Flying Saucer of a Church
Narita M. Gonzalez*
Since its construction almost 50 years ago, the Chapel of the Holy Sacrifice at the University of the Philippines, Diliman, has remained pretty much the same.
There are 14 entrances that remain open all the time. Prominently, above the altar, the huge crucifix still hangs. The wooden pews follow the curve of the communion rail. Their years of use account for many broken armrests; but there is no doubt that those pews do still work.
Nothing has been done to alter the structure of the building, but there have been changes inside the chapel. A little to the right of the sacristy is a section that used to be a mortuary. Now, it is where the Blessed Sacrament is installed, with air conditioning and wall-to-wall carpeting. You leave your shoes outside and enter the room barefoot. There are no seats at all. But there are many throw pillows to sit on when one is tired from kneeling on the floor.
It is on the grounds where you find spectacular changes. These are no longer as austere as these might have seemed to many, being now abounding with flowering plants. With this landscape, the current pastor, Msgr. Bayani Valenzuela, surprised everyone. While designed to be welcoming to everyone, the chapel and its grounds have to be protected from desecration. Hence, a fence, simply designed and elegant. The gates are locked up at night; when the worshippers come at six in the morning, the gates are opened again.
The grounds have become a favorite of photographers, professional as well as amateurs; what with nine masses on Sundays, for instance, where families come in drove, and children love playing around, their smiling faces always a boon to those cameras close by.
One distinction of the Chapel of the Holy Sacrifice is often overlooked, though. And it is this: it is the only parish church in Metro Manila and, probably, in the entire country, into whose design and construction the country’s best artists have contributed.
To begin with, the design was that of the late Leandro Locsin. The ‘river of life’ lined in marble on the floor, in masses of black and white, gracefully flowing from out of the altar circle at the center, is the work of Arturo Luz. The ‘double’ crucifix — for Christ is represented here both as the traditional figure as well as priest — is the work of Napoleon Abueva. Vicente Manansala painted the Stations of the Cross, adding a 15th panel representing the Resurrection.
The chapel can truly claim to have provided the occasion for four of the country’s most outstanding artists to leave us lasting legacies of their genius. And they worked at a time when no notion of national honors was in anyone’s mind. Three of them have since been awarded the title National Artist.
Who built the chapel of the Holy Sacrifice? This is the question frequently asked, and the best answer of course, is the simplest one — the UP Diliman community or, to be rather persnickety, the Catholics round and about. Neither answer would be correct, of course. For convenience, people simply attributed the entire project to the man who made it possible, Fr. John Patrick Delaney, SJ. That person, people will say, virtually moved heaven and earth to bring Christ to Diliman — that is, the campus of the University of the Philippines.
The university has always been thought of as a ‘godless one.’ For this reason, Fr. Delaney had been very unpopular with those who thought that God has no place in an academic world like the “Republic of Diliman.” He proved them wrong.
Fr. Delaney was already UP Chaplain when the old campus moved from Manila to Diliman in 1949. The new campus was all of 493 hectares, in stark contrast to the one block campus in Ermita. The Manila campus was bounded by Taft Avenue, Isaac Peral (now, UN Avenue), Florida (now, Maria V. Orosa), and Padre Faura Streets. The new campus seemed so far away from Manila and civilization.
The move was not popular with many. Those who chose to follow their beloved UP found a tree-less, talahib-covered countryside. Their homes would be made of sawali and bamboo. There would be the letter T before the house numbers. T meant temporary.
Only two permanent buildings made of concrete existed then, those of the College of Law and the College of Education. The houses that were habitable at this time were the ones to found in Areas 1,2,3 and 5. Farther away were Areas 14 and 17.
Area 1 was favored by deans and professors, among these, Dean Patrocinio Valenzuela, Prof. Nicolas Zafra, Dean Ignacio Salcedo, Prof. Antonio Abad, Dean Julita Sotejo, Dean Presentacion Perez, Prof Ramon Portugal, Prof. Arturo Guerrero, Dean Antonio Baguio, Prof. Jose Uichanco, Prof. Agustin Rodolfo, Prof. Gabriel Bernardo, Prof. Priscila Manalang, and instructors, such as Ceferina Cayabyab, Nieves Dayrit, Agustin Cailao, Esperanza Limcauco and Ligaya Fernandez. The sawali houses were old but very spacious. Most students boarded with these families.
In the middle of this vast track of land stood an old dilapidated building made of sawali and bamboo. The chapel of a US Army detachment used to occupy the grounds. The building later became a stable.
It was at this state when Father Delaney saw the possibilities for the worn-out structure. With the help of the volunteers, he had the crumbling construction repaired and fixed up a portion for a sacristy. He did not have a bedroom then.
But Fr. Delaney did not lack for volunteers. Professors, employees, students, housewives and their children were all drawn to this tall, gaunt man of the cloth who was making the bamboo construction, humble though it was, their house of God and worship.
One day a visitor from Manila came by. He saw some boys and young men working earnestly and said to himself that he had never before seen so well-dressed, diligent janitors. Quick to correct the impression Father Delaney said, “They are college students, instructors, and young professors. They have taken it upon themselves to help me keep the chapel from destruction.”
The little old brown chapel was, indeed, giving way to the elements. Here the lessons of love of Christ and love of the Holy Sacrifice were being learned, and despite the loving care now being given it, the building yielded to the sun, wind and rain.
This was in the days when women customarily wore veils to church. Those veils were never thick enough when the sun was up and heat poured in from the high open windows. On rainy days the roof leaked; when Mass was in progress, only self-control kept parishioners from opening their umbrellas.
The chapel was truly old, and it was becoming too small for the fast-growing community. Protestants and for a short time, Aglipayans, too, shared the chapel with the Diliman Catholics.
Before long, the Protestants were able to build a church of their own, in Area 1, known today as the Church of the Risen Lord.
Father Delaney and his old chapel attracted people from all over. The Misa de Gallo became popular. Outsiders crowded out UP parishioners. When passes were issued to churchgoers to ensure them seats, a professor (one of those known to rarely go to church anyway) was heard to say: “So you need passports now to enter the church!”
Certainly, innovations were well on their way. In this old church were lessons about the Holy Mass, family life, faith and sacrifice started, Father Delaney would concentrate on the participation of the congregation. Already he had celebrated Mass by facing the congregation; this before it became the practice in other churches. This manner of celebration allowed Father Delaney to spot who in the congregation was passive and sleepy, or as in the case of many women, those who preferred to say the rosary while the Mass was in progress.
Fr. Delaney insisted that communion was part of the mass. Soon families were occupying entire pews. At communion time, parents and older children trooped to the communion rail and received the host. Instead of jostling for position to receive the host ahead of others, communicants observed order and solemnity during the entire ritual.
Latin was still used then; it was the language children learned their prayers in. The Pater Noster became a favorite. Visiting on a Sunday, Cardinal Gilroy once told Fr. Delaney, “Your parishioners are well-versed in Latin!”
How did Father Delaney fare in the sawali chapel that had no kitchen? He had to eat out, and, literally, had to determine where his breakfast, lunch or dinner would be.
Only a few Diliman families owned cars in the 50’s; Father Delaney himself did not have one. He had to walk, rain or shine, to the home where he was to have his meal. Most often, his host would fetch him and they’d walk away together.
One day, it became known on the campus that Fr. Delaney was found of spaghetti, so spaghetti it was for many meal; some housewives learned to make their own hams; so it was ham for many a dinner, especially during the Christmas season. Father Delaney never complained.
Meals with him were happy experiences for families and even the household help. Family life was the favorite topic at the table. Asked by working mothers about how important the care of children was, (many UP couples had four, six, eight or even a dozen children), Father Delaney surprised them how yet more important their husbands were. Husbands and wives should not retire for the night without resolving conflicts, and that ‘vigilance’ was part of the ‘care and feeding’ of husbands.
Many were touched by the sincerity of this man of God, their first close contact with a priest who happened to be a Jesuit and an American. Students flocked to his lectures on love, courtship and marriage. As a retreat master, he had no equal. As friend and counselor, he was always there when needed.
A friend now in America remembers fondly how he and Raymond Gough SJ, had acted as chaperons for UP Manila nursing students so that they could attend a Diliman Mardi Gras. To somebody who needed a plane ticket he gave the required amount without question. To a newly wed who did not have a bed, Father Delaney readily gave away his own.
There were of course close friends who saw to it that Father’s own needs were provided for. These were rather few. He did smoke through, and his one particular ‘whim’ if a whim it was, was to wear a freshly-ironed sutana every day to mass.
Many vocations were fostered and nurtured during his stay at UP. Young instructors entered seminaries and convents, the Cenacle sisters drew postulants from the UPSCAns (UP-Student Catholic Action). Idealistic UP young men and women found warm welcome in the Medical Mission, the Good Shepherd, and St. Pauls. The Jesuit Seminary in Novaliches also took a number of young men.
The community certainly did well by that old sawali chapel, whose priest centered his every effort on the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. This is the core of one’s faith, he reiterated; and one’s faith did not stop at the church’s door. He took it home with him, and carried it over to his workplace and neighborhood.
Father Delaney knew that the sawali chapel had served his purpose. He had also come to know personally almost all his parishioners. He awakened the faith in some and renewed it in others. He had come to have a good idea of their cooperativeness and then generosity. The time had come to plan with the community towards a permanent structure, a house of God which the Catholic Diliman community should build and be proud of.
One evening, during one of those scheduled meals in Area 17, in the home of the Abueva brothers — Billy, Teddy and Pepe — Father Delaney met an architect. It was quite a fortuitous event. The architect was Leandro Locsin, who was only 26 that time.
Thirty years later, Pepe Abueva would be UP President, and Billy a National Artist, an honor Leandro Locsin would also win for himself.
“I was the architect Father Delaney was looking for,” Locsin would recall that evening.
The concept of a church-in-the-round was exactly what Father Delaney wanted. The priest must be close to his parishioners as the Mass is celebrated. With the altar in the center of the church and the communion rail around it, a oneness between the celebrating priest and the communicants could be achieved. In most churches, people at the back pews could hardly view the celebrant. A church-in-the-round would bring them closer to the altar than had been possible.
Locsin presented a model of his church to Father Delaney. One afternoon, after cleaning up the old chapel, counting host for the next Mass and like chores, Father Delaney called in some ‘sacristines’ and his two favorite grade school volunteers, Evelyn Lesaca and Selma Gonzalez. Not too long ago, he’d give the two girls paper dolls, or, with one hanging only his arm, he’d lift them off the ground, they were that light. Little did he know that they might have something to say about the model of church-on-the-round.
Like the sacristines, the two girls thought the church-in-the-round was a far-fetched dream. “A flying saucer of a church though” was the way the girls described it, to tease Father Delaney. They had been so used to the sawali chapel and had been comfortable with it, but now there was this dome model, suggesting a church that not only would look big, solid, and permanent but would also cost a great amount of money.
That was a kind of practicality that had interesting developments. As construction details were finalized and even as the fund-raising started in earnest, Father Delaney declined big donations and offers of that scale from wealthy people and corporations.
“This is your church,” a Diliman resident remembers Father Delaney emphasizing to the community. “Help build it. Give till it hurts,” he exhorted the congregation.
That, in fact, became the battle cry of the fund-raising campaign. Sorority sisters, bless them, contributed money they would have spent for their ball gowns for sorority dances. Students gave up their movie and merienda allowances. A young sixth grader, upon receiving his wages as a movie extra, passed on all his earnings to church-building fund. He later became the first young man who grew up on campus to become a member of the Society of Jesus.
Several young professionals and college instructors, calling themselves, ‘the suicide squad’ made a hefty collection from their earnings: the sacrifice truly hurt.
Other modes of fund-raising evolved. Plays were staged, concerts like the one conducted by Maestro Antonio Molina were performed before enthusiastic captive audiences. Cholang Lorenzo and Bella Manalo, College of Liberal Arts faculty, discovered their impresario and directing talents. They gathered a cast from among the college faculty and called one and all to rehearsals no matter how tight their teaching schedules were. Their efforts would see fruition as a musical to be embarrassedly billed, “Faculty Follies.”
Before the work on the church-in-the-round could begin, Father Delaney had wanted a ‘spiritual foundation’ for it. This the Diliman community gave him. One thousand churchgoers — students, young and old, professionals, deans and faculty members, and academic personnel and employees of the University — had made a pledge: they would attend Mass daily until the chapel was built. The names of these one thousand faithful were written on a scroll.
During the ground-breaking ceremony, the scroll was buried in the spot where the altar now stands. There was also a campaign for bottles of all kinds and sizes; there were ground and the bits and pieces mixed with the cement; the material was for the dome. The pouring of the cement for the dome was attended by some drama.
The procedure required specific weather conditions, so Father Delaney led the community in special prayers ‘for a gentle shower’ on the day of cement-pouring. This would forestall a quick-drying mixture, which could later cause the cemented rook to crack.
On the day set for the pouring, the skies began to darken. There was much anxiety all around. Only when a gentle shower began to fall was everyone relieved, Architect Leandro Locsin most of all. This was the first thin-shelled concrete dome ever made. The expert help he had from Prof. Alfredo Juinio, David Consunji, and other UP engineers had been invaluable, but what if the weather had been different?
In any case, the Diliman parishioners believed that their prayers had been answered. In fact, Abe de Berthume, the authority on Liturgical Art and Architecture would late make the observation, in 1956, that the Chapel of the Holy Sacrifice was ‘the finest example of modern church architecture.”
Sculptor Napolean Abueva, and painters Arturo Luz and Vicente Manansala, in constant consultation with Father Delaney, began work on the interior. To this day, their works are in excellent condition. Quite apart from being components of daily worship and Catholic life at UP Diliman, they remain works of art.
The marble altar stands solidly in the center of the church. There used to be a device which, at the press of a button, brought out from beneath the top of the altar table and ciborium and chalice; but when the electrical shortages began to occur too frequently its use had to be discontinued.
The altar area, in any case, is so designed to show the source of the ‘river of life,’ rendered by Arturo Luz in the form of black, white, and gray sparkled marble overlay flowing toward the three entrances of the church. A fourth leads to the sacristy.
The idea of the flow is pursued by Arturo Luz though his design of the individual pew itself, which conforms with the circular communion rail, and in their alignment in relation to the altar, unmistakably creating the impression of worship radiating from the altar.
Over the wall hangs from the high dome ceiling the crucifix of Christ Crucified and Christ Resurrected. It was in his Area 17 studio where Napoleon Abueva carved the two figures. The placement of the crucifix, up above the plain marble altar standing on the sourcebed of the rivers of life, is to Father Delaney, the Eucharistic scene in its entirety. No other altar decorations, no buloloys of worship, as saying goes, are necessary.
There was a time in the ‘50s when even the manangs objected to flowers or decorative plants on the altar remembering Father Delaney saying that cutting flowers is like “cutting the heads of the children.”
The austerity made for a fuller and more compelling concentration on the celebration of the Mass. In this context might also be placed Father Delaney’s idea to keep the sacred statues and icons in the sacristy, to be brought out only on special days, as when a saint is honored on his or her feast day.
Mention has been made of the fact that the church has no doors but only entrances, and 14 of them. Father Delaney meant the open chapel to welcome anyone, any time. Here one may pray and meditate beneath the airy and quiet dome. It is only today that fanatics, non-believers — and even lovers thinking of using the chapel their trysting place — the iron fence has been built and the gate locked at stipulated hours.
Father Delaney had wanted stark simplicity around the altar. But for the panels between the entrances he wanted color and bigness. For the perspective, the murals of Vicente Manansala — his 14 Stations of the Cross — reflect the idea. His figures are larger than life and rich colors fill the panels from top to bottom. Manansala, yet, gave more fullness with his 15th panel: The Resurrection. Parishioners then and now, take these painting for granted for the most part. Who would remember, for example, that barriers had been placed in from of panels three times. The present ones are waist high to keep one from jumping over the barrier or leaning on the wall.
Indeed, quite frequently, the church is crowded. Most parishioners are not too aware perhaps of how valuable the murals are. They are a national treasure and, as assets of the church, simply priceless.
Fr. John Patrick Delaney SJ has succeeded indeed in bringing Christ to UP Diliman. He has masterminded the building of the Chapel of the Holy Sacrifice which, in their innocence, two young girls had thought to be a flying saucer and, as a church, perhaps impossible to build. It turned out to be an excellent liturgical architecture and is, today, beloved — much beloved, indeed. One has only to see it rise from the dome stands against the sky.
The church-in-the-round project might have just been too much for Father Delaney’s heart — which, in a literal sense, was already hurting. In quite a different context, he had been branded as an alien priest.
Although Irish by birth, he was an American citizen, he would say. “But I am a Filipino by choice,” he would add. On being accused as alien, he answered the remark that has since become famous: “How much more of myself must I give,” he said, “before I can become one of you?”
He died on January 12, 1956, in Baguio, where he had been sent to recuperate. The tears shed by hundreds and hundreds who mourned him were verily like the gentle shower that helped the cement roofing of the dome set slowly but surely.
For a long time, a cloud of grief continued to hover over the UP community.
Father Delaney was a most unusual man of the cloth, dearly beloved by those who knew him personally — for his austere ways, his concern and friendliness for all, and his complete dedication to the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.
*Mrs. Narita Gonzalez is the wife of NVM Gonzalez. She wrote this article for the Philippine Daily Inquirer, December 11, 1995. I found it best to introduce the UP Chaplaincy again by telling you the history of the Chaplaincy and the Church of the Holy Sacrifice from an eye-witness – the way the evangelists tell us about Jesus in the Gospel.
**Napoleon Abueva’s altars are featured. Abueva’s Cross is the icon for the profiles. Manansala’s paintings are all-over the blogs.
*** Since this article was written in 1995, Arturo Luz was not yet mentioned. Arturo Luz was awarded National Artist for the Visual Arts in 1997.