Havana’s oldest church

Por: Mons. Ramón Súarez Polcari


Havana of the sixteenth century was formed by small rooms where houses were built, first of table and guano, after masonry or singing stones and ceilings of wooden coffered more or less elaborate; on these rested Creole shingles made of cooked clay that at first came from Spain and then began to be made in the weaves of the island.
Among the stonework and shingle ceilings was the hermitage of the Holy Spirit. In 1620, Bishop Armendaris informed the King of the existence of a small church where black people were celebrated mass and dedicated to the Holy Spirit. The construction was located on the banks of the Habanero neighborhood of Campeche.
At the bee of Bishop Jerome Manrique de Lara, the Hermitage of the Holy Spirit was lifted in 1638. It was conceived as an auxiliary of the Parish Major and dedicated, especially, to the spiritual attention of blacks who abounded in that area or gathered there. Since 1654 the deceased settled and on 18 May 1674 it was declared a parish, becoming the second in the city.
The building of the temple of a nave dates back to 1638. It seems that many browns and brunettes, slaves and free (horros) intervened in the work: “blacks made and ended up with their alms and what were attended to them by the field master Don Diego de Villalba y Toledo being governor (1647-1653) whose promotion is due to this parish aid, being much necessary in that place because it is very grown up… Bury the in it, that there are crowds… There is a plazuela at the door of this church where on holidays, late, all black people come to dance and entertain themselves, with the consent of the Bishop and the Governor’s license, and with this they collect very good alms, so that masses are said for their deceased, as for the ornament and service of the Blessed Sacrament.”1
From the report we know that a lot of Habanera people lived in the parish territory. For example, the intramural parish standard of 1691 shows that there were 607 families in the parish of the Holy Spirit, a total of 3,150 people, of whom 2,379 were white and 771 black.

The temple
Already in the eighteenth century the great Bishop of Cuba, Friar Jerome Valdés and Nosti, who promoted so many works throughout his extensive diocese, felt a special affinity towards this parish. In 1720 he led to improvements to the temple, especially the stone apse of the presbytery made in a late Gothic style with carved ribs, unique in the temples of the city.
When he died, he wanted to be buried there. His burial site was unknown for more than two centuries until it was accidentally found in 1936. It was located next to the altar of the Christ of Humility and Patience. We assume that the remains were moved from the first place corresponding to the left wall of the presbytery, called the Gospel, to the site indicated above.
It is logical to think that when Msgr. Pedro Agustín Morell de Santa Cruz wanted to give the parish a second nave, the wall had to be removed to make the current arch. With the removal of the wall, the coffin containing the remains of Bishop Valdés had to be moved as well. No note of the transfer was found, if any.
The always remembered Msgr. Angel Gaztelu Gorriti, being parish priest of this church, had the magnificent idea of asking his friend, the Cuban sculptor Alfredo Lozano, to make a tomb sculpted in stone with the yacent statue of the bishop with all his episcopal attributes (mitra, staff, casulla, gloves and ring) to place inside the remains exhumed in 1936.

The two ships, the altars and the images
The primitive facade of the temple consists of a half-point cover with capitals tied to the sides of the jambs.2 A window or vain with jambs above the cover and two oval oculus or ox eyes on both sides, and in the simple fronton another smaller. The gates of temples and colonial buildings were made of large planks of very hard woods (mahogany, jiquí, anachana) and were adorned with bronze or iron nails with different designs.
On his pastoral visit to the Diocese of Cuba, Bishop Morell de Santa Cruz describes the church with the main altar facing the West and the main door to the East, with a square that predes it and two on each side facing north and south, respectively. I think he had the second ship built in the South. “The Main Chapel (presbytery) is of stonework and vault; the rest is rafas, wood and shingles.”

He speaks of nine altars “with moderate decency,” but does not describe them. Some of the current ones may be from that time. They’re mahogany. Five in neoclassical style, one baroque and one Gothic. The main altar and the chapel of the Sacrament are eclectic.
The current distribution does not correspond to descriptions of yesteryear. The High Altar has at its center the sculptural ensemble that represents the Holy Trinity. On the sides, in two niches, Saint Martha and Saint Agueda. The enlightenment of two angels who hold lamps help.
In the chapel of the tabernacle, the altar with a certain Baroque style has in its center the tabernacle and, above it, the image of the Sacred Heart of Jesus; as faithful custodians, two images of his Mother, our Lady, under the advocations of the Rosary (the oldest) and the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Finish the altar a small urn with the image of Saint Domingo de Guzmán.
In the main nave there are four altars with our Lady of Carmen, St Joseph, St Anthony of Padua and, highlighting in beauty and antiquity, the Holy Christ of Coronation or Humility and Patience. It is a carving in polychrome wood, seated and majestic.
In the second nave there are four other altars: that of Saint Lucia and that of Saint Barbara, virgins and martyrs. They’re both very old and beautiful. The one of Saint Barbara belonged to the chapel of the Artillery Mastery and his last transfer was at the feast of 1898.
The altar of the Crucifixion shows an impressive wood carving of the crucified Christ and the images of the Painful and St. John the Apostle. Finally, the neo-Gothic altar with the images of the Virgin Mary of Charity and the Immaculate Conception; on the sides the images of the Child Jesus of Prague and the Divine Child.
Returning to the naves, the most recent one was communicated with the primitive by means of five arches supported by the capitals of so many other stone pilasters.
The presbytery is bounded by four arches: a triumphal arch at the front and simpler ones, on the left side that opens towards the chapel of the Sagrario, another towards the facade of Acosta and the one that, attached to the wall, supports the Altar Mayor. About four oculus are round and small oculus.
The left and right arches stand out to the walls; in them are two frescoes: the one on the left represents the last Supper; the one on the right evokes Pentecost with the Blessed Virgin and the twelve Apostles.
The primitive ship is covered with a pottery of two skirts. The second has a roof of four skirts and both coated with Spanish-style shingles. The building was built with stonework and masonry.
Upon entering the temple, on the left, is the door that gives access to the wooden staircase of the bell tower and, followed, the lowered arch supported by the walls of the nave delimits the choir (wooden plank floor), where there was always an organ (described by Morell de Santa Cruz) that became useless. Today, the parish has a magnificent organ brought from Switzerland thanks to the donation made by a religious community of women. It is of keyboards and pedals that are mechanically operated with an electric air supplier in place of hand bellows. With a very high quality sound, it enlivens concerts and is used by the school of organisers of the Chair of Sacred Music of the Padre Félix Varela Cultural Center.

The marble baptismal font (Photo: Deglez)

The Baptistery
After the arch is on the left is the baptistery with ceiling and stone walls. It is kept by two iron bars with very beautiful designs. The entrance gate is finished in a half-pointed arch and in the arch of the fence there is a beautiful golden figure somewhat stylized from the Holy Spirit. The marble baptismal font is the primitive. In it were baptized several outstanding figures of our Habanera history; among others, José de la Luz y Caballero, Antonio Bachiller y Morales, Miguel Aldama, Luis de Ayestarán, Nicolás Ruiz de Espadero, Moisés Simons, Nicolás Azcárate and Eduardo Sánchez de Fuentes.
The baptistery has two walls; in one there is a built-in wardrobe and in which it faces the front of the entrance gate, a representation of the Baptism of the Lord, under bronze relief, by the Cuban sculptor Alfredo Lozano.

The bell tower and its bells
Bishop Morell points to the existence of a clock with his bell tower in the bell tower, but there is no word from him.
Attached to the facade is the bell tower, which is square in plan typical of the constructions of the Caribbean colonial Baroque. It consists of three bodies: the base and the intermediate have windows with boxes; the third features half-point arches that look at the four cardinal points and contain the bells mounted on transverse loggers. The tower is topped by a ramramidada roof with small attics on its four sides adorned by cornices and, at the top, the wooden cross.
The tower was completed by the master Pedro Hernández de Santiago in the first decades of the eighteenth century.

Bell Tower (Photo: Deglez)

Of the bells, the largest and oldest, with a more serious and beautiful sound, is dedicated to St Joseph and dates from 1688, in the first three years of the episcopal government of the Island of Bishop Diego Evelino Hurtado y Vélez (Compostela). They say that in their foundry many ounces of gold were added to bronze.
The smaller one is dedicated to Saint Jerome and was manufactured in 1709. By dedication and date, it was well commissioned by Bishop Jerome Valdés. It has to highlight a cross and the text prays pro nobis.
The third is still in size at first and is dedicated to Saint Nicholas of Bari; its manufacture dates back to 1734, when Friar Juan Lazo de la Vega and Cansino was bishop of Cuba.
There are two others who either had no dedication or date, or have been erased. One of them, the smallest and highest sound, was used to warn of the fires and accidents of the slum.
The facade continues another gate of two large jambs framed by a half-pointed arch with capitals and columns protruding to the facade (all in stonework). Above the arch stands a small balcony with iron grille and two-leaf door. This left section of the facade seems to correspond to a more modern stage even when the old section is finished.


The crypts
As a reminder of the ancient custom of burying the dead inside and around the churches, the burial crypts occupying the lower spaces of the presbytery and the chapel of the sanctuary are preserved. In the latter, a long time ago, work was carried out to reinforce the pillars that support the floor of the chapel and a restoration work is pending so that it can be visited.
The parish territory of the Holy Spirit borders that of the Sacrament of the Cathedral and that of the Holy Christ of the Good Journey along Muralla Street in its entire length, from the docks to the street of Monserrate. Ω

1 Bishop’s report to King Philip IV. General File of the Indies. Santo Domingo, 107.
2 Francisco Prat Puig: The Pre-Baroque in Cuba. A Creole school of Moorish architecture, Havana, 1947.

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