The Parish of San Sebastián de Lipa was administered by the Augustinians under the name “Convento de San Sebastián en Comintang” from April 30, 1605 until the end of the 19th century. The first church buildings of Lipa were made of light materials and were eventually destroyed due to the eruption of Taal Volcano. The early Lipeños moved several times and settled finally in a strategic location 20 kilometers away from the volcano.
Through the concerted efforts of the Augustinians who administered the Parish of San Sebastian and the faithful people of Lipa, the present church of “serious architecture, proven solidity, and great proportions” was initially completed in 1790. What was completed in that year had been initiated during the terms of Fray Ignacio Vásquez Pallares (1779-1784), Fray Alberto Tabares (1786-1788), and by Fray Manuel Galiana (1788-1790). It was described as large and spacious, with whitewashed walls of cut stones and tiled roof. Its ceiling constituted of artistically painted wooden paneling in lieu of an arch to which were attached supports and strong beams crisscrossing the walls. Fray Juan Martinez de Zuñiga in 1803 noted the transformation of the church’s architectural style from Baroque to the Neo-Classic: “its altar ornaments were plain and simple, without those extravagant carved works characteristic of the past century”. The bell tower was still unfinished then and the convento was made of wood.
In 1850, the Maestro de Obras Pedro Lacsamana installed a decorative stone fence around the church patio and repaired and whitewashed the convento. Fray Manuel Díez González who was Parish Priest in 1863 carried out important work in the church. The growing number of Lipeño parishioners, during his term, made the church too small and so, he sought the services of the Architect Luciano Oliver who recommended an overhaul: the formation of a spacious transept, the reinforcement of the nave and sides with buttresses, and the strengthening of the bell tower.
Fr. Diez Gonzalez’s successor, Fray Benito Baras, administered the town from 1865-1894. During his term, he fully completed the Church and the reconstruction of the convento with plans from the Spanish Civil Engineer Don José de Fuentes. Fray Baras was also responsible for the erection of the Catholic Cemetery in the barrio of Antipolo and, without any aid from the state, the Sabang bridge which linked Lipa to Tanauan. Padre Baras served as the Cura of Lipa for 29 long years. He died in 1894 at the age of 69.
In 1903, Fr. Angel Ilagan, the first secular Parish Priest of Lipa, spent a great deal of time repairing the damages in the church caused during the Siege of Lipa in 1898 and the occupation of the church by the American troops from 1900 until 1902. An inventory of the church’s properties in 1904 gives us a glimpse of what the church had and what it looked like before its destruction in World War II.
According to the list, the church featured five altars:
- The altar mayor with an image of the patron San Sebastian mounted on top.
- The altar of the Nuestra Señora de la Consolación y Correa, patroness of the Augustinian Order, funded by the spouses Don Gregorio Aguilera and Doña Maria Solis
- The altar of Santo Niño funded by the spouses Don Norberto Catigbac and Doña Justa Solis
- The altar of San Nicolas funded by the spouses Don Cayetano Catigbac and Doña Ignacia Africa and by Don Toribio Catigbac and Doña Salvadora Solis
- The altar of San Agustín, patron of the Augustinian order, funded by the sisters Doña Manuela and Micaela Templo
The church was appointed with eight crystal chandeliers funded by Don Gregorio Aguilera, Don Lino Catigbac, Don Celestino Luz, Don Sixto Roxas, and Don Gregorio Recede.
Some of its collection of santos and other religious ornaments were the following:
- A two feet wooden image of the La Purísima Concepción housed in a silver urna and placed in the last tabernacle of the altar mayor (Its golden rostrillo and crown were donated by Don Fabio Trinidad in 1877.)
- Two images of San Sebastian tied in a tree
- Three images of Santo Cristo
- Fourteen frames of the Stations of the Cross
- Six confesionarios
- Two large silver plated frames of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Immaculate Heart of Mary, and
- Pilgrim images of an antique San Sebastian and Santo Niño for the barrios.
Intense competition among the towns of Batangas, Bauan, Lipa, Taal, and Tanauan, for the selection of the seat of the new diocese in the Southern Tagalog Region during the late 19th century motivated the people to build extraordinary big churches. However on April 10, 1910, when the historic foundation of the new diocese took place, its first bishop, Most Rev. Giuseppe “José” Petrelli, D.D, chose LIPA as the SEE because of its cool climate. For this reason, the San Sebastian church automatically became the seat of the Diocese of Lipa. The new cathedral’s interior underwent a partial renovation.
The Cathedral suffered massive damages during World War II. Its interior and the convento’s second floor were destroyed. Bishop Alejandro Olalia spearheaded its restoration in the 1950s. The facade of the church was restored as close to its late 19th-century look and the original 5 story bell tower received two additional stories and a cupola. The eight-sided cupola over the crossing was converted into a dome, painting was done in the ceiling, and the two sides of the church were expanded.
The San Sebastian Cathedral is now a synergetic composition of structure for worship, religious art appreciation, and functionality.
Galende, Pedro G. Angels In Stone: Architecture of Augustinian Churches In the Philippines. Manila: G.A. Formoso Publishing, 1987.
Trota Jose, Regalado: Lumang Simbahan: Ancestral Churches in Batangas, Batangas: Forged in Fire. Philippines, Ayala Foundation, 2002.
Cathedral de San Sebastián – Inventarios 1904-1958; Cargo y data 1839-1931. Digitized by Familysearch.org