Spanish Sacred Architecture in the Americas During the Past Twenty-Five Years: Latin America

by Duncan G. Stroik, appearing in Volume 44

Chachapoyas, Peru, 2010 | The Cathedral of Saint John the Baptist has served the Diocese of Chachapoyas since 1843. On May 14, 1928, an earthquake of magnitude 7.3 almost destroyed the entire city, leading to the reconstruction of the church in the same year. The church was partially damaged by another earthquake in the 1970s and was replaced with a circular modern building, locally referred to as “the umbrella.” By 2010 the people of the diocese had created such an outcry against the cathedral that the nave of the modern cathedral was rebuilt and it was given the same neo-classical façade as it had before.


Mexico City, Mexico, 2022 |Twenty-three artifacts were found in the restoration work of the Metropolitan Cathedral. After an earthquake in 2017, reconstruction of the dome began due to “moderate” damage. In December 2022, a roof tile fell, revealing a small lead box with a Latin inscription. The box contained a piece of parchment painted with a  biblical inscription. Workers found twenty-two other similar boxes. They had been placed in small niches in the lantern of the dome. While studying the boxes, the restoration team from the National Institute of Anthropology and History found notes with prayers, wooden and palm leaf crosses, paintings, and fragments of clay and wax medallions. Arturo Balandro, general director of sites and monuments, said that the boxes reflect the final period of construction of the cathedral (built from 1573 to 1813). One of the boxes had a note listing who worked on the cathedral and included the date 1810. After being studied, the boxes will be returned to the dome’s lantern.


Aútlan, Mexico,  2005 | The façade of the Cathedral of Holy Trinity was finally completed at the end of 2005. Started in 1893, the construction of the church had stopped and started multiple times. It was named the seat of the Diocese of Aútlan when the diocese was created by Pope John XXIII in 1961, and a building campaign began the same year. During this period, the first bishop Don Miguel González Ibarra completed the vaults of the nave and finished the towers. The completed façade has been described as a neo-classical composition with a hint of Baroque.


Caieiras, Brazil, 2008 | Our Lady of the Rosary was declared a minor basilica, only four years after its completion in 2008. The church began construction in 2006, culminating in the solemn dedication on February 24, 2008, celebrated by Cardinal Franc Rodé, then-Prefect of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life and Archbishop Emeritus of Ljubljana. On April 21, 2012, Pope Benedict XVI declared it a minor basilica. This neo-Gothic church took inspiration from medieval cathedrals, especially Sainte-Chapelle and Notre-Dame in Paris. The church also features stained glass windows and a richly painted interior. The site includes other buildings such as an auditorium, lodging for seminarians and other visitors, and a library containing 65,000 works. The complex sits at the top of the Serra da Cantareira, a mountain range running through the state of São Paulo, on a site of 107-square-kilometers that was donated by a retired equestrian.


Camargo, Bolivia, 2022 | The parish church of Santiago Apóstol in Camargo reopened after seventeen months of restoration work. Through raffles, fairs, and other events, the parish was able to save the money necessary, initially estimated to be over 778,000 Bolivianos (approximately $112,680 USD). The project included outfitting the historic church with new lighting and sound systems. Further work in the sanctuary included work on the altar, the baldacchino, and the ambo. The church reopened its doors on October 30, 2022, hosting a Mass with three invited archbishops, followed by a serenade in the plaza outside. The church, almost 150 years old, has been classified as a national landmark, and is a major attraction in the province of Nor Cinti in southern Bolivia. The pastor, Father Otto Straus, proclaimed that the church is one of the most important architectural works of the Cintis region.


Paramaribo, Suriname, 2010 | One year after its 200th anniversary, the cathedral reopened its doors after restoration work. The current Cathedral-Basilica of Saint Peter and Paul, or Sint-Petrus-en-Pauluskathedraal, began construction in 1883, and was consecrated in 1885, even though the towers were not completed until 1901. Depending on who you ask, the neo-Gothic cathedral is the largest wooden structure in Suriname, the Caribbean, Latin America, or even the Western Hemisphere. The church is approximately 59 meters (194 feet) long, 16.5 meters (54 feet) wide, 14.6 meters (48 feet) tall, and 44 meters (144 feet) to the top of the cross on the towers. The structure is made of greenheart and basralocus wood, while the interior is paneled with unpainted Surinamese Cedar. In 1977 the cathedral underwent a restoration, but failed to address the issue of termites in the wood, leading to another renovation project starting in 2002 for the cathedral to be habitable. This was followed by a final formal restoration starting in 2007 with funding from the European Union. Finally in 2010, the church reopened a year after its 200th anniversary. In 2014, Pope Francis designated the renovated church as a minor basilica.


Punta Cana Village, Dominican Republic, 2002 | Our Lady of the Pillar  Catholic Church. The church was sited on a parcel to the east of a public square. The entrance to the church faces west. A school occupies the south side of the square. The square was originally conceived as the center of a neighborhood of small houses and was meant to be the beginning of a workers’ village, which eventually became the more upscale Punta Cana Village. The small church consists of a tall nave which ends in an apse with a half dome. The side aisles are loggias opening to the neighborhood. One of them leads to a tiny Blessed Sacrament chapel. The other leads to the sacristy. The church is built of concrete, with  the exterior partially clad in caliza stone and partially in perrilla stucco. The interior is unpainted plaster, including pilasters, entablature, and archivolts. The architects were Ernesto Buch and Zorrilla & Baquero, Arquitectos.


Corales de Punta Cana, Dominican Republic, 2023 | Chapel at Villa Las Anas. This chapel, meant for private prayer and meditation, was built at a private residence. The chapel is on one side of a path lined with frangipani that leads to the entrance gates of the forecourt to the large house. The chapel, designed by Ernesto Buch, is built of concrete and has the shape of a cube with a pyramidal roof. The pyramid is topped by a bronze finial with a sphere.


Corales de Punta Cana, Dominican Republic, 1997 | Chapel at the Oscar de la Renta House. This chapel is sited along the central axis of a private residence and its walled forecourt. The design by Ernesto Buch is a humble tribute to Inigo Jones. A faux clock is painted on the tympanum, to further evoke Jones’ Saint Paul’s Covent Garden Church in London. The chapel walls are built of the local “caliza” limestone, cut by hand with axes. The Tuscan columns in antis, the corner piers, and other architectural elements are in the beautiful Dominican coral stone, “coralina.” The half dome at the apse was carved out of a single block of coralina stone, lifted and placed with the help of a large crane. In contrast to the thick stone walls, the roof is a light wood structure with cedar shingles.


Corales de Punta Cana, Dominican Republic, 2004 | Chapel at the house of Count and Countess Arco. As is common in Spanish colonial buildings, the thick masonry walls of this private chapel are finished in stucco. In this case the walls are of concrete block, not rubble, and the stucco is lime white “perrilla,” made from crushed white caliza limestone and white cement. Small side windows have a grill of turned wood, “barrotes,” also common in Spanish colonial architecture. The walls are plain, another common feature of Spanish colonial buildings. The front door is framed by a robust coralina stone architrave, topped by a pediment with a pulvinated frieze, also in coralina. The roof is palm thatch, held by timber rafters and stick purlins. Ernesto Buch and Zorrilla & Baquero were the architects.


Santa Domingo, Dominican Republic, 2014 | La Basílica Menor de Santa María de la Encarnación is also known as La Catedral Primada de América since it was the first cathedral in the Americas. Pope Julius II ordered it to be built in 1504, and construction lasted from 1512 to 1550. The building is considered the only true Gothic building in the Americas (as opposed to Gothic revival centuries later). Two of the entrances are a traditional Gothic, while the main entrance follows the Spanish “Plateresque Gothic,” an artistic movement in Spain that links the Gothic and Renaissance, characterized by elaborate carved decorations often around the front entrance of a building. The Spanish-based restoration company Kalam worked to restore the façade of the historic church, focusing on repointing the lime mortar, cleaning and damp-proofing the walls while respecting the original mortars and patinas, and consolidating the buttresses and tile roof. The project began in December 2013 and was completed in September 2014. Manolo Montañés, a specialist in History of Art and Restoration, was designated to be the head of the project.