Editorial: Ecclesia in America

by Duncan G. Stroik, appearing in Volume 44

“Latin America! As Successor of Peter and Bishop of Rome, I greet you on the Fifth Centenary of your evangelization, remembering that year 1492 in which the ships of Spain, guided by Columbus, brought the seed of the Gospel to those fertile lands, also making the meeting of two worlds. ... America of the third Christian millennium, always be faithful to Jesus Christ! Be worthy of those selfless missionaries who planted the seed of faith in you. ... Latin America, Christian America, Christ is your shining beacon, your joy, and your hope!”

- Pope John Paul II, Santo Domingo, October 12, 1992

Someone once said that historic Latin-American architecture is the Counter- Reformation without any Protestantism. In the United States, on the other hand, we have been very influenced by the architecture of iconoclasm, whether as a reaction or an accommodation to it. As the United States becomes more Hispanic, I hope the Church will continue to learn from the rich traditions of the South, including its art, architecture, and devotions.

This issue of Sacred Architecture is devoted to exploring this historic richness and offers glimpses of some new and restored Spanish churches in Latin America and the United States. We have talked about doing this issue for many years, but it was always deemed cost prohibitive. However, with the construction of the new church of Santa María Reina de la Familia in Cayalá, Guatemala, a serious essay in Spanish architecture by Estudio Urbano, we felt we had to share the good news.

In the twentieth century, the Catholic faith and its architecture has been under persecution in Latin America, first by secular regimes and second by the Modernist architectural establishment. We dedicate this issue of Sacred Architecture to the welcome resurgence of Spanish architecture in Latin America and the United States as visionary patrons, Church leaders, and architects revive the tradition.

Latin America comprises twenty-one countries with 500 years of architecture, so it is no surprise that we find there a great variety of architectural styles, from the California Missions to the Baroque, and from the Gothic to the Rococo. All these buildings show a strong influence from the Counter-Reformation architecture of Europe plus modifications by local architects, clients, and craftsmen.

The new revival of sacred architecture in Latin America today highlights four great Latin traditions. First, classical and Gothic architectural languages which employ colonnades, pilasters, pediments, entrances, and domes. Second, large flat surfaces combined with a profusion of ornament at doorways, windows, altars, and ceilings.  Third, façades with multi-level designs of columns and arches framing sculpture along with prominent belltowers. Fourth, the design of sanctuaries and retablos, which are a version of Jacob’s Ladder utilizing angels, saints, tabernacles, and columns to rise up to the the apex of the sanctuary. While some of these new or renovated churches are rather severe, like the historic Mission churches of the United States and Canada, others are rich in ornament and unafraid of religious iconography.

While Modernism took over in Latin America in the twentieth century, just as it did in Europe and the United States, many see it as a secular, puritanical, and foreign imposition on a Catholic culture.

Interestingly in the United States, despite the hegemony of Modernist architecture, the Mission Revival and Spanish Colonial Revival of the early twentieth century remain popular for the design of new residences, neighborhoods, shopping areas, and even public buildings. Catholics of many ethnic backgrounds in the United States have embraced the Spanish styles for religious edifices, particularly in California, Texas, and Florida. Thankfully, today we are witnessing a new revival of sacred architecture in the United States and Latin America. Perhaps now is the time to support this revival by creating a Spanish language journal dedicated to sacred art and architecture.