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Missing pulpit panels from Cebu church resurface at the National Museum after over 40 years

Missing pulpit panels from Cebu church resurface at the National Museum after over 40 years

A recent announcement made by the National Museum of the Philippines became controversial after the public noticed that the four panels now under its custody were the stolen pulpit panels from a church in Boljoon, Cebu in the 1980s.

According to the latest episode of "Kapuso Mo, Jessica Soho," the said panels were originally from the Boljoon Church, or the Archdiocesan Shrine of Patrocinio de Maria Santisima, which was built in 1793.

The church, one of the oldest in the country, was declared a National Treasure by the National Museum of the Philippines in 2001.

"Ang Boljoon ay isa sa pinakaunang mga parokya na na-establish ng mga paring Agustino sa Cebu. Malaki ang papel ng Boljoon for the spreading of Catholicism in the south. Nasa tentative list ng UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Pagpasok mo sa Boljoon, you're back in the 1700s," historian Dr. Jose Eleazar Bersales said.

["Boljoon is one of the first parishes established by the Augustinian friars in Cebu. Boljoon played a significant role in spreading Catholicism in the South. It is on the tentative list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites. When you enter Boljoon, it feels like you've been transported back to the 1700s."]

The church is also home to important historical artifacts.

Inside the bell tower El Gran Baluarte, an ancient cell from the time of the Spaniards can be found. On its wall are ancient drawings of ships used in trade, which the prisoners could see from the jail.

At the church's courtyard, called the 'muralla', local archaeologists have excavated some human remains wearing old jewelry, including a mysterious earring that is said to have been worn by leaders, including Lapu-Lapu.

"Itong mga hukay na ito, this proves na mayroon tayong kultura o sibilisasyon nu'ng hindi pa dumating ang mga Kastila," Pebols Ruela said.

["What we found is proof that we have culture and civilization even before Spaniards came."]

Pulpit platform

Inside the Boljoon Church, there is a pulpit where the priests or friars used to stand to hold mass.

"That was designed because there was no microphone during the time. Mayroon siyang tinawag na tunabos in Spanish, that is the sounding board that could amplify the voice of the priest," Fr. Brian Brigoli said.

["Because there was no microphone during the time, the pulpithad what they called a 'tunabos' in Spanish. It's a sounding board that could amplify the voice of the priest."]

In front of the pulpit are six panels, which were carved in the 19th century. One of the panels had an image of Saint Leo the Great, while the other four panels had St. Thomas of Villanueva, St. Ambrose of Milan, St. Gregory the Great, and St. Augustine of Hippo.

But in 1980, an 88-year-old parishioner was shocked to find that four of the six panels had gone missing.

"Bata pa 'ko, linggo-linggo nagsisimba kami dito sa simbahan. Pagsimba namin ng linggo diyan kami nakaupo sa ilalim ng pulpito ng aking asawa, nakita namin na wala na 'yung dingding," Charlie Mendez said.

["When I was younger, my family and I would attend church here every Sunday. Until one day, when we sat under the pulpit, we discovered that some of the panels were gone."]

Fr. Brian said that the parish priest at that time was reported as the perpetrator of the taking of the panels.

"'Yung alleged larceny o robbery in 1980s, may kaso na pong na-file against the incumbent priest noon. But, it was dismissed because of the failure to prosecute," Atty. Benjamin Cabrido Jr. said.

["There's a case filed regarding alleged larceny or robbery in the1980s against the incumbent priest, but it was dismissed due to the failure to prosecute."]

Aside from the panels, records show that there were other items from the church that were allegedly stolen in the 1980s.

Also missing were a set of altar made in silver, silver sanctuary lamp, miniature bed of Bethlehem made of silver, a crucifix made out of ivory, and a gold-plated chalice.

National Museum's collection

On February 13, more than four decades after the incident, Boljoon's former tour guide, Orland James Romarate, noticed a strong resemblance between the four stolen panels and the religious artifacts posted online.

Fr. Brian said that of the six panels, four are with the National Museum, one is in the possession of the museum in Boljoon, while the other one is still unaccounted for and hasn't been found.

Because of this, the National Museum of the Philippines was urged to return the sacred panels to the church.

Governor Gwen Garcia stressed that these are religious artifacts and a cultural treasure.

"Because they belong to what has since been declared a National Cultural Treasure - Boljoon Church, we request the National Museum to return these treasures so that they may be rightfully put back where they belong," she said.

The KMJS team reached out to the National Museum of the Philippines, but received no response to their invitation for an interview.

In their first statement, they insist that the manner in which it came into their custody was legal.

"It is noteworthy to emphasize that our donors procured these specific panels through legitimate means, highlighting their commitment to ethical acquisition. Moreover, the donors' decision to acquire these artifacts and donate to the Philippines reflects their dedication to preserving cultural heritage and promoting patriotism," the National Museum of the Philippines said.

It stated that the four panels were donated to them by a private collector and mentioned that they have no idea about the whereabouts of the other missing panel, but expressed openness to dialogue.

Atty. Benjamin Cabrido Jr. explained that the last person who was found in possession of the items is to be held liable.

"May separate tayo na batas d'yan, 'yung Anti-Fencing Law of 1979, Presidential Decree 1612. Sa batas na 'to, hindi kailangan na 'yung may sala kasali du'n sa pagnakaw. Ang requirement lamang ng batas para ikaw ay mahabla doon sa sinabi kong batas is ikaw ang may hawak, in possession, na-acquire mo 'to. Kung sakali man itong mga items na it passed through many hands already, it doesn't give weight, and those people who donated that cannot use that as their defense," he said.

["We have the Anti-Fencing Law of 1979, also known as Presidential Decree 1612. According to this law, the perpetrator does not necessarily need to be directly involved in the actual robbery. Anyone who is in possession of a stolen item or has acquired it can be held liable. Even if an item has changed hands multiple times, this fact does not diminish the liability. Individuals who donated the stolen item cannot use that as their defense."]

"And those people who donated that cannot use that as their defense. So the last person who was found to be in possession of these items that were taken out without the consent of the church should be held liable. And the National Museum officials also can be held as principal by direct participation because they accepted that," he added.

The KMJS team also reached out to those who donated the panels, but they have yet to respond.

On Friday, the Boljoon government and the management of the National Museum Philippines had a private meeting.

"Kasama ko ang aking council to formally ihain ang aming resolution and letter requesting masauli ang panels na nai-donate sa inyong museum," Mayor Gwen said.

["We formally sent our resolution and a letter requesting the turnover of the panels that were donated to the museum."]

Attorney Tirol, Director II for Visayas National Museum, said that they recognize the resolution submitted, but it is still necessary to go through the dialogues first between the National Museum, Boljoon LGU, Archdiocese of Cebu, and Provincial Government of Cebu, which will be held in Cebu City.

Fr. Brian said that this is not the only case where cultural assets of the church end up in the hands of collectors, and said perhaps "this is just the beginning."

"'Pag mabalik ito, it spells hope for all other churches, hindi lang Boljoon," Dr. Bersales said. 

["If those panels were to be returned to the church, it could mean hope for all other churches whose assets are missing."]

—JCB, GMA Integrated News