What Boljoon lost: The Baptism of St. Augustine by Severino Flavier Pablo

For two centuries, the baptistery of the Boljoon Church was adorned with a painting by Manila-based artist Severino Flavier Pablo of the baptism of St. Augustine. It was lost in the late 1970s or early 1980s, allegedly stolen by the town’s parish priest.

The painting was listed in the 1837 update of the parish inventory as “un quadro del Bautismo de San Agustin para el Bautisterio,” according to NCCA Chairperson Victorino Mapa Manalo. (A frame (or painting) of the Baptism of St. Augustine for the Baptistery.)

From the paper Reading Boljoon: From records to retablos by Victorino Mapa Manalo.

“St. Augustine is shown dressed in a simple white robe and kneeling before a brown font while St Ambrose pours water from an object straight out of the record books: a shell made of silver. St Ambrose wears an imposing miter and is clad in a magnificent cape. The miter is embellished with gold foliate designs at the center of which is an oval medallion. Meanwhile, the cape is made from a fabric in a rose pattern and bordered, likewise, with gold. It is quite possible that the painter depicted a fabric from China like the “tela de Canton” found in the parish ledgers,” Manalo said in his paper Reading Boljoon: From Records to Retablos.

The painting, however, was among those listed as lost during the term of the late Father Miguel Ortega, who served as Boljoon parish priest from 1976 to 1982. Ortega was charged with estafa and qualified theft for allegedly stealing church antiques worth millions of pesos even in the 1980s. The cases were dismissed after the Parish Pastoral Council, allegedly at the urging of a top Archdiocese of Cebu official, asked the court to drop the charges.

The affidavit by Msgr. Constantino Batoctoy in supporting the cases filed against Fr. Miguel Ortega, who was accused of stealing church antiques during his term as Boljoon parish priest.

In his affidavit, the late Msgr. Constantino Batoctoy listed the antiques owned by the Boljoon parish that were taken by Ortega “without the consent of the vicar forane or the cardinal.” Batoctoy was the vicar forane at that time and had as part of his responsibilities the duty “to look after the properties in the churches under the custody of the parish priests.”

Batoctoy said Ortega could not produce the items when the latter was relieved of his parish priest duties on August 17, 1982,

Among those listed in Batoctoy’s affidavit was the “painting of the baptism of St. Augustine by St. Ambrose on canvas” valued in 1982 at P500,000. According to an online Philippine inflation calculator, that amount of money would be worth P8.66 million in 2022, without taking into account the rise in value of antiques through the years.

St. Augustine and Augustinian symbolism figure prominently at the Boljoon church or the Archdiocesan Shrine of Patrocinio de Maria Santisima because it was under the supervision of the order until 1948.

From the paper Reading Boljoon: From records to retablos by Victorino Mapa Manalo.

Pablo also painted the “Sto. Niño de Cebu 1868” at the Grand Sala of the rectory of the Basilica Minore del Santo Niño, which was restored in 2017. Pablo lived from 1800 to 1870, Dr. Jose Eleazar Bersales wrote on Cebu Daily News. Pablo also painted a portrait of Bishop Pedro de Agurto, an Augustinian who was the first bishop of Cebu.

Will the painting still be found?

The looting of antiques from Boljoon church is now in the spotlight after the recent resurfacing of four pulpit panels that went missing, also in the 1980s.

Below are some of the articles I’ve written on the subject:

Panels stolen from Cebu church surface in National Museum; Cebuanos want them back
Panels allegedly stolen in the 1980s from the heritage church of Boljoon resurfaced after they were donated by Unionbank CEO Edwin Bautista to the National Museum
Stolen pulpit panels controversy revives unrelated theft allegations vs late Cebu priest
Father Miguel Ortega allegedly stole rare religious antiques from the Archdiocesan Shrine of Patrocinio de Maria Santisima in Boljoon, Cebu, when he served as parish priest from 1976 to 1982
Cebu archbishop, governor ask National Museum to return stolen church panels
Cebu Archbishop Jose Palma says the four stolen panels are sacred objects because they were on the pulpit ‘where for centuries, Augustinian friars delivered sermons to the faithful’

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