Of Churches and Convents: Traditional Church Architecture in Cuba

by Julio Cesar Perez-Hernandez, appearing in Volume 44

The Cuban Church is five hundred years old. Its origins date from the early sixteenth century and the first arrival of Spaniards to America. On October 28, 1492, Christopher Columbus arrived in Cuba. After kneeling he wrote in his diary: “This is the loveliest land ever beheld by human eyes.” Then he drove a wooden cross in the ground—la Cruz de la Parra—as an act of faith. This cross is venerated in the Church of Our Lady of the Assumption in Baracoa, the first outpost founded by the Spaniards in Cuba in 1511.

The Sixteenth Century: Establishing the Church in the New World

The Spanish soldier Don Diego Velazquez (1465-1524) founded several settlements in Santo Domingo before being appointed Governor of Cuba in 1509, where he founded seven outposts between 1511 and 1515 with the Dominican friar, Father Bartolomé de las Casas (1474-1566). These settlements were christened after the founders’ Catholic faith with names such as Nuestra Señora de la Asuncion de Baracoa (1511), San Salvador de Bayamo (1513), La Santísima Trinidad (1514), Sancti Spiritus (1514), Santa María del Puerto del Principe (1514), Santiago de Cuba (1515) and San Cristóbal de La Habana (1515).

The Catedral de San Cristóbal, Havana

Thus, Christianity was well established in Cuba from the sixteenth century onward with the Catholic Church as its key spiritual, ideological, and social pillar. But from the beginning, the Church was always an eclectic mix of Spanish and indigenous cultures. An early expression of this can be found in the devotion to the Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre, the patroness of Cuba, whose image was first sighted in 1612 by three youngsters who worked in the copper mines of El Cobre. They saw the Virgin Mary floating on the water with dried clothes and holding the Child Jesus in her left hand and a golden cross in her right hand.

The first small chapel built to venerate the Virgin of Cobre led to a great devotion that spread throughout Cuba. The chapel was replaced by a new church between 1670 and 1680, and it was here in 1868 that Cuba’s Founding Father Carlos Manuel de Cespedes prayed for success in the fight for independence from Spain.  Having become a world-famous pilgrimage site, this chapel was replaced by a basilica in 1926. The eclectic-style shrine sits on a plinth accessed via a monumental staircase. Its symmetrical façade features a central tower crowned by a dome, while the aisles flanking the central nave have smaller bell towers. The interior features Gothic ribbed vaulted ceilings and beautiful stained-glass windows. Three popes have visited this shrine: John Paul II (1998), Benedict XVI (2012), and Francis (2015).

Early Havana’s Importance

Havana, Cuba’s capital since 1607, was settled by the bay in 1519 when the first Mass and town council held under a leafy ceiba tree sanctioned the city’s foundation in Plaza de Armas. There the first parish—a bohio with a thatched roof later reconstructed with stone walls and terra-cotta tiles—sat next to the military parade ground and coexisted with the town council until 1776. From 1561 onward, the Spanish Fleet gathered in Havana’s port before the ships departed to Spain in convoy-like trips, having become the target of pirates.

These attacks led the Spanish King Philip II to build fortresses in Havana to defend what had become the most important naval hub in the Caribbean.

The seventeenth-century parish churches of cities such as Bayamo, Sancti Spiritus, Camaguey, Remedios, and Havana were destroyed either by hurricanes, fires, earthquakes, or pirates, which taught the Spaniards that buildings needed to be massive and solid if they were to endure. The trades and skills of several waves of Spanish labor helped to rebuild them in the eighteenth century when their vernacular character was refined based on an axial layout, clear geometry, and a tripartite composition close to classical principles. The finely executed wooden trusses with double-tied beams and ornate collar plates that resembled an inverted ship’s hull and displayed a Moorish influence supported by thick masonry walls and covered by pitched clay tiled roofs reflected the craftmanship. Still, they featured simple plans with several chapels and ornate altarpieces, one tower, and asymmetrical façades.

Cuban Churches: Serving Both the Sacred and the Secular

Not only did the churches spread the Catholic faith, they also nurtured nascent civic and academic institutions where science and knowledge were disseminated. Such were the Convent of Our Lady of Bethlehem (1712-1718), which housed the College of Bethlehem; the Dominican church and convent of San Juan de Letrán where the University of Havana was founded in 1728; and the Convent of Saint Augustine that held the Royal Academy of Science beginning in 1867. It was here that Albert Einstein addressed the Cuban scientific community during his visit to Havana in 1930.

Exterior of Convent of Saint Augustine, Havana
Interior of Convent of Saint Augustine, Havana

The Convent of Santa Clara of Assisi was the first nunnery established in Havana. It had a residential building, “The Sailor’s House,” placed at the center of one its three cloisters, which was said to have been built by a former corsair who turned an affluent entrepreneur and paid the nuns a lump sum to provide his daughter with a religious education to “prevent her from the mundane threats that lurk outside the convent.”

Two historical events related to literature and politics respectively were linked to the convent because it hosted one of Cuba’s most famous women, Mercedes Santa Cruz y Montalvo, the Countess of Merlin (1789-1844), who having escaped from the institution when she was nine years old, headed to Spain as a fare dodger and later married a count in France. She returned to Havana in 1840 and wrote the book Viaje a La Habana (1844), a romantic evocation of the city and her early years in it.

Some of Cuba’s seventeenth-century churches have undergone radical transformations over the years, such as the Church of Jesus Christ of the Bon Voyage (1640-1755), which housed the church and convent of Saint Philip Neri (1693-1757) in Old Havana. The church had a Latin cross plan with two octagonal towers that flanked a large, splayed arch with a balcony above.  Later, the church’s cloisters would house the influential Patriotic Society (Sociedad Economica de Amigos del Pais) and then the Free School of Noble Arts. The building was turned into a bank in 1929.

The Eighteenth Century and Cuban Baroque

In 1739 the Baroque-style church and convent of Saint Francis of Assisi was completed. Its unprecedented size and scale were reflected in its colossal coral stone bulk featuring three entrances of different designs and hierarchies and the widespread Latin cross plan composed around two cloisters that occupied a whole block. Twelve cruciform columns alluding to the twelve apostles support the barrel vaults of the main nave and the groin vaults of the aisles of the church. Their undulating silhouette with lunettes buttresses the imposing tower. The tower tops the façade’s deep, shell-like, fluted arch, and niches with statues. The arch is flanked by Tuscan columns. The side wings of the tripartite façade are crowned by Baroque gables with quatrefoils in their centers.

Exterior of Saint Francis of Assisi, Havana

The religious complex’s fate was altered, however, both by hurricanes and political events. The Franciscans abandoned the church when the British seized Havana (1762-1763) and converted the temple to the Anglican cult. Later, in 1841, after the exclaustration of male religious orders decreed by the 1835 Confiscation Law, it became the Custom House. The domed apse of the church was destroyed in the great hurricane of 1846. In 1907 it was sold to the second United States occupation government, and from 1916 to 1959 it housed the Ministry of Communications.

In 1996 the church was restored, and its main nave became a Concert Hall. The flat back wall has a trompe l’oeil painting of what the domed apse once looked like. Early in the twenty-first century, a garden devoted to Mother Teresa of Calcutta was built where the apse once was.

Interior of Saint Francis of Assisi, Havana

Our Lady of Mercy (1755-nineteenth century), and the Havana cathedral (1748-1777) are the most outstanding examples of Cuban Baroque, epitomized by their façades based on Italian precedents that reveal a hierarchical decorative emphasis in their centers. The layout of both churches was based on a traditional Latin cross plan, but the flatter and rectilinear front of the towerless symmetrical façade of Our Lady of the Mercy differs from the concavities and convexities of the cathedral and its asymmetrical towers and quatrefoils reminiscent of Vignola and Borromini.

Exterior of Our Lady of Mercy, Havana

While Our Lady of Mercy sits across a piazetta in the San Isidro neighborhood, the cathedral, devoted to the Virgin Mary, presides over the Cathedral Square and is the Metropolitan See of the Archdiocese of Havana. Our Lady of Mercy has an adjacent convent that boasts a superb cloister with three lofty arcades of Doric columns of exposed ashlar masonry, and the Conciliar Seminary of San Carlos and San Ambrosio was located next to the cathedral.

Our Lady of Mercy is lavishly decorated with paintings by European and Cuban artists such as Miguel Melero (1836-1907), Esteban Chartrand (1840-1884), and Ignacio Zuloaga (1870-1945), and its most outstanding feature is the Chapel of Lourdes, known as the Sistine Chapel of Cuban religious art.

The cathedral has a central nave whose arches are buttressed by eight stone flying arches located above the two side aisles, eight chapels, and a dome over the transept. Its Baroque interior is profusely decorated with paintings, frescoes, gilding, and sculptures such as the one devoted to Saint Christopher, the patron saint of Havana by Martin de Andujar Cantos (c.1602-1680).

Interior of Our Lady of Mercy, Havana

The interior was redesigned in Neoclassical style after Bishop Juan Jose Diaz de Espada y Landa (1756-1832) commissioned Italian artist Giuseppe Perovani (c.1765-1835) to create three paintings for the altar: the Delivery of the Keys, the Last Supper, and the Ascension.

The seminary adjacent to the cathedral was established in 1689 by Bishop Diego Evelino de Compostela (1638-1704), but the building was not completed until 1767, shortly before the Jesuits were expelled from Cuba by Pope Clement XIV (1705-1774). The building was built around a huge courtyard surrounded by stone arcades at ground floor level and paired columns supporting the upper floor with an L-shape gallery supported by wooden columns and a red tile roof. The seminary’s original façade consisted of an exemplary Baroque-style entry gate conceived as the vista terminus of Tejadillo Street, but its current main entrance faces the Bay of Havana within a monumental three-story high neo-Baroque-style façade designed by Cuban architect Cristobal Martinez Marquez in 1950. The seminary’s historic significance outshines its architectural significance, however, since eminent Cubans such as Felix Varela (1788-1853), Jose Antonio Saco (1797-1879), Jose Agustin Caballero (1762-1835), and Tomas Romay (1764-1849) were educated here.

Other Baroque-style churches were built either in Old Havana, such as the church and hospital of Saint Francis of Paula (1745) or in the outskirts of Havana, such as the church of Santa Maria del Rosario and Santo Domingo (1730-1748), San Francisco (1720-c.1755), and Our Lady of the Assumption (1721) in Guanabacoa, as well as the church within the fortress of San Carlos de La Cabaña (1763-1774), built after the British occupation of Havana.

In Camaguey, also known as the city of churches, the convent and hospital of San Juan de Dios (1755), the church and convent of Our Lady of the Mercy (1759), and Our Lady of Soledad (1776) featured thick masonry walls, clay tile roofs and one soaring Baroque tower.

Nineteenth-Century Growth and Expansion

From the late eighteenth century, Cuba enjoyed steady economic growth—its sugar cane industry became the third largest in the world—which reached its peak in the nineteenth century.  During this period, Cuba supported and enjoyed a culture of openness to science, technology, and management. In Havana, the existing colonial urban form was overtaken in terms of urban expansion and continuity as well as strategic needs to accommodate the growth of the population derived from the economic influx. The city’s urban landscape was redefined by new districts, new buildings, and new streetscapes with the spread of arcades according to the Plan de Ensanche (1817-1819) sketching out what Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier (1904-1980) called “The City of Columns.” The most famous of these marble-columned walkways (calzadas) was along Galiano Street, and it became a center of commerce.

New churches were built in the mid-eighteenth century: Our Lady of Monserrate (1843), El Cerro (Church of the Savior of the World, 1850), Jesus del Monte (1870), and the Church of the Holy Virgin of Carmen (1872-1883). While the Church of Our Lady of Regla, the Patroness of the Bay of Havana, built in the town of Regla across the bay in 1805, perpetuated syncretism with its cult to the black virgin of Regla, known as Yemaya in the Yoruba religion, the Marian vocation of the Cuban Catholic Church was confirmed in the new church consecrated to the patroness of Cuba, La Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre in 1838 in the Centro Habana.

The church of the Santo Angel Custodio was rebuilt in neo-Gothic style in 1871 after it was destroyed by a hurricane in 1846. The building was linked to patriotic, historic, and artistic events because Cuban patriot Jose Marti, also known as the Apostle of the Independence of Cuba, was baptized there in 1853. The church and its context were featured in Cuba’s first and most famous novel Cecilia Valdes or El Angel Hill (1839) written by Cirilo Villaverde (1812-1894). The church housed paintings by French painter Jean Baptiste Vermay (1786-1833), the first Director of the Painting Academy of Saint Alexander, and Jose Nicolas de la Escalera (1734-1804), considered Cuba’s first painter specializing in religious themes. The Spanish painter Victor Patricio de Landaluze (1830-1889) immortalized the church in his painting The Mystic of the Angel.

The neo-classical style prevailed in other churches built in Cuban cities such as Matanzas, Trinidad, and Camaguey. In Matanzas, the three most important churches were the cathedral (1855), Saint Peter Church (1857-1870) designed by Italian architect Daniel D’Allaglio, and Saint John the Baptist (1832), while in Trinidad, the Church of the Holy Trinity (1814-1892) and the church and convent of Saint Francis of Assisi (1813) became landmarks.

Changes in the Twentieth Century

The first United States intervention government in Cuba (1898-1902) led to a greater degree of religious freedom, evidenced in a wider variety of creeds and churches of different denominations expressing a diversified architectural repertoire. Havana experienced a significant urban expansion after a series of economic booms derived from foreign investment, local entrepreneurship, and external factors such as the peak price of sugar in the international markets during both world wars. At the turn of the century American architect Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue (1869-1924) designed the Santísima Trinidad Episcopal Cathedral for Havana in 1905 and the Church of All Saints in Guantanamo based on Beaux-Arts principles and the Spanish revival style.

Santísima Trinidad Episcopal Cathedral in Havana, 1905, by Bertram Goodhue (demolished)

The scale and the architectural vocabulary of churches from this period varied from the neo-Gothic chapel of the Quinta Las Delicias (1906) to the classical austerity of the Chapel of Santa Elena (1916) and from the eclecticism of the Saint Lazarus Leper hospital and church (1916) to the neo-Gothic style of the Church of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and Saint Ignatius of Loyola on Calzada de Reina—built for the Jesuits in 1922—and the neo-colonial style church and convent of the Virgin of Carmen on Infanta Street in Centro Habana, crowned by a gigantic statue of the virgin and with a gorgeous altarpiece made out of Cuban precious wood, built in 1927 for the Carmelite order.

After 1959, the relationship between the Church and the new revolutionary government changed radically, however, after the government expropriated Catholic schools, expelled priests, and banned religious education and public processions. The Marxist ideology imposed in the country by the socialist government used political propaganda to discourage parents from baptizing their children and from practicing religion. It also forbade building new church buildings. The celebration of Christmas was forbidden from 1969 until 1998, when Pope John Paul II asked for greater religious freedom. This request included allowing the publication of Palabra Nueva, or New Word, the official journal of the Archdiocese of Havana, and the construction of a new Catholic seminary of non-descript architecture built in the outskirts of Havana in 2010, which was blessed, paradoxically, by then-President Raul Castro. The Cuban Government has also allowed a new Greek Orthodox church to be built, San Nicolas de Mira, in 2003, and a new Russian Orthodox church in 2008 on the Avenue of the Harbor of Havana.

Clearly the roots of Cuba’s Catholic culture run deep, and they are embedded in the very fabric of the urban environment in buildings that have remained a visual reminder of the faith.  Since the late 1980s and early 1990s, Cuba has experienced a revival of that Catholic faith. Cuba’s churches are beacons of hope. We pray that these churches continue to fill and inspire the Cuban people to a renewed love of God and neighbor and a revival of the faith and life of their beloved country.