The Major Parish of San Cristobal de La Habana

Por: Mons. Ramón Suárez Polcari

Catedral de La Habana

Let me begin this article with a text by the chronicler and conqueror Bernal Díaz del Castillo, in which he reports on the inhabitants who supplied food to the grijalva navy, on his way through Matanzas:

“It is close to old Havana that at that time [1518] was not populated the villa where agora is, and in that port had all the most neighbors of Havana their rooms. And from there ours of the gamer and pork were provided.”1

A simple motif encourages me to remember the previous fragment: the use of the term “Old Havana”. Certainly, the chronicler referred to the penultimate foundation of the village, but, reaching the aftermath of the nineteenth century and, above all, in the twentieth century, it was named after the part of the city that constitutes the historic center.

The first church
Like the rest of the houses of the villa, the first church in Havana was a bohio with a wooden cross and a rustic bell tower made of sticks to hold the few bronze bells brought from Hispaniola or directly from Spain. We do not have, at least so far, some news of a church in the previous two foundations; but if they existed, they shouldn’t have gone from a simple bohio.
In the summer of 1538, a French privateer ransacked the city, stole the church bells and outraged, with his cronies, an image of St. Peter.2 Later, in May 1544, Bishop Diego Sarmiento visited the village, and in his report the king describes the situation in which he was:

“We arrived in havana on May 22nd, ascension day […], I visited this church. [She’s served] by a clergyman and a sacristan. The villa asks for two clerics and we leave it provided. It is arranged here to make a stone church and hospital, relying on V M alms. There is in this great need to bring water, which there is not.”3

After almost six years, the stone construction of the new church was undertaken. In 1550, Governor Gonzalo Pérez de Angulo reported that in August he had sent the bohio to be removed to replace him with a church of lime and singing. According to its description, the new construction would have “one hundred feet earlier than less and the chapel larger forty feet and width forty feet”. Therefore, the sacristy would be behind the back of the chapel.
Documents from the time let it be known that, at the end of November 1552, the work was slow because of a lack of resources. The walls, for example, were two states above the ground. The detractors of the then governor accused him of pocketing the money of the alms collected from the neighbors and passers-by. This amount was in addition to the three hundred and ninety-five pesos existing before their arrival.

Everything seems to indicate that during the duration of the construction of the Parish Major, mass was sung in the hospital.
In 1555, the French pirate Jacques de Sores occupied Havana and demanded a ransom for her. The amount of money collected by the neighbors fell below the expectations of the pirate, who, annoyedly, set the village on fire on all four sides. Only the walls of the church stood. Sores, as a good Huguenot, stole the images placed on the altars and his men became hoods in the outraged dresses.4
When Friar Bernardino de Villalpando, the fifth bishop of Cuba, visited the village in 1561, the church had not yet been rebuilt. Years later, in 1574, another cleric, in this case Bishop Castillo, wrote that the parish was no longer straw, as the neighbors had built it “of tapia and very firm and anchurose brick”. He further said that the master Gerónimo de Avellaneda “finished covering the church and placed perfectly at a great cost (8 thousand ducats) of his estate”.5 The bishop referred to the contributions of Gerónimo de Rojas, nephew of Juan de Rojas, one of the founding and richest neighbors of the village. After a while, the sacristy was completed. Carpenter Andrés Azaro was the architect of wood coffering and shingle roofing.
The following year, Bishop Castillo himself designed to build a tower for the church and it was the engineer Francisco Calona who was responsible for the plan. The lobby and the governor asked the king for help in building the sacristy, grandstands, and towers. The support consisted of a alms of lime and brick, as well as a dozen slaves of the Force Castle. Taking advantage of the report, the monarch was made known that the church lacked an altarpiece, books, ornaments and bell (he really had one, but he aspired to have three more).
According to the custom of the time, there were burials within the church and it was very common for the owners, while living, to use the place to place their seats during liturgical celebrations.

A highly qualified witness describes the church
Bishop Pedro Agustín Morell de Santa Cruz, in report to the King on his pastoral visit began in 1755, gives a rather detailed description of the main church of San Cristobal in Havana. He begins by saying that “his position was two short blocks from the Navy and a space of four semi-squares.”6
Other details described by the bishop refer that the building was oriented from East to West; the high altar to the East and the main door to the West, while the two sides were located one to the north and the other to the south. The oldest walls were “refas” (rafas) and the newest of “cantería”. The roof was made of shingles and was supported by a coffered wooden coffered coffered toscaly carved. It had two naves and stone arches without any borrowing. For Bishop Morell, the Parish Major was simply made with bad taste, so that “if she were stripped of the ornate she has, it would seem at first sight a great tarazana or cellar.”7

The temple housed eleven altars (counting the largest that excelled at the altarpiece of considerable magnitude and pike of the patron). On the table rested a sanctuary, two lecterns in the form of eagles and candlesticks, all in solid silver. There was also a lamp three rods high, all of it of filigree of good goldsmithing but that did not fulfill its function daily because it was very high; for enlightenment there was a smaller one. The church also had a seat for dignity; two ambones; a pulpit with its turnavoz and six candlesticks, all in overdorned wood (laminated in gold); two choirs, one high with a small organ of “sound voices” and space for the ministers of the chapel (singing); the bass was all of a toscaly worked mahogany; with little space for the clergy and where the episcopal chair and facistol (lectern where the book was placed with the scores of the sacred texts for Gregorian singing) of small size.
The only tower was located to the left of the front door and was wide and low. It had three bodies: the lowest served as a baptistery. It had five bells, one larger and four medium, plus a clock with its own bell.
It was both the transfer of limestones, the public and the passage of troops that religious services were hampered by noise. In general, the bishop considered that the Parish Major was not at the height of the city (I think she was blindfolded for the church of St. Ignatius, as affirmed by her willingness to build the chapel of Loreto). It reminds the King that his predecessor, Bishop Juan Lazo de la Vega, OFM, had requested to build another temple with better provisions, but failed to obtain permission.
On June 30, 1741, in Havana Bay, an explosion occurred in the santabarara of the ship Invincible, which, according to a somewhat exaggerated description, was a gigantic ship built in the shipyards of the arsenal, the work of the shipbuilder Juan de Acosta. The event caused panic and grief for the damage it caused to several buildings in the city, including the Major Parish building, whose walls cracked in such a way that, since then, it has been declared in danger of ruin. However, it continued to be used until Bishop Santiago José de Hechavarría determined its closure and demolition. All his assets were transferred to the Oratory of San Felipe Neri. It was never known where Bishop Morell de Santa Cruz was buried, for his tombstone was not found.

The new temple
In Real Cédula on July 11, 1772, King Charles III approved the transfer of the Parish Major of San Cristobal de Havana to the church of San Ignacio of the College of San José. The demolition of the ancient temple was also approved because of the poor state it was in. That land would be occupied by the chapter house, that of the captain general and the prison. The execution of the works was slow.

In the Memoirs of the Patriotic Society of Havana in 1841, a small article appears concerning the image of the patron saint of Havana. El Curioso, who thus signed his article, tells us that Don Martín de Andújar, natural carver artist of Chinchilla, La Mancha, Castilla, carved the image of great proportions in his workshop in Seville and that it cost 402 pesos with 5 reais. As usual, it was shipped by pieces (more than 120). Already in Havana, in 1633, the master carpenter and carter, José Ignacio Valentín Sánchez, was commissioned to adapt the pieces, who found on his chest a paper in which the author asked god to begged for his soul. The artist Luis Esquivel was commissioned to paint and varnish it for an amount of 1,236 pesos. The fixed image was disproportionate in its dimensions.
The author of the article also speaks of an alleged image of hollowed-out cedar wood to serve in the processions of the village. The ensemble would consist of four angels six-quarters tall, as well as a base and ledge with strong bars for your best safety in lowering and climbing it from the church atrium. The work was commissioned from Master Valentín Sánchez.
This image did become carved, but it disappeared. The one found in the Cathedral and which certainly had to be placed in 1666 in the Parish Major, is made of solid wood and very heavy.
The tabernacle and its silver candlesticks, possibly made by Creole goldsmiths, were donated by Juan de Rojas to the Parish Major. They are currently kept on display in the room dedicated to the memory of the old building, in the Museum of the Captains General, as a loan by the Archdiocese.
The four water fountains and a baptismal font sent to carve in stone by Bishop Morell de Santa Cruz with the intention of placing them in the Parish Major in 1758 were moved to the new building and placed on either side of the central nave attached to the columns of the arcades and facing the central gate. Ω

1 Bernal Díaz del Castillo: True history of the conquest of New Spain, Mexican Publishers United, SA., 2005, p. 19.
2 See Dr. Irene Wright: Documented History of St. Kitts of Havana in the 16th Century, (File of the Indies 53-4-9), Printing The Twentieth Century, p. 13.
3 Pbro. Reynerio Lebroc Martínez: Cuban Episcopologio. First pastoral visit of Bishop Diego Sarmiento to the Diocese of Cuba. 1544, transcription of the text preserved in the Royal Library of History, Miami, Universal Editions, 2009, pp. 246-247.
4 Dr. Irene Wright: ob. cit., p. 29.
5 Ibid., p. 77.
6 Peter Augustine Morell of Santa Cruz: Report to the King of the ecclesiastical visit. Contemporary Image Editor, Library of Cuban Classics, pp. 8-11.
7 Ibid.

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