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Cebuanos call for return of stolen panels from Cebu church, which wound up at National Museum

By John Patrick Magno Ranara Published Feb 19, 2024 7:35 pm Updated Feb 20, 2024 3:13 pm

The National Museum of the Philippines is facing controversy after its announcement that it had received a series of early 19th-century panels originating in Cebu, which many Cebuanos are now calling for their return as they were reportedly stolen from a church.

In a Facebook post dated Feb. 14, the museum announced that had received four panels depicting the founder of the Augustinian Order from private collectors Edwin and Aileen Bautista.

The panels were described as featuring the image of Saint Augustine of Hippo and originated from the pulpit of the Patrocinio de Maria Santisima Parish Church in Boljoon, Cebu.

However, what should have been a celebratory moment turned into an issue after several residents in Cebu have begun to assert that the pieces were stolen from the Boljoon church and should be returned immediately.

"Religion is always a part of our existence, and so are these pulpits to the people of Boljoon Cebu. I am not a Catholic but a Filipino, and these pulpits are part of our heritage!" one user commented.

Another one urged, "These early 19th-century panels belong to my home, Boljoon. It would be great if these will be turned over and put back to its original place. With that, Boljoon will be complete again. Seeing those panels, it gave us, Bolhoanons, a nostalgic memory of the past."

It is unknown how Bautista, who is the president and CEO of Union Bank of the Philippines, acquired the panels. But they were recently seen in his private collection when he was interviewed in an episode of Executive Class on ANC.

'Irreplaceable treasures'

Amid the issue, two officials from the Cebu province have spoken up and are also seeking the return of the panels to Boljoon. The town's mayor, Jojie Genesse Derama, has urged the national museum "to open a venue for proper negotiations to have these panels be returned to Boljoon."

"As the father of the people of Boljoon it is my ardent desire to see these panels installed once again in the pulpito of the church," Derama stated in his post, describing the panels as the "treasures of Boljoon, our church cultural assets, [and] the vessel of our identity and pride."

"I am mandated to serve the general interest of my beloved people of Boljoon. This mandate includes the valorization of the cultural identity of the people of Boljoon which is closely associated [with] our rich cultural heritage assets," he added.

In a separate statement published on Sugbo News, the provincial government’s news portal, Cebu Governor Gwendolyn Garcia said that they have now asked their consultant for heritage and museums to look into the items so they could move forward with a formal agreement with the museum to have the panels returned.

"You know the pulpit has been restored, but we could see there are indeed four empty spaces which correspond to these four panels," Garcia told the news outlet.

"We have just one goal: to preserve, and more so to nurture and cherish, these irreplaceable treasures of our Cebuano past," she continued.

Meanwhile, in a press conference that was held earlier on Feb. 19, Provincial Board Member Red Duterte of the 5th District said that they have now filed a proposed resolution requesting the national museum to return the panels.

"It is in the interest of the province of Cebu that these panels be returned to the rightful owners, which are the people of Boljoon and the Boljoon church," Duterte said.

Cebu Archbishop Jose Palma also asserted the Archdiocese of Cebu's ownership of the artifacts, requesting for their immediate return.

"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. They are integral to the patrimony of the church as part of her missionary work and thus considered sacred," Palma said in a statement.

"Their illegal removal constitutes a sacrilege. They should never have been treated, then or now, as mere artworks for exhibition in museums, much less for private appreciation by the collectors who purchased them... The Archdiocese of Cebu hereby asserts its ownership of these panels and requests their immediate return to Boljoon at the pulpit where they were surreptitiously removed."

'Through legitimate means'

On Feb. 19, the National Museum of the Philippines issued a statement on the issue surrounding the panels, maintaining that the donors procured 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 statement read.

The museum also acknowledged the history and ethical concerns surrounding the church artifacts and said they will continue to "pursue preventative conservation measures" to prepare the panels for public display at the appropriate time.