people might expect from the restoration project. As the original building materials of the church were recovered from the wreckage, it became clear that they were very damaged and could not be re-used. Given that the church would require such extensive reconstruction, parishioners were open to imagining a different appearance for the interior. While the retablos and columns had been painted white for many years before the typhoon, cleaning after the event revealed much older layers of paint in gold, vermillion red, yellow ochre, and blue. Restoration of the church was then planned around returning the church to an earlier historical appearance and beautifying it to reflect its importance to the community and the nation.

Following the initial stages of beginning the restoration, the University of Melbourne’s Grimwade Centre for Cultural Materials Conservation became involved in the project. Every year, a small group of graduate students travelled to Guiuan with Dr Nicole Tse to aid in, and learn from, the community restoration project. This relationship meant students could assist in conservation projects, such as painting the santos with Alfredo [Menosa, a local sculptor] or documenting the church’s historic wooden doors with 3D digital imaging techniques. Furthermore, students learned from parishioners and the National Museum of the Philippines about how to successfully carry out a conservation project with community consultation and participation.

Alfredo Menosa demonstrates his skill by carving the Nazarene from a bar of soap. Photographer: John Morrison

The collaborative restoration project was facilitated by Guiuananon, the Catholic Church, the National Museum of the Philippines, and the Grimwade Centre. It could be said that all of these bodies had stakes in the project for different reasons. So, why was this church conserved and restored?

Prior to the typhoon, the Inmaculada Concepción church was already designated as a National Cultural Treasure of the Philippines, and it was on a tentative list of Philippine Baroque churches under consideration for UNESCO world heritage site status (UNESCO 2006). Furthermore, from 2001 onwards the church was part of a programme implemented by the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA) which aimed to conserve 26 Spanish colonial-era churches through the National Museum of the Philippines (Alba 2003).

This programme selected the coral stone Guiuan church for its outstanding historical, cultural, and artistic value, and for the completeness of its church complex, architecture, furnishings, and ambiance (Alba 2003). It should be noted that the Guiuan church is also unique in the Philippines for its extensive and distinctive shell decorations, which can be found throughout the church. These shell species are now considered to be rare and protected, and the decorations were the subject of a book published by the NCCA – Shell Ornamentation of La Purísima Concepción Church, Guiuan, Eastern Samar (written by A. Bautista, 2003).

It is therefore apparent that the church at Guiuan is important both nationally and internationally. It is valued for its age, beauty, and completeness, and for the story it can tell about Philippine history and architecture. However, and perhaps most importantly, the church is valued locally. As a physical place, it has always been the at the centre of Guiuan daily life. Its bright white façade can be seen across town, a striking beacon against the colourful buildings which surround it. So it has stood, in different iterations, since 1595 CE.

The Baptistry. Photograph: John Morrison

The church is an essential and permanent fixture of the town, and its significance for the local people cannot be overstated. This significance is embedded in its embodiment of place, history, and heritage. That is to say, the church building has been the site of baptisms, weddings, fiestas and funerals across five centuries. The church building stimulates a sense of identity, tradition, memory, and place, and it has no doubt featured in the special memories of many parishioners.

This spirit of place, which is an aspect of intangible heritage, cannot be separated from the physical remains of the building. In order to preserve the memories and knowledge associated with the uses of the church, it is necessary to consider the structure itself as a kind of knowledge resource (Torralba) or memory archive, without which the local community may struggle to enact their traditions or carry out practices that are central to their shared Guiuan identity (such as fiestas).

There are many and varied reasons behind the completion of this conservation project, as many interested parties shared a common goal of restoration.

Conserving the Church For Whom?

Given that so many different groups, individuals and bodies participated in the conservation-restoration of the church, one must wonder – for whom was the project carried out? It is impossible to say that the project was designed to benefit one sole group or body. Rather, it seems that the answer is: everyone. From the very beginning, the National Museum of the Philippines understood that the Immaculate Conception Parish was significant to many different groups, for many different reasons.

For the National Museum, it was important due to its historic and aesthetic properties. For the Catholic Church, the church was a place for priests to minister to their parish and conduct religious ceremonies. For the people of Guiuan, it was important as a place of worship, celebration, socialisation, history, and memory. For the University of Melbourne, the church meant that students could learn about conservation in a new environment, while working with different groups of people towards a common goal.

Just so, while the National Museum was charged with organising the project, at every step they consulted with Guiuananon people, parishioners, conservators, artists and the clergy to discuss the future of the church. The late parish priest Fr. Moises Mel Campo who sadly passed away in a vehicular accident on 12 February 2018, was very supportive of the restoration project and led regular community meetings. While the current parish priest Father Edwin Lanuevo continued the conversations, Mr Jim Vasquez, who was the National Museum’s overseer, connected with local artisans and suppliers, and explained the project. Through these conversations, each party was able to learn about how the church was significant or meaningful to the other, and how the reconstruction might work to satisfy the needs of everyone involved.

The parish church exterior in 2019, after restoration. Photographer: John Morrison

Throughout the week of 8–12 July 2019, the National Museum and visiting University of Melbourne conservation students facilitated workshops with interested parishioners to gain a better understanding of what locals wanted from the restoration project, and what their desired outcome was. Many people of diverse age, background and gender participated in the workshops, and in answering the question, for whom is this project being carried out, all gave answers that reflected their unique ideas and positions.

Some thought the restoration of the church was a purely religious endeavour, while others believed it would be good for the group psyche to see the church rebuilt, as a symbol of strength and hope after typhoon Yolanda devastated their town. Many of the younger generation hoped that this reconstructed National Cultural Treasure of the Philippines would one day be granted UNESCO world heritage site status, leading to an increase in tourism and related economic growth for the region.

The conservation-restoration of the Guiuan church was therefore carried out by many people, for many people, and maybe for the sake of the church itself. While each group envisioned a slightly different use or future, all saw that rebuilding would have a positive impact on the town, the parish, and heritage in the Philippines more widely.

How the Project was Achieved

The conservation-restoration of the Immaculate Conception Parish Church has taken years to complete. Whilst clean-up work started shortly after the typhoon hit in 2013, the future of the church remained uncertain for some time. As the devastation appeared so complete, few people believed the church could actually be rebuilt to anything resembling its former glory. Nevertheless, the restoration project was a success, and apostolic nuncio, Archbishop Gabriele Caccia, led the service to reconsecrate the Immaculate Conception Parish Church on 8 December 2019, six years after its destruction by the super typhoon.

So, how was this achieved? Many different people and bodies were involved. Funding for the project came from the Philippine Government, and the United States Ambassador’s Fund for Culture, while the project was led by Assistant Director Ana Labrador and a team from the National Museum of the Philippines with the advice of parish priests Fr. Edwin Lanuevo and the late Fr. Moises Mel Campo. The National Museum group members included conservators Robert Balarbar, Camille Calanno, and Camille Ann Valencia (yes, two Camilles!). There was also involvement each year from the University of Melbourne’s conservation graduate students, led by Dr Nicole Tse.

The repainted and re-installed ceiling panels. Photographer: John Morrison

When the project began, the church was entirely destroyed. The National Museum initially consulted with heritage professionals, local artists, crafts and trades people to undertake the restoration project, but they quickly saw that local people were heavily interested and invested in the future of their church. Consequently, most of the reconstruction work within the church was performed by skilled workers from Guiuan and nearby, which also helped the town by providing jobs to those who had been affected by the typhoon, and giving the community a sense of ownership over the project.

Unfortunately, many remnant original materials were found to be damaged, and could not safely be re-used as the church was rebuilt. This proved challenging and taxing to funding resources, as large quantities of new building materials had to be found and brought in. Work was further interrupted by the irregularity of funding for the project, and the number of groups involved meant that every decision had to be ratified by several people. Nevertheless, most of the original coral stone casing was able to be re-used, and workers rebuilt the exterior ‘skeleton’ of the church in a timely manner.

Once the building shell was watertight and sound, attention turned to the interior features. As of July 2018, Dr Nicole Tse noted that work on the ceiling, which had previously been entirely covered with painted metal sheeting (the sheets were joined edge to edge, concealing the inner ceiling), had not commenced, and the many santos figures from the retablo were being repaired and repainted. The shell ornamentations in the transepts and baptistry, too, were undergoing detailed restoration by local artist Mang Poly (Mr Foilan Garabiles), with the assistance of National Museum conservators who experimented with the best adhesives possible.

The exquisite shell ornamentation, restored by Mang Poly (Mr Garabiles Folian). Photographer: Annabel Livingstone

One year can see a lot of change and, by July 2019, an entirely rejuvenated church was on its way. The original ceiling panels could not feasibly be salvaged after the typhoon, and so they had to be remade. In the space of just two months from the beginning of 2019, Manila-based artist Guy Custodio, who was educated in Valencia, Spain, managed to treat and paint the hundreds of 6×4″ metal sheets needed for the ceiling. These sheets were not all equal in size or shape, and yet with the help of his assistants, Guy managed to recreate in great detail the decorative border patterns and religious figures the parishioners so loved. By July, the ceiling was completed and in place. Likewise, the magnificent retablo has been reconstructed and the restoration of the santos completed by local sculptor, Alfredo Menosa. Many of the wooden santos suffered damage or lost parts, but Alfredo was able to integrate replacement pieces into the original figures. He then repainted the santos to match their original colour scheme, which was evident in the remaining paint flakes on the figures.

Guy Custodio teaching panel painting conservation. Photographer: Annabel Livingstone

While the conservation-restoration project was conducted in a different manner to museum-based conservation, it was done in a way that was sustainable and ethical for its context and stakeholders. By engaging local craftspeople and skilled workers, the National Museum of the Philippines ensured that the project was completed for, and by, the people of Guiuan, with expert guidance and counsel from professionals in Manilla and beyond. Yet, the work continues and Typhoon Ursula in December 2019 destroyed parts of the side retablo. The National Museum conservators have remotely guided the repairs during the pandemic.


We would like to acknowledge parish priest Father Edwin Lanuevo, the late Father Moises Mel Campo, the people and church of Guiuan, the National Museum of the Philippines under the project leader Assistant Director Ana Labrador, and Dr Nicole Tse at the University of Melbourne’s Grimwade Centre for Cultural Materials Conservation, who have all contributed to the development of this text.


John Morrison and Annabel Livingstone are graduate students at the Grimwade Centre for Cultural Materials Conservation at the University of Melbourne. 

John has a strong interest in in-situ conservation, with a focus on modern materials and dynamic objects. He hopes to develop sustainable materials and methods to minimise the environmental and social footprint of conservation.
Annabel is particularly concerned with how conservation can be better communicated to the public, and how heritage management can benefit small or regional communities.
Feature image: Parishioners, National Museum of the Philippines Staff and University of Melbourne students working collaboratively. Photographer: John Morrison