[PHOTO -BELEN COLLECTION Msgr. Cris Garcia shows off his collection of Belens housed at the Collegium Societatis Angeli Pacis Immaculate Heart of Mary Refuge in Cansojong Talisay City, in this file photo taken on Dec. 20, 2008. Garcia said some pieces in the collection were a century old. LITO TECSON/CEBU DAILY NEWS]

CEBU CITY, OCTOBER 1, 2012 (INQUIRER) By Connie E. Fernandez Inquirer Visayas - Msgr. Cristobal Garcia has always been proud of his collection of religious icons and paintings.

He displayed them in exhibits during the weeklong festivities to celebrate the feast day of the Holy Child Jesus every third Sunday of January.

Some of the religious images can also be seen at the museum inside the compound of the Society of Angels of Peace, a congregation Garcia founded in Talisay City, Cebu.

His collections range from 300-year-old heirlooms to newly carved pieces, paintings, statues and “stampita” (scapular) bought in and outside the country.

So far, no one in Cebu can match Garcia’s collection. Those who know him say that he can very well afford these expensive art pieces.

After all, his family partly owns the country’s second biggest power distribution firm, Visayan Electric Co.

Garcia, however, has come under fire following a National Geographic report that identified him as “one of the best known ivory collectors in the country.”

In the report, Garcia told NatGeo writer Bryan Christy how to smuggle Sto. Niño into the United States.

Louie Nacorda, a renowned iconographer and a friend of Garcia’s, acknowledged that the monsignor was keeping ivory pieces although he said he didn’t know how many as these were part of Garcia’s vast collection of religious figures, icons and paintings.


“He (Garcia) has an ivory collection. I have an ivory collection. But to say, there is an ivory trade here, it is unfair. We just buy our ivory things in religious stores in Manila. There is no market here in Cebu. Every time I save money, I visit different stores in Manila. I buy it,” said Nacorda.

The same holds true with Garcia who can afford to buy ivory pieces whenever he goes out of the country, he said.

Gift from grandpa

Nacorda said collecting paintings, icons and statues had become an expression of his and Garcia’s spirituality.

Garcia’s collection started when he was just 5 years old when his grandfather, Gil Garcia, gave him his first image—the Sto. Niño de Belen from Spain.

In an interview in 2008, Garcia recalled that he was at a store with his grandfather when he saw the Sto Niño sitting on hay and flowers, and encased in glass.

“I pointed to it and told him that that was what I wanted for my birthday,” Garcia said in a Cebu Daily News (CDN) article published on Jan. 13, 2008.

The gift led to a collection of more than 100 Sto. Niño paintings and icons.

Gift from friends

Some of his collections, however, were given by friends, who had heard about his passion.

He also kept an image of the Sto. Niño de Praga, which he found in a trash can in Anaheim, California.

In another CDN article dated Jan. 16, 2005, Garcia explained that his collection was a consequence of his devotion.

‘Matchless’ collection

Garcia, chairman of the Cebu Archdiocesan Commission on Worship, doesn’t hide his collections. He displayed them at the Cathedral Museum of Cebu two years ago as part of the activities leading to the fiesta of the Sto. Niño.

The other exhibit was held at Ayala Center Cebu.

Fr. Brian C. Brigoli, head curator of the Cathedral Museum of Cebu and vice chairman of the archdiocesan commission for the cultural heritage of church, recalled that Garcia handled everything—from the curatorial design to the equipment and fixture in the exhibit.

All those on display—about a hundred—were personal collections of Garcia.

But Brigoli said that none of these items was made of ivory, apparently for security reasons. He, however, said Garcia had told him that he had an ivory collection.

Brigoli said he was impressed by Garcia’s collection. “He was a serious collector,” said Brigoli. “No one can match his collection. It was extensive.”

19th century painting

The collection includes statues, paintings, icons and stampita.

Brigoli, a conservator, recalled that he conducted a training program in Garcia’s congregation on how to preserve paintings. One of the paintings he saw was dated early 19th century.

“He told me about his passion for collecting. Whenever he goes to other places, he sees to it that he buys one for his religious collections. Even when he was still a boy, he used to collect things,” he added.

Source of enjoyment

Brigoli explained that Garcia displayed his collection, not to brag about it but to use the exhibit as a “medium of education, medium for evangelization and source of enjoyment.”

He said the exhibit was Garcia’s way of showing and sharing his devotion with the Holy Child Jesus and inviting the people to share his faith.

In the CDN article four years ago, Garcia said he decided to hold an exhibit of his collection to share his faith.

“Looking at the image of the Sto Niño has taught me about who I am. He has invited me to a spiritual childhood which, as I said, has an effect on me,” he was quoted as saying.

Brigoli said he felt sorry for Garcia for how he was depicted in the NatGeo article.

He said Garcia should not be blamed because what he had in his possession was not the raw material of ivory—elephant’s tusks—but carved images that had been passed on several times and whose sources could not be traced any more.

Brigoli said Garcia did not have the connections to be able to smuggle ivory pieces from every country he had been to.

Bishop Cruz calls for stop to ivory use By Tina G. Santos Philippine Daily Inquirer 1:06 am | Wednesday, September 26th, 2012

Archbishop Emeritus Oscar Cruz (photo) called on the public to refrain from using ivory tusks for religious images.

Cruz said the use of ivory tusks for religious images should be stopped “because it is contrary to the signs of the times.”

“Elephants are already endangered and that reason itself dictates that we get rid of ivory. There are better materials like kamagong, iron, wood, molave. Besides, the moment you have ivory in an image, you’re courting danger because they are attractive to thieves and they are saleable,” Cruz said in an interview.

Cruz added, though, that he didn’t know of any Church law expressly banning the use of ivory for religious images.

Dangerous to Church

For activist priest Robert Reyes, turning religious icons and altars into kingly material possessions is dangerous to the Church.

“Sacred images are important symbols but they need not be of gold or ivory,” Reyes said in a statement sent to the Inquirer, in reaction to reports on the Philippines’ involvement in the illegal trade of ivory from elephant tusks to transform them into holy images.

He said what made the religious icons sacred was “our faith not the value of the material of which they are made.”

Cruz admitted that he himself had put up two museums—one in San Fernando, Pampanga and another in Dagupan—where religious images made of ivory were stored.

“There was a time when ivory was freely marketed because there were no worries about the elephants being endangered at that time. The marketing of ivory in those times was not an issue. But this time it’s different,” he added.

“Is this priest [Msgr. Cristobal Garcia] guilty of ivory smuggling, I don’t know. What I know is that even former First Lady Imelda Marcos was very fond of collecting ivory images. It’s true that there used to be lots of ivory and they were used for religious images but that was when there was still no prohibition on trading and the elephants were not endangered yet,” he said.

“I don’t want to comment on what sin he [Garcia] committed. I just want to say that it’s improper if you’ll trade ivory nowadays, we should no longer be making new images out of ivory tusks. But if you collect existing images because you worry that they may be lost or taken away by thieves, that’s OK because I did that myself,” he added.

Reyes assailed the priest named in the NatGeo report who tried to rationalize the Church’s use of illegally traded ivory.

Fr. Vicente Lina Jr., director of the Diocesan Museum of Malolos and curator of his archdiocese’s annual Sto. Niño exhibit, was quoted as saying in the report that icons carved from ivory was a form of “offering to God.”

Crooked line

“It’s straightening up a crooked line: You buy the ivory, which came from a hazy origin, and you turn it into a spiritual item. See?” Lina told NatGeo.

“His voice lowers to a whisper. ‘Because it’s like buying a stolen item,’” the report said.

Popularly known as the “running priest” for his passion on initiating marathons to raise public awareness about social and political issues, Reyes said the justifications of the priests in the article were “disturbing.”

“I wonder whether we can proudly say, ‘we don’t have elephants in the Philippines but we have elephant tusks turned into sacred objects of worship,’” he said. With a report from Delfin T. Mallari Jr., Inquirer Southern Luzon

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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