The series of early 19th-century pulpit panels depicting the image of Saint Augustine of Hippo, founder of the Augustinian Order, originally owned by the Roman Catholic Parish Church of Patrocinio de Maria Santisima in Boljoon, Cebu, are currently on display at the  National Museum of the Philippines in Manila. (Photo: Facebook)

By Ronald O. Reyes

Feb 21 2024

PHILIPPINES – The Catholic Church in Cebu City in central Philippines has demanded the return of “stolen” pulpit panels on display at the country’s National Museum in the capital Manila.

The early 19th-century panels depicting the image of Saint Augustine of Hippo, the founder of the Augustinian Order, were originally installed at the Archdiocesan Shrine of Patrocinio de Maria Santissima in Boljoon town.

They reportedly went missing in 1988. “While we understand the National Museum’s desire to exhibit the same to the general public, we have to assert the sacral nature of these panels,” said Most Reverend Jose Palma, the archbishop of Cebu.

In a strongly-worded statement released on Feb 20, Palma said the panels “are integral to the patrimony of the church as part of her missionary work and thus considered sacred. Their illegal removal constitutes a sacrilege.”

He further pointed out that the panels should never have been treated as mere artworks for exhibition in museums, much less for private appreciation by the collectors who purchased them.

“For these panels are considered in the ecclesial rite as tools of evangelization,” Palma added.

The National Museum on Feb 13 unveiled the series of panels on its official Facebook page, calling it “A Gift to The Nation,” and thanked private collectors Edwin and Aileen Bautista for their “generous contribution” to the national collection.

“The panels… trace its original provenance from the pulpit of the Patrocinio de Maria Santisima Parish Church in Boljoon, Cebu,” read the photo caption accompanying them.

Palma said they were glad the panels “finally resurfaced and are now in the possession of the National Museum.”

He, however, said the panels were removed without permission.

“No official record exists neither in the Archdiocesan Archives nor in the Chancery Office of any request from the parish priest at the time requesting approval to deconsecrate them for removal, much less conveyance to third parties in exchange for monetary purposes of the parish,” he added.

Cebu Governor Gwendolyn Garcia also publicly asked the national museum for the return of the “stolen” panels.

“You know the pulpit has been restored, but we could see there are indeed four empty spaces which correspond to these four panels,” the governor told reporters on Feb 16.

The local government of Boljoon, a fifth-class town located some three-hour ride downtown Cebu City, also called on the national museum to return four stolen pulpit panels to the Archdiocesan shrine.

It passed a resolution sponsored by Councilor Eva Lowela Moraca and co-sponsored by all members of the council and passed on Feb 19.

According to the councilors, the pulpit panels “were stolen in January 1988, and at the time of the theft, the crime remained unsolved until the existence and location of the said panels were reported in the public press and on social media on Feb 13.”

The 400-year-old Boljoon church, one of the oldest coral stone churches in the Philippines, was declared a National Historical Landmark in 1999 and listed as the only National Cultural Treasure in Cebu.

In its response, the National Museum recognized the “broader historical context” but maintained its donors “procured these specific panels through legitimate means, highlighting their commitment to ethical acquisition.”

It, however, called for open dialogue and collaborative initiatives to address the complex issues involved while acknowledging “the historical vulnerability of church artifacts to looting and improper disposal in the past. – UCA News