The Municipality of Boljoon in Cebu has asked the National Museum of the Philippines (NMP) to open an investigation into the circumstances surrounding the pulpit panels that were said to be stolen from the town’s church in the 1980s and found their way to the museum many years later.

Private collectors donated the panels to NMP during a formal turnover on February 14, 2024.

In a letter to NMP Chairman Andoni Aboitiz, Boljoon Mayor Joie Genesse Derama said, “Given that the panels had been stolen from the church, we urge the museum to conduct a thorough investigation and consider the ethical implications of retaining potentially stolen cultural artifacts.”

In a statement released on February 19, 2024, NMP said the donors acquired the panels through legitimate means.

“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 museum said.


In the same letter to Aboitiz, Derama asked NMP to return the pulpit panels to Boljoon.

The panels exhibit the image of Augustinian order founder Saint Augustine of Hippo and trace original provenance from the pulpit of the Patrocinio de Maria Santissima Parish Church in Boljoon.

Derama said he cannot simply “bask in silence while my fellow Boljoanons and constituents are fervently crying out loud for the return of the stolen four wooden pulpit panels that rightfully belong to the Archdiocesan Shrine of Patrocinio de Maria Santissima in Boljoon.”

“In that matter, I am writing this letter to respectfully request the repatriation of the panels recently acquired by the National Museum from private collectors. These panels are believed to have been stolen from the pulpit of the church in Boljoon during the 1980's,” he said.

He said residents of the town still long for the return of the panels since they went missing years ago.

“It has a big impact on our religiosity as Boljoanons are known for being religious people. The absence of these panels not only created a physical void in the church structure but also left a deep emotional gap in the hearts of Boljoanons,” the mayor said.

“We are confident that this act of repatriation would not only demonstrate the museum's sensitivity to cultural and religious values but also contribute to strengthening the community's sense of identity and spiritual well-being,” the letter reads further.

Derama’s letter is supplemented by a resolution of the town Council also urging NMP to return the panels to Boljoon.

“The lost four (4) religious panels are part of the Bolioon Church historical relics, that form part of the town's rich cultural heritage and serve as a demonstration and manifestation of the tapestry of Faith, particularly for Boljoanons, illustrating the town's unique identity and the link between its history and Faith in Boljoon, Cebu,” part of the resolution reads.

“According to the United Nations University (UNU) when cultural heritage is compromised, it diminishes a community's connection to its past, disrupts the transmissions of traditions and knowledge, and erases the tangible markers of its identity, hence the return of the lost four (4) pulpit panels to its original owner - the Archdiocesan Shrine of Nuestra Senora Patrocinio De Maria Santisima Parish Church is necessary for the preservation of its culture and identity,” the resolution reads further.

Derama and other town officials handed their communications personally to representatives of NMP at the museum headquarters in Manila.

In the same February 19 statement, NMP said:

“We acknowledge the historical vulnerability of church artifacts to looting and improper disposal in the past. While ethical concerns may arise, it is essential to consider the intricate historical context influencing these actions. The dynamic ownership and circulation of these cultural assets underscore the necessity for open dialogue and collaborative initiatives to address these complexities.

We extend our assurance to Governor Gwen Garcia, Mayor Jojie Derama, Archbishop Jose Palma, and the community of Boljoon that the NMP is eager to engage in constructive dialogue and exchange of technical assistance to facilitate sharing the four panels with the people of Cebu as soon as possible.

In the meantime, in order to prioritize the welfare of these panels, we will continue to pursue preventive conservation measures necessary to prepare them for public display in due course. This demonstrates our steadfast dedication to fostering understanding, appreciation, and access to our rich cultural heritage for all Filipinos.”