Most visitors to Puerto Rico seem unaware that the oldest church in the United States is on the Caribbean island territory.
Puerto Rico, discovered by Christopher Columbus in 1493, was later established as a full Spanish colony by the conquistador Juan Ponce de León in 1508 – a century before Samuel de Champlain’s founding of Quebec and 99 years before the English colony in Jamestown, Virginia. It was from his base in Puerto Rico that Ponce de León discovered Florida in 1513.
As everywhere else in the New World, clergymen and other missionaries propagating the Christian faith through the prism of the Roman Catholic Church stood alongside the explorers as Spain expanded its empire.
Founded in 1521, the Puerto Rican capital of San Juan celebrates its fiftieth anniversary. The occasion, delayed by the coronavirus pandemic, kicked off earlier this month with a visit from King Felipe VI of Spain.
Located in the heart of Old San Juan, as the historic old town is called, the Metropolitan Cathedral Basilica of St. John the Baptist (Catedral Basílica Metropolitana de San Juan Bautista) was one of the first buildings erected.
With its dedication to Saint John the Baptist, the cathedral recalls that the very name of San Juan comes from John the Baptist, the prophet who prepared the way for Jesus Christ. Reminders of this Christian heritage are everywhere, including in the heraldry of the coat of arms and the great seal of the territorial government.
The cathedral has seen various iterations since Bishop Alonso Manso, the first prelate.
Notably, a major renovation in the 19th century resulted in the current neoclassical look. A later modification after the acquisition of Puerto Rico by the United States following the Spanish-American War extended the height of the western front along Christ Street (Calle del Cristo) to ensure that the bishop’s seat Roman Catholic is not eclipsed by the construction of a now- demolished Protestant church belonging to the Episcopalians.
However, traces of what originally stood can be found at the east end of the cathedral, which houses a small chapel built of sandstone in a vernacular adaptation of medieval Gothic architecture. As far as this columnist knows, the space is one of only two examples of true Gothic anywhere on American soil. The other is the recently restored Church of St. Joseph (Iglesia de San José), also in Old San Juan, with its Gothic vault dating from 1532.
One of the cathedral’s most important treasures is the tomb of Ponce de León from around 1836. He was buried in San Juan after he died in Cuba from wounds sustained in a 1521 battle with Indians in Southwest Florida.
Unfortunately, a full restoration is desperately needed as category five Hurricane Maria inflicted extensive damage both exterior and interior.
If you are going to
The Metropolitan Cathedral-Basilica of Saint John the Baptist is open daily with no entrance fees for visitors. Roman Catholic masses are celebrated at 9 a.m. and 11 a.m. every Sunday and again on Monday, Tuesday and Friday at 12:15 p.m.
Book a room at the Palacio Provincial hotel. The relatively new boutique hotel, housed in a Spanish colonial-era building, offers incredible views of the cathedral from its rooftop infinity pool.
Discover Puerto Rico offers comprehensive trip planning resources on its website.
Dennis Lennox writes a travel column for the Christian Post.
Dennis Lennox writes about travel, politics, and religious affairs. It has appeared in the Financial Times, Independent, The Detroit News, Toronto Sun and other publications. To follow @dennislennox on Twitter.