Saturday, November 27, 2010

The Derelict Seminary of the Dominican Fathers


by Joel Rodriguez Dizon

     I have written about this subject in an earlier post. However, it doesn’t do justice to treat a subject like this in fewer than 500 words, and just a couple of images.
     So I went back to Dominican Hill one balmy Saturday afternoon to try to "soak in" the biggest story ever to be NOT told about Baguio City. If the story had to be told at all, it has to be by a Baguio boy.

The fountains in the inner courtyard must have been a
thing of beauty in the days of their prime. All corridors
had these windows to permit a view of the water casca-
ding through four levels.

     I grew up around the neighborhood of Mirador and Dominican Hills on the northwest edge of the city. This was around the years between 1968 to about 1980, when Baguio’s population was under 250,000. I have always felt, even as a young boy, that there was something more to the phrase "a city close to heaven" than meets the eye. It was a phrase sometimes used to describe Baguio City. It’s an attempt to allegorize the fact that at 5,000 feet above sea level, Baguio City does in fact soar higher in the atmosphere than its lowland neighbors.
     But it was more than metaphor. If you don’t debate the issue too deeply and simply grant that the mere existence of religious institutions in a city says a lot about its spiritual heritage, then Baguio is a very religious town. That is only one step removed from saying it is a town close to God’s heart.
     It has the only authentic Gothic cathedral outside of Manila. Baguio is the educational capital of the North. But it doesn’t only dispense diplomas in the liberal arts and the sciences. What few people realize is that Baguio, too, is a center of biblical study. This was especially true in the early years--like the 70s and 80s.

This used to be a winding staircase with heavy pine
wood bannisters. It landed on the ground floor where a
100-bulb Victorian chandelier used to hang on the
ceiling, not too far from the fireplace in back..

     Back then, as a rule of thumb, the male religious ran seminaries, and the women religious ran convents and retreat houses. So priests ran the Recoletos seminary at the fork of Naguilian and Asin roads, the San Pablo seminary in Crystal Cave subdivision, and the Dominican seminary at the top of the hill named after them.
     The nuns ran the convents of the Pink Sisters near Brent School, Santa Catalina Daughters of St. Paul along Marcos Highway, one in Outlook Drive beside the Mansion House, called the Sisters of the Little Flower Novitiate, Divine Word retreat house in Leonard Wood Rd., and a famous one, Good Shepherd Convent in Gibraltar Road near Mines View Park.
     Presently, a sweeping evangelical revival is buoying up the popularity of pentecostal Christian ministries. This has enhanced the significance of inter-denominational bible schools, the two biggest ones are the Philippine Baptist Theological Seminary (PBTS) in Pinsao Road and the Asia Pacific Theological Seminary (PBTS) in Ambuklao Road.

There used to be ornate iron grilles in each of these five-
foot windows. They were a priceless collection of fine
metal art that would be invaluable to any art curator
today. But instead, they were yanked by looters and
sold cheaply as scrap iron. 

     One reputation that Baguio has steadily lost over the years was its distinction as a favorite retreat place. In the 70s, when you talked about "spiritual retreat" the first name that came to your mind was Baguio City. In fact, the peak of tourist arrivals in the city was the annual observance of Lent--more commonly referred to here as "Holy Week."
     That was then. Today, the City Government has all but abandoned Holy Week in its tourism calendar. It frontloads, instead, the monthlong Baguio Flower Festival--or Panagbenga.
Little wonder then that Baguio City is also, ever so subtly, losing its religious heritage. Superficial ritualism remains high, but that’s about all. Churches are packed on Sundays. But the final priestly benediction, "Let us go and serve the Lord," rings hollow today in the face of the continuing erosion of the city’s religious traditions--and the death, or dereliction, of its once-iconic religious institutions.
     Diminishing interest in the orthodox priesthood is depressing enrolment in most seminaries. In the end, some of them simply had to close. This was the fate of the Dominican Hill seminary, which ordained its last young priest in 1977.
A Korean ministry has offered to acquire this property to
turn it into a pilgrimage site or "prayer mountain." But
offers to buy Dominican Hill are stymied by unsettled
issues of which government agency actually holds title
over this land. Some public opinion is against a Korean
buyout simply because they have acquired many more
properties all around Baguio--some say too much.
     I arrived at the site of the old Dominican Hill seminary rather late, around 4:00 p.m. The afternoon sun was beginning to cast long shadows of the few remaining pine trees around. Some local tourists were still sauntering about the yard, taking an obligatory sourvenir shot now and then. But not too soon after, I was alone to contemplate the ruin and emptiness of this once grand and anointed institution.
     It’s a large estate, approximately 5 hectares. The once-stately yard is severely unkempt--live bushes untrimmed, the grass unmowed. As I walked around the crumbling building, I get a chilly and haunting sense of walking after the footsteps of grieving souls, lamenting the derelict state of their "home." I’ve heard stories, as a little boy, that the prayer garden right outside the main building used to be a small cemetery, where old and anonymous priests were buried. It doesn’t sound true, but the eerie silence punctuated by the chirping of birds and the gentle rustle of the wind certainly makes it believable enough.

In the afternoon haze of Baguio's legendary fog, you get
a sense that this place stis on the clouds. A few local
tourists take obligatory sourvenir shots at the black St.
Martin de Porres prayer garden, reputed to be a small
old cemetery before it was transformed into an outdoor
venue for priestly sacraments. This is the main drive-
way leading up to the front of the seminary building.

     The scene is like the setting right out of a Nancy Drew or Hardy Boys mystery novel. I was decidedly alone, but sometimes I catch the fleeting shadow of something--or someone--that seems to have just crossed the marbled floor to hide behind another pillar. Inside the building, you could almost hear the reverberating echoes of Gregorian chants being mouthed off by an all-boys choir. All the rooms inside the building have been utterly and totally looted of all window grilles, and bathroom fixtures. Nothing is left inside this building that is made of anything else but concrete. All wood, iron and glass have been removed, stolen by looters.
     I felt a tinge of sadness about this, because I remember the ornate sashwork in these five-foot tall windows. The wrought iron was heated, hammered and brazed to form elaborate depictions of scenes from the bible. For one, the Holy Spirit dove was always at the top form of each window grille, and the cruficix was always built into the motif of every piece of sashwork. They were classical pieces of metal art, invaluable to any art curator today. How could looters only see the value of these ironworks in their actual weight as mere scrap metal?

A glint of Baguio sunset silhouettes the main seminary
building, momentarily concealing its derelict state.
Someday, this place will be revived as a world-class
bible college. God didn't seem to approve its use as a
hotel nor as a host to a high-stakes casino.

     If you study its layout, the building is a squarish ring with an inner courtyard dominated by two round cascading fountains. They must have been a thing of beauty, because every corridor opened to large windows so you could see these fountains with anywhere inside the building. The rooms ring the inner courtyard on three flanks--the front was where the grand main door opened into a panoramic overview of the whole city of Baguio below it.
     These once-stately rooms have seen a string of transformations, from elegant bedrooms of the mostly-Belgian friars of the Dominican order who pioneered its construction in the early 1950s, to classrooms of the seminary years until the late 70s, to 5-star hotel suite when the whole place was converted into the posh but ill-starred Diplomat Hotel, to storage places of debris. Today, they are a mute statement of demise and neglect.
     If you stand in the main hall and close your eyes, you can still imagine how it must have looked like in its prime. Long flowing white stately curtains behind delicately-embroidered heavy drapes, bright glow of its 100-bulb Victorian chandelier, and in the background a warm fire by the hearth as the red cinderblock fireplace burned aromatic pine wood.

The narrow one-lane road leading up to Dominican Hill
looked before like a "highway to heaven" because the
seminary was the only man-made structure atop this
hill. Over the last few years, a telecom antenna farm
has sprouted near its main gate, adding a quaint coun-
terpoint to the traditional "temple-like" atmosphere
of the old Dominican Hill.

     But you open your eyes and all you see is a skeleton of a once theatrical circular stairway going up--now slippery with moss. The windows are bare openings, the hallways are empty labyrinths leading to no place of any real significance.
     In other countries, landmarks are preserved, their aura of mystery carefully nurtured, their saga propagated. I think about the French monastery of Le Mont Saint Michel--today the stuff of legends. It attracts tourists in droves, who want to imbibe the mystery of the place.
     Will this ever happen to Dominican Hill? I have compelling doubts--even though tourists are, for the first time, now free to roam around the place. But the sense of mystery and adventure is quick to fade, once they realize its nothing but an old crumbling building. As propagating legends and nurturing mystery goes, Dominican Hill fared much better when I was a little boy. I could walk up to the compound (there was not even a gate then, there is one now) and actually hear the seminarians singing hymns. But I couldn’t see them. No one was allowed to enter and disturb the cloistered monks.
By most reckoning, it's stil a very beautiful place, espe-
cially for less mundane pursuits like prayerful meditation.
In fact, from a distance, if you defocus your eyes a little,
you would forget that all you are seeing now is just the
empty shell of a once-stately and historic monastery.
     The city government had actually approved legislation declaring Dominican Hill a "heritage site." What they meant to accomplish by that, I’m not so sure. The law didn’t come with any funding to accomplish anything. Instead, it just opened the flood gate for culture vultures to try to find any way of transforming the awareness into measurable gain. More proposals for hotel conversion have been received. Certainly, improvements in transportation, communication and marketing now make this an attractive buy for developers.
     Unofficially, several evangelical Christian ministries have "ordained" the hill as a "prayer mountain." One local ministry dominated by South Koreans is talking about claiming the hill as an inheritance from God--although God would not give them a title or deed. Perhaps the heavens would open and pour out resources to enable them to acquire the property. It would not be the first significant asset that these well-funded Koreans would acquire in the city--nor the last.
     All this is attended by a lot of talk about privatizing the sprawling estate to pave the way for a private purchase. Technically, on record, it is owned by the government--although nobody seems quite sure which government: local or national.
     When Dominican Hill was commercialized and turned into a losing hotel business, it was financed by loans from a national bank, which soon foreclosed on the mortgage. But the inactivity left local taxes unpaid, entitling the local government to a lien over the same asset. The stalemate keeps Dominican Hill in limbo.

Just a strong stone's throw away from Dominican Hill is
its "sister shrine" the Grotto of the Lady of Lourdes. This
too is about to go the same way of neglect and derelic-
tion--unless a serious conservation effort gets underway
soon. The decline in Roman Catholicism under the sur-
ging popularity of evangelical revivalism is a shameful
excuse to simply let once-famous Baguio landmarks
like these fade into oblivion. 

     The high place, the high wind and the cool November afternoon sun can play tricks in your mind. As I continued to walk around and shoot pictures, I see vignettes of the past, and faint forebodings of the future. Only the present looks bleak. Someday, this place will throb with anointed activity once more. History had already shown that God did not prefer to see this place become a brothel or a gambling den (it hosted a casino in the 1980s)--maybe He wants it to be re-dedicated to a nobler pursuit.
     It’s enough to set one’s dreams in motion. One day, if I woke up and I was Bill Gates--if I had a hundred million dollars to throw away--I would lose no time buying this unpromising derelict building and build something out of it. If it were up to me, I would rebuild this place as a bible college, and redeem its proud history as a beacon of spiritual influence to the city it overlooks. Is it at all feasible? Who knows. In the movie Field of Dreams, a man built a baseball park in the middle of a corn field to invite the departed heros of the game to play one last great game. The driving force that compelled him was this admonition: If you build it, they will come...*** jrd
 
 
 
 
 

11 comments:

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