On November 5th, 1795, the Archbishop of Manila assigned Las Piñas, then a small town of farmers and fishermen, to the Augustinian Recollets to establish a new church. Father Diego Cera de la Virgen del Carmen, a native of Spain, travelled from Pampanga and arrived in town on the ‘second day of Christmas’ 1795 and set about preparing to build what would become the San José Church and the home of the world famous Bamboo Organ, which he also built. All this work actually started in 1797.
In early 1797, he started building the church made from adobe (volcanic) stones in the Earthquake Baroque architectural style. Friar Diego was a scientist, very accomplished in Chemistry and Architecture. He had an innate sense that served him well to being a Community Leader. In addition to being a first rate organist he was also an great organ builder.
He had already built organs for the Manila Cathedral and San Nicholas de Tolentino Church, the primary Augustinian Church within the Walls of ‘Old Manila’.
In 1816, as the stone San José church was nearing completion (it was actually completed in 1819), he started building the now famous Bamboo Organ and finished the work on it in 1824.
Friar Diego, served as the Parish Priest at San José Church in Las Piñas until May 15th, 1832 when a serious illness prevented him from continuing his ministry. He died shortly after on June 24th, 1832.
Disaster struck, between July 18th and 20th, 1880, when three strong earthquakes decimated the region between Nueva Ecija and Cavite, destroying many public buildings and old churches.
San José Church and its treasured bamboo organ suffered serious damage as a result of those earthquakes.
The damage was compounded in 1882, when a strong typhoon blew the roof off of the church, and further damaged the organ. The church was eventually rebuilt by 1888.
In 1914, two Belgian Missionaries Fathers Jose van Runenkelen and Victor Zaiel of the Congregation of the Immaculate Heart of Mary (CICM) established St. Joseph’s School next door to the church to foster literacy in the parish community. The school, which started as a grade school, eventually included secondary level courses and was renamed as St. Joseph’s Academy.
Between 1971 and 1975, with the help from the community and neighboring towns, the church was restored by National Artist of the Philippines for Architecture, Francisco Mañosa and fellow collaborator, Architect Ludwig Alvarez. Both of them painstakingly restored the old church to its 19th century grandeur.
The rededication of the Church in March of the 1975 with the triumphal return of the Las Piñas Bamboo Organ on March 13th after having been sent three years prior to Johannes Klais Orgelbau KG in Bonn in Germany to be restored to its original state.
On May 9th, 1975, the Bamboo Organ made its inaugural debut concert in the newly renovated church and surrounding buildings. Now, an annual Festival called the International Bamboo Organ Festival is held in February of each year. 2014 was it’s 39th anniversary.
The Organ is described by many international organ masters as one of the finest old organs in the world. Its construction of bamboo is noted as being one of the major factors that gives it a truly unique and lively sound.
Another general overhaul of the organ was done between September 2003 and November 2004 but this time, the work was done locally by the European-trained organ builders of the Diego Cera Organbuilders, Inc. who are also tasked with maintaining the instrument so that future generations will be assured of hearing and experiencing the unique sound of this unique Philippine treasure. The National Museum of the Philippines declared the Organ a National Cultural Treasure on November 24th, 2003 for its uniqueness and significance.
The Story of the Bamboo Organ.
Fray Diego Cera de la Virgen del Carmen, an Augustinian Recollects. And native of Spain, he served as the parish priest of Las Piñas from 1795 to 1830.
He has been portrayed as a gifted man, a natural scientist, chemist, architect, community leader, as well as organist and organ builder.
He had previously built organs in the Manila area with some organ stops made from bamboo, he chose bamboo for most of his organs for both practical and aesthetic reasons. Bamboo being abundant in the area and used for hundreds of items of both a practical and artistic nature.
Cera began work on the organ in 1816, while the church was still under construction.
He gathered and buried the bamboo he would use under beach sand. This ‘burial’ apparently happened October and December 1816. The good Father, as a natural scientist he knew that bamboos to be used had to be aged to ensure that it was be tough, mature, and enduring. In 1817, he unearthed the bamboo and his work began in earnest.
It took almost 5 years to get it to the stage where the organ was playable.
At first, Cera attempted to use bamboo for one hundred and twenty two pipes. This experiment failed and eventually the bamboo pipes were used ornamentally on the back side of the organ. The instrument was finally completed in 1824, after Fr. Cera had decided to make the trumpets using metal, musical characteristics of which he could not replicate with bamboo.
In the late 1830s, within a span of one week, three earthquakes occurred (July 14, 18, and 20) and heavily damaged the organ. In October 1882, a massive typhoon hit the country causing the rise of flood water, reaching within the church’s vicinity. Dismantled portions of the organ were found adrift in the flood waters around the church. After this most recent incident, the Gobernadorcillo and other prominent residents of Las Piñas pleaded help from the central administration in Manila.
During Cera’s lifetime, disasters such as earthquakes and typhoons damaged both the church and the organ. Fr. Cera himself was the organ’s first “restorer.” Down through the years, natural disasters continued to take their toll; the organ was unplayable for years.
In February 1883, repairs on the organ were carried out through the combined contributions of the government, town residents, and the Archbishop.
A total of two hundred seventy pesos was the cost of the repair.
In 1888, Fr. Saturio Albeniz headed the project of improving of the organ. The project was not fully completed, further degrading the condition of the organ. In 1891, the organ repaired once again.
In 1909, an attempt was made to sell the organ and substitute it by a harmonium.
However, “Capitan Pedro” opposed this, and paid for the repair work. Unfortunately, only two stops were rehabilitated. Although highly deteriorated it continued to attract tourists.
The administration of Las Piñas Church shifted to the C.I.C.M. (Congregation of the Immaculate Heart of Mary) or Belgian Fathers. Fr. Victor Faniel showed deep appreciation of the organ’s historical value. During his term (1915-1920), he initiated Historical Facts – a pamphlet featuring substantial historical data about the bamboo organ. This was published in order to solicit voluntary contributions for the repair of the organ. In 1917, the organ was reassembled by the Las Piñeros. However, the repair works were not conducted in an expert manner.
In April 1932, Fr. Paul Hubaux, C.I.C.M. saw the difficulty of pumping air and physically manipulating the bellows. He had installed a one-horse power Wagner electric motor in order for the bamboo organ “to be heard again in full and sufficient volume.”
In 1960, H.E. Friedrich von Furstenburg, the German Ambassador to the Philippines, offered a donation of 150,000 DM to have the organ completely renovated on the sole condition that the work was to be done in Germany. The risks of transporting the organ from Manila to Germany and back temporarily shelved the restoration project.
In 1962, the Historical Conservation Society offered its services to restore the organ, in anticipation of the second centennial anniversary of Las Piñas. A total of Php 4,975.00 was donated for the instrument alone. However, lack of funds only allowed partial repair works by Mr. Jose Loinaz.
An organ builder, Fr. Hermann Schablitzki, S.V.D., also attempted to conduct repair works to the bamboo organ. The condition of the bamboo organ reached its “terminal stage” – disconnected horizontal trumpets and bass pipes, three functional stops put of twenty-three, leakage of air from the chest, and piling of disconnected pipes inside the bamboo organ.
In 1970, Fr. Mark Lesage, C.I.C.M., and his assistant, Fr. Leo Renier consulted with several authorities on the bamboo organ. The experts all appeared to be in full agreement on the need for total restoration.
It was agreed that the crucial and sensitive work was to be shifted to Johannes Klais Org elbau (firm) and Hans Gerd Klais, one of the best organ builders in the world which had already garnered extensive experience in restoring Spanish style organs.
During the inauguration of the Las Piñas Church in 1972, Klais visited and assessed the bamboo organ. He remarked that the organ could still be repaired, but only in if the work was completed in the Company’s factory in Germany.
An estimated cost of 200,000 DM (Php 460,000 at that time) was needed, excluding transportation tickets for the technician, and other expenses.
Work on the instrument started in February 1974 and on February 18th,1975 the organ was once again ‘showcased’ to the world.
It had eighty six completely new pipes – 33 were trumpet pipes and 53 were bamboo pipes. At a one-hour concert at the Philippine Embassy at Bonn, Germany, world-renowned organist Wolfgang Oehms played the bamboo organ.
After that historic event, the launching of the first long-playing album of the bamboo organ was released. The restored bamboo organ returned home in March 13, 1975. Through the courtesy of Sabena Airlines, the musical instrument’s restored parts were ferried from Europe to Manila.
On March 16, 1975, the bamboo organ was received joyous welcome from the people of the Philippines. The joint restoration of the church and organ was a triumph of local and international cooperation.
In March 1973, two technicians, Joseph Tramnitz and Joseph Pick, arrived at Las Piñas and dismantled the organ. The repair of the bamboo pipes was done in Japan under Mr. Tsuda who had previously trained under Mr. Klais himself. The other parts of the organ were shipped to Germany. A special room, called KLIMAKAMMER, was built in his factory – having same temperature and humidity of the Philippines to prevent shrinking of bamboos.
A Bamboo Organ Inaugural Concert was held to mark its return to the Philippines.
Wolfgang Oehms was the featured performer, complemented by the Las Piñas Boys’ Choir and the Cultural Center of the Philippines Orchestra, under the baton of Maestro Luis C. Valencia, and the Maharlika Rondalla.
He played standard European compositions and two Filipino works; excerpts from Misang Pilipino by former dean of Philippine Women’s University College of Music, Lucrecia R. Kasilag (later became a National Artist) and commissioned Parangal by organ, rondalla, brass, woodwind, and percussion by Prof. Alfredo S. Buenaventura, the composer himself conducting.
Since then, the church has been the scene of many concerts and festivals. The Bamboo Organ is described by many international organ masters as one of the finest old organs in the world. Its construction of bamboo is noted as being one of the major factors that gives it a truly unique and lively sound.
The National Museum of the Philippines officially declared the Las Piñas Bamboo Organ a National Cultural Treasure on November 24, 2003. A panel of experts evaluated the instrument and were unanimous in their decision, since it is the only 19th century bamboo organ in the Philippines that has survived and still functioning