The Heart of the City: The Church in Latin America

by Rodrigo Bollat Montenegro, appearing in Volume 44

Iglesia de Santo Domingo, Buenos Aires

The church is an integral part of the DNA of Latin American cities. From the great cathedral in a big city, to the parish church in the town, churches have always been, and still are, anchors that provide cohesion to the urban fabric.

One cannot imagine a neighborhood without the church that gives it its name, a weekend without the bells announcing the Eucharist, or a Sunday without conviviality in the atrium at the end of Mass. It is a reality that has been inherited: the church is the physical, civic, and spiritual heart of life in the neighborhood. Each architectural and urban element affects the beauty of the neighborhood, just as each Eucharist that is celebrated affects the lives of those who attend, and by extension, then, the rest of the city.

Before elaborating further on this historical legacy, allow me to suggest that there are three orders that co-exist in a city: the physical order, the civic order, and the sacred order. The physical order includes the shape of the city produced by buildings, streets, and blocks. The civic order refers to the political order of a city: the relationship between the people and the institutions created by them to coexist (including, but not restricted to, government). Finally, the sacred order refers to the divine presence on earth and in the human realm made possible in and through the sacraments.

Urban Anatomy of the Latin American Church

In the Western tradition, the architecture of churches rarely varies drastically, and in Latin American cities, there are certain features of their structure that are an essential part of urban life. In what follows, I will focus on five of these key features: the atrium, the façade, the bell tower, the dome, and the rectory.

The Atrium

Historically, the atrium consisted of a cloister defined by arcades or colonnades on its four sides, so the faithful, before entering the church, could wash in the fountain in the center. Eventually, the atrium became the small square in front of the church, separating it from the street and the rest of the city’s public space. It is not unusual in Latin America to find a raised atrium or sidewalk, separated with steps or a decorative wrought iron fence, forming a kind of urban plinth or pedestal. A square, however small, with these features automatically assigns a hierarchy to the building that defines it, standing like the bust on the top of a pedestal.

This transitional urban space allows an overlap between the civic order and the sacred order, since it receives the activity that would normally take place in other public squares but under the auspices of the church. For example, when I was a child, at the end of Mass, I would go out to play in the atrium with my brothers, cousins, and other children who had also attended Mass, while the adults stayed talking among themselves. The priest would come out to greet everyone and catch up with the families present. Occasionally we would look at little stalls, organized by Catholic associations, where my mother would buy cookies to help them raise funds. These activities, which are naturally urban in character, occur here within sight of the church, lending to them a semi-sacred character. If the Eucharist is the Supper of the Lord, then the atrium becomes the site for the “sobremesa”: a Spanish tradition of staying at the table relaxing and conversing after a meal.

The Façade

Since the church building is both a sacred space but also an urban building, the church’s façade must signal a change from the secular to the sacred and must be distinguished hierarchically from the surrounding buildings, whether in scale, materials, or architectural ornament. Following the line of the fifteenth-century Italian architect Leon Battista Alberti, the façade of the temple must be the one with the greatest reverence and majesty in the neighborhood, since the physical order must reflect the civic order. Thus the church building, being a temple where the community congregates, should show itself as of greater importance and dignity than a private residence or an office building.

Our Latin American cities were blessed with receiving the design and construction of churches during the period after the Council of Trent, which awakened the use of the Baroque in Europe. In New Spain, the Baroque style that crossed the Atlantic was enriched by the Plateresque and Mudejar traditions of the Iberian Peninsula, which made abundant use of ornament on façades and altarpieces. This architecture was further enriched by being integrated into the different contexts of America. For example, what is now called the “seismic Baroque” of the former Captaincy General of Guatemala was a Baroque with low and robust proportions to try to protect the structure from the region’s frequent earthquakes. The façades also included images of saints and biblical scenes, which the religious used as visual support for the evangelization of the New World. Even with the arrival of neo-classicism in the colonies at the end of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth, that majesty was maintained in the façades.

Façade of San Ignacio de Loyola de la Compañía de Jesús in Quito, Ecuador

This tradition of church design and construction brought with it the idea of the façade as a triumphal entry into the New Jerusalem. Perhaps one of the best-known entrance songs in the Spanish-speaking world is Psalm 122: “What joy when they told me: Let us go to the house of the Lord! We are already at your gates, O Jerusalem.” Those of us who grew up with that song imagined that, for the psalmist, “the house of the Lord” was the church in which we sang, and “the gates of Jerusalem” were the gates through which we had entered. It turns out that our childhood imaginations were close to the reality of the sacred order.

The doors in a church mark the end of the secular or semi-secular space and emphatically mark the beginning of the sacred space within. The doors in the façade are a gateway to the ark of salvation. Denis McNamara describes the church portal as a symbol representing Christ himself who said: “I am the door; whoever enters through me will be saved” (John 10:9).

The Bell Tower

Unless the church has a large dome, the bell tower is perhaps the second most distinctive urban element of the church building, due not only to its height and architectural distinction but also to the melody of the bells that sound forth from it. Unlike the Italian campanile, which is often a free-standing structure, Latin American churches tend to include their bell towers on the main façade. In the urban context, a tower provides a reference point, a landmark and location for all citizens to see from all points in the city.

Those who had the joy of living in Latin American historic centers nostalgically remember the sound of bells as part of their daily life. There was (and still is) so much love for bells that city dwellers have affectionately nicknamed them over the centuries. For example, the oldest bell in the metropolitan cathedral of Mexico City, cast in 1578, is called Santa Maria de la Asunción, and Mexicans affectionately call her Doña María, or simply “la Doña.” There are parishioners who can distinguish the bells from the street. It would not be strange to find a grandmother saying to her grandson: “Listen, mijo, that’s the sound of La Doña calling us to Mass.”

The bells and the bell tower play multiple roles within the town or city.  As the tower “announces” the location of the church, the bells can announce (1) the hours of the day, (2) the time for Mass or the daily Angelus prayer, (3) the moment of transubstantiation, (4) the death of a parishioner or member of the religious order, or (5) the election of a new pope. More than a pragmatic gesture, the bell tower announces the reality of the sacred order within the secular. As the Star of Bethlehem announced to the Magi how to find the Christ child, so the bell tower announces how to find Christ’s Eucharistic presence in the city. Its melody rebounds through all the buildings and streets, and the community hears its call to gather.

The Dome

When it is present, the most distinctive urban element of a church is the dome. If the bell tower marks the location of the temple in the city, the dome defines the place of veneration, the altar. Although the altar is not always located exactly below the dome, its shape suggests the sacramental reality of the Eucharist on the altar, whereby heaven comes down to earth, and the earthly is raised up to heaven.

During the sixteenth century, when Spain was expanding its presence in the Americas, churches rarely had domes, since they required a high degree of constructive knowledge, which would not reach these lands until the following century. The first sixteenth-century churches were of simple construction, mostly with wooden roofs. As the cities grew in political and religious importance, however, the churches increased in size and architectural complexity.

The façades and interiors were remodeled, often due to destruction by earthquakes, flat ceilings replaced by elliptical vaults, and perhaps more significantly, domes were added to crown the transepts.

The domes of Latin American cities generally do not reach the scale of the domes of the Florence cathedral or Saint Peter’s in the Vatican, but the low scale of the other buildings in Latin American cities allowed for appreciation of the dome from the streets, announcing to the parishioners that heaven comes down to earth at that physical point.

The Parish House (Old Convent)

Adjacent to the temple, churches were frequently accompanied by a structure that housed the parish house, or the cloister for the religious who ran the church. When the religious orders began arriving in the New World, the colonial cities became prominent outposts of evangelization, and urban blocks began to fill with churches and convents. Those religious orders with greater resources, such as the Dominicans, Franciscans, and Jesuits, often occupied an entire block to house their residence, seminary, infirmary, school, and library,

Currently, the parish houses of the churches that still preserve them function as religious residences, but they also provide rooms where the Church can carry out the pastoral activities for the community it serves. These activities range from teaching catechism in preparation for reception of the sacraments, to the gathering of secular associations such as support groups, neighborhood associations, after-school programs for children, and the like. As with plazas in front of the church, these parish houses provide spaces for activities that would normally take place in a secular building, but which here are carried out under the auspices of the Church.

The Church as the Heart of the Neighborhood

Today, the historic centers of Latin American cities are frequently considered to constitute a single neighborhood. But anyone who lives in such a historic district will attest that there are often many neighborhoods within the limits of the old town, most of which share a set of common attributes:

1). The neighborhood has a clear center, which is almost always the church and the plaza (atrium) accompanying it. Since the plaza provides a space where people naturally tend to congregate, formal commerce tends to emerge around churches, especially during feast days, solemnities, and patronal fairs.

2). The neighborhood has clear borders, normally streets, parks, or other geographical elements such as hills, rivers, or ravines. The borders are defined by the distance that a human being is normally willing to walk to do their daily activities (five minutes, or 400 meters), so the neighborhood tends to be made up of the blocks and streets within a diameter of 800 meters, or ten minutes walking from edge to edge, taking the church as the center.

3). The neighborhood will enjoy mixed use in its blocks and streets, such as neighborhood stores, residences, and offices.

4). The neighborhood will have an interconnected and reticulated network of pedestrian-friendly streets, encouraging the inhabitant to walk.

5). The neighborhood will have its own identity, often marked by the church itself. It is also marked by the architecture of the other buildings, the aggregation of certain specific businesses (e.g., several establishments selling candles or making and selling cloth), and usually named after the church at its center (e.g., Barrio San Sebastián, Barrio La Merced, etc.).

If we consider the family as the cell of society, we can also consider the neighborhood as the cell of the city. As the body is made of many cells, so the city is made up of many cells (neighborhoods) interconnected with each other, each with its center. The neighborhood centers are usually churches, making them the nucleus of each cell. The church is the center of the physical order, the center of the civic order, and the center of the sacred order of the Latin American neighborhood. This reality was also reflected at the city level, even from its conception and initial layout.

The Spanish Colonial City: A Center for Evangelization

By the year 1580, less than a hundred years after Columbus arrived in the New World, the Spanish had founded over 200 towns and cities on the new continent. Contrary to the prevailing urbanism in Spain, which consisted of compact cities with irregular streets and blocks, the Spaniards founded these new urban settlements by drawing a grid.

This was an urban planning mechanism that allowed easy growth, from a 3x3 block grid to 10x10 or more as the city became more dense. The starting point for the layout was the main square. Of crucial importance was the location of the church, to which a complete block was granted to prevent other buildings from encroaching on it. Its scale and imposing towered façade made the hierarchy of the Catholic Church in the civic order of this colonial society obvious.

The government building representing the Crown was the second most important building on the square. It usually took up an entire block—or half a block—but its architecture was smaller in scale than the church while remaining prominent on the public space. The third building in the civic hierarchy was the cabildo, or municipality, which was granted a quarter of a block and whose architectural composition was simpler than the Crown Palace. The rest of the square was delimited by arcades or portals to allow trade to develop in the city.

The physical order of the plaza expressed the civic order of the time: divine power—the most important—expressed in the church, followed by the power of the Crown embodied in the government palace, then local power present in the town hall, and finally the power of the people in the trade portals. This plaza pattern can still be seen throughout Latin America.

Iglesia de San Francisco, Lima, Peru

Spain differentiated herself from her European rivals by including evangelization as one of the main goals of expansion in the New World. From the beginning, the Spanish conquistadors were accompanied by religious missionaries—mostly Franciscans, Dominicans, Mercedarians, Augustinians, and Jesuits—and when laying out the new cities, they set aside lots for these orders to build their churches and residences. These new cities then began taking shape with churches scattered throughout the grid.

After the Council of Trent, as the colonies grew in political and economic importance, the young cities saw a second wave of religious missionaries, both from the orders already present on the continent, as well as from newer orders such as the Capuchins, Discalced Carmelites, and Conceptionists, among others.

During the eighteenth century, they built churches, convents, hospitals, schools, seminaries, universities, and chapels that, by the end of the century, with the growing prominence of local political power, generated mature cities, thirsty for independence.

The Church and the New Neighborhoods

By the second half of the nineteenth century, almost a hundred years after this eighteenth century maturation of the colonial city, Latin America had broken up into independent countries with new governments, many of which promoted the absolute separation of Church and state. The cities continued to expand in a grid pattern, but now with a French influence that gravitated towards a more secular civic order. The new districts did not include the same density of churches as the historic center, and the convents in the center were cut up and expropriated to introduce government ministries, state schools, and other governmental entities. In this change of civic and physical order, the Church was no longer as present as before.

One hundred years later, in the second half of the twentieth century, Latin American cities gradually abandoned the grid form in favor of suburban forms imported from the United States. These forms rejected the traditional model of the neighborhood and replaced it with vehicular corridors. Today, instead of walking to Mass through the streets of the neighborhood and being welcomed into the church via the atrium and the façade portal, Catholic families arrive in their vehicles and are greeted by a parking lot that is practically indistinguishable from the atrium. Architects after the Second Vatican Council also forgot (or deliberately denied) the rich architectural tradition of churches in our ancient centers. The entrance portal to the temple is now a skeletal door; the dome has become a skylight over the altar; and the bell tower a shadow of its historical predecessor when it is present at all.

But regardless of what has happened in the last two centuries, the reality is that Latin Americans have inherited cities with beautiful churches and rich traditions. These churches are part of our DNA, and they should not become historical museums. They should be the beating hearts of our neighborhoods, hearts that fill the streets with sacred order, and hearts that welcome us and bring us ever closer to the New Jerusalem.