Latin America

San José Church in Puerto Rico, a reflection of God's beauty

The church of San José in San Juan de Puerto Rico is undoubtedly the most important temple in the country, which can now be seen restored.

Fernando Felices-August 24, 2021-Reading time: 8 minutes
san jose Puerto Rico

In the year of St. Joseph and on the feast of the Patron of the Universal Church, March 19, 2021, the former convent church of St. Dominic and St. Thomas Aquinas, today St. Joseph Church, in San Juan de Puerto Rico, was re-consecrated and inaugurated for worship. This was the culmination of a 20-year rehabilitation process in which specialists from all over the world intervened. In 2001 it had to be closed because its Elizabethan vaults built in 1532 threatened to collapse. Special scaffolding had to be put in place to stabilize them, in addition to ventilating and drying out the entire building whose walls, due to the failure of the drains, were rotting the altarpieces and frescoes attached to them. The World Monument Watch put it on its list of heritage in serious danger of being lost. It required intensive attention. 

Although theologically the cathedral of the old walled city is the most important temple in the country, this temple of San José is the oldest and most important in the country because of its artistic, spiritual and cultic treasures as well as for being the most extensively studied. It is perhaps the third oldest church in the New World still in use. It was part of the first stone building to be built by the Spaniards on the islet of San Juan. The site where it stands, on the highest point of the urban area, overlooking the Atlantic and the San Juan Bay, was donated by the conqueror and first governor of the island of San Juan del Boriquén, Don Juan Ponce de León. Bishop Damián López de Haro, at the beginning of the XVII century, describes it: "it lords over the whole city". With this he refers not only to the physical location of the convent and its church, but also to its influence in all areas of the evangelization of the country.

Stages of its construction and mishaps   

Its construction in limestone and brick began in 1532 and was built up to its transept by 1539, when the gold production crisis stopped it. It used the same scheme of a single nave with collateral chapels that was used in the Dominican conventual temple in Santo Domingo, in Hispaniola. Its architect is not known for certain, but there are important indications that it was Rodrigo Gil de Lienzo. The second major construction campaign was from 1635-1641. The third phase was to cover the central nave with a barrel vault made of brick between 1773-1774 and the last phase was to enlarge the Chapel of Bethlehem in 1855. It is the only church in the country for which 4 kings of Spain gave alms: Charles V for its initial construction, Charles III for the 18th century, Isabella II for its marble floors in 1858 and Juan Carlos I who donated its current main altar in 1987.

The church was devastated twice by the iconoclastic fury of the English in 1598 and then by the Dutch in 1625, by hurricanes and earthquakes, and by the plagues of the tropics: humidity, termites, moths and, let's face it, by clerical negligence. It was deprived of its living lung, the convent, by the disentailment of Mendizábal, that larceny of the liberal government, which was executed in San Juan in 1838. It was restored and renovated by the Jesuits (1858), when it was entrusted to them as the "formal chapel" of the Conciliar Seminary. The Vincentian Fathers, in charge since 1886, endowed it with three large neoclassical altarpieces (1908-1911) and made other improvements around 1954. Cardinal Luis Aponte Martínez remodeled it from 1978 to 1982. The last restoration, (2001-2021) was interrupted three times, by mishaps in lime supplies, then by the consequences of the terrible Hurricane Maria (2017) and by the pandemic of COVID 19. It cost about 11 million dollars to rehabilitate it. 

Important people and saints associated with its history

The first Bishop to arrive in America, the Bishop of the island of San Juan, Don Alonso Manso (1460-1539), brought the Dominicans to the city, recently moved to the island in 1921, to help him as the first Inquisitor of the New World. The convent was founded by Fray Antonio de Montesinos (1475-1540), the first defender of the rights of the Indians. Fray Luis Cancer, OP, prior, as well as Fray Pedro de Córdoba and Fray Antonio Dorta, taught grammar and theology, and Fray Bartolomé de las Casas also lived in this convent, experiencing one of his first failures in one of his projects of "pure" evangelization. The inhabitants of the city took refuge in this convent when they attacked the city in their canoes in 1528. It housed the first school of higher studies on the island, the Estudio General de los Dominicos, where generations of Creoles studied and prepared for the priesthood and religious life. Like other Spanish-American convents, it provided important cultural services in the walled city, the modest stronghold of San Juan. It provided the opportunity for musicians and choirs, painters and sculptors, orators and scholars, to exhibit their skills and thus recreate the most demanding spirits of the city.

If the bishops were buried in the Cathedral, the chapel of this temple dedicated to Our Lady of the Rosary, patroness of the order of preachers, was the pantheon of the governors of the island from the mid-seventeenth century. There are perhaps 4,000 burials under its floors and in its five crypts. 

The first important personage in the history of America to be buried under its main altar was its patron saint, Don Juan Ponce de León. His remains were brought in 1547 from Havana, where he had died victim of an attack by Florida Indians, by his grandson, namesake and first cornista of the island, who after being widowed, became a priest. The deceased members of the conquistador's family were also buried there.

A Puerto Rican widow with a reputation as a saint, Blessed Gregoria Hernández of Arecibo (c.1560-1639), who imitated the life and virtues of the Venerable María Raggi, enjoyed the esteem and admiration of the friars and the inhabitants of the city, and attended daily Mass in this church. Blessed Mother Dolores Rodríguez Sopeña (1848-1918), the foundress of the Lady Catechists, who lived in San Juan from 1871 to 1873, was the spiritual director of the Jesuits and attended Mass there. In this church she founded the first group of Daughters of Mary on the island. The Puerto Rican Blessed Carlos Manuel Rodríguez (1918-1963), a self-taught lay liturgist, used to pass by the church when he went to the first Catholic bookstore in the country, La Milagrosa (1942), attached to the church. 

From this community, the Vincentian Fathers attended to the poor of the neighboring suburb outside the walls of La Perla, whom the Daughters of Charity also catechized and educated academically in the "San José" school. Next to the church was the first Catholic printing press of the island from which the magazine "Revista de la Caridad" was published. La Milagrosa (founded in 1922). The famous patron saint festivities are still celebrated in the neighboring street of San Sebastián, which in 1950 was inaugurated by a well-known Vincentian parish priest, Father Juan Madrazo, CM.

In it is buried the Dominican tertiary, the first and best known colonial rococo painter of the island, the brown José Campeche y Jordán (1751-1809). Here rests the first Puerto Rican millionaire, the privateer Miguel Henríquez (c. 1674-1743). This ingenious Brown, also a native of San Juan, went from being a salesman and simple retail merchant to being a businessman and merchant. The King gave him a privateer's license and he was a slave trader. In the first three decades of the 18th century he became the richest and best known Puerto Rican. In 1710 the King of Spain, for the services rendered to the Crown in defense of the overseas provinces, with an armada of his own ships, named him "Captain of Sea and War". A biographer says of him: he was the most notable character that Puerto Rico engendered throughout its Hispanic history. For the first time in the history of the country, one of his sons became part of the world of the capitalist bourgeoisie and was known and feared by the Dutch, French, Danes and other enemies of Spain. Faced with the harassment of the Royal Treasury, he took refuge in the Dominican convent in 1735 and was buried in that church in 1743, with a pauper's burial.

Center of irradiation of Marian devotions

This temple was the most important focus of irradiation of Marian devotions of the island. The first important devotion, popular patron saint of the city, was the Virgin of Bethlehem, the work of an outstanding workshop of Flanders in the late fourteenth century, to whom the chroniclers indicate that the angels sang matins. Then the Virgin of Candelaria, who had her own altar and crypt. The cult of the Virgin of the Rosary also spread from her chapel throughout the island. That is why many Puerto Ricans are accustomed to wear the Rosary around their necks as a kind of scapular. And the PP. Paúles, who ran it from 1886 to 1967, promoted the cult to the Milagrosa, who came to preside over its main altar. 

Artistic importance 

Scholars of Hispano-American art have catalogued it as the temple of most artistic interest in our colonial history. It has archaizing aspects and other novelties. The double vaults of its presbytery and transept were built with the so-called cantharite vault, a late Roman and Byzantine technique that continued to be used in the Gothic and Elizabethan periods of the Spanish Mediterranean. Between the mortar that fills the sálmer or kidney of the vaults lie embedded a great quantity of imperfect clay jars that were light fillings. 

Our convent church in San Juan is a prelude and also a companion of this late blooming of the Elizabethan style with Plateresque elements in the New World, which will leave hundreds of extraordinary conventual sister temples, especially in the Valley of Mexico. The most distinguished scholars of Spanish-American art who have had the pleasure of visiting it almost unanimously emphasize it above all for the sensation of spatial amplitude accentuated by the happy solution of the central vault in rampant form to counteract the thrusts. The Marqués de Lozoya emphasizes the "effect of imposing grandeur... (with) Byzantinism... in the transept of the church...: the application as a covering system of clay pots fitted one into the other as in Santa Sofia in Constantinople".

Historian and artist Osiris Delgado indicates that "the main aspect that justifies the architectural excellence of the church of San José and that distinguishes it as one of the best examples of Gothic architecture in America is that a relatively reduced space, such as the transept, manages to give a sensation of amplitude by counterbalancing both sides of the main vault with quarter spheres whose keystone is common to that of the formero arch. And although it is not a formula completely foreign to Elizabethan architectural solutions, it is perhaps the first feature of our Island that responds to a spatial conception differentiated from those of other parts of the New World". That is to say, it is a first original solution in America, of an imported European style.

In its patrimony stands out the small panel of the Virgin of Bethlehem, from the last quarter of the 14th century, perhaps by a follower of Van der Weyden, the Brussels master of the History of St. Joseph or Jacob van Laethem. It was stolen in 1972. It also housed 6 rococo paintings by Campeche, some of them ex votos. Among them was his most important religious work: Santo Domingo Soriano (1796). It has the first fresco painting made in the country, San Telmo (c. 1545), as well as the first sculpture made on the island, the Renaissance coat of arms of the Ponce de León family (c. 1541). It keeps works of some notable Spanish sculptors: the miraculous Christ of the Ponce family, from the mid-sixteenth century, a San Vicente Ferrer, by Juan de Mesa, a disciple of Martínez Montañes, a Christ tied to the column from Cadiz from the eighteenth century, a St. Joseph and a Heart of Mary by Gabriel de Astorga y Miranda from Seville. In the last restoration were found in the pendentives of the chapel of the Rosary some mysterious baroque sirens of the mid-seventeenth century, with bouquets of roses in the outstretched arms, alluding to the battle of Lepanto.

This restoration confirms the teaching of St. John Paul II: "The Church has always considered that through art... the infinite beauty of God is reflected... The organic nature of cultural goods... does not allow us to separate their aesthetic enjoyment from their religious purpose. For example, the sacred building reaches its aesthetic perfection precisely during the celebration of the divine mysteries, since it is precisely at that moment that it shines in its most authentic meaning. The elements of architecture, painting, sculpture, music, song and lights are part of the unique complex that welcomes for its liturgical celebrations the community of the faithful, constituted by 'living stones' that form a 'spiritual building'".

The authorFernando Felices

Pastor of the Grotto of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Lourdes.

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