Due to Puerto Rico’s long tradition of Roman Catholicism – stretching as far back as the Spanish conquest of the New World during the 16th century – several important and noteworthy landmarks still exist on the island. Puerto Rico’s location in the Caribbean made
it a natural jumping-off point for missionaries to the rest of the region and, as such, became an important center for the church. The clergy’s goal of conversion – especially of the native Taino population, already decimated by disease and forced labor – gave way to the founding and consolidation of several parishes, which in turn facilitated the spread of religion throughout the country. Among the most important and beautiful structures to stand the test of time are the Iglesia San Blás de Illescas in the southern municipality of Coamo and Iglesia Porta Coeli in the southwestern city of San Germán. Though architecturally very different, these churches, along with dozens of others, adhere to the Spanish tradition of locating the structures in or around the town’s main plaza.
Old San Juan also has its fair share of religious buildings. Iglesia San José is a historical marvel – one of the oldest churches in the Western hemisphere – and its surrounding plaza, at the crossroads of Del Cristo and San Sebastian streets, is also a sight to behold. Going down Del Cristo street we first come upon Hotel El Convento – formerly a Carmelite nun convent – and La Catedral de San Juan. The cathedral is one of 6 on the island, each belonging to the diocese of their region – the other 5 being: Catedral San Felipe Apostol in Arecibo, Catedral Dulce Nombre de Jesus in Caguas, Catedral Santiago Apostol in Fajardo, Catedral Nuestra Señora de la Candelaria in Mayagüez, and Catedral Nuestra Señora de la Guadalupe in Ponce. At the end of Del Cristo we find La Capilla del Cristo, whose legend is so famous and well-known, any school-aged child can recite it.
Apart from their religious relevance, these structures contain architectural, historical and cultural significance making them must-see sights to any visitor to the island.
Iglesia San Blas de Illescas – Coamo, PR
Located in the municipality of Coamo, Puerto Rico’s third oldest municipality founded in 1579, the structure bears the town’s original name. San Blás is also the third church built on the island under Spanish rule, yet this centuries-old house of worship still occupies its space imposingly over Coamo’s town plaza – its white-washed façade evoking late period baroque architecture. Completed in 1784, the unique structure houses several religious paintings and sculptures, including works by Puerto Rican masters Francisco Oller and José Campeche. VIEW VIDEO
Iglesia Porta Coeli – San Germán, PR
One of the oldest Christian structures in the western hemisphere lies within the hilly, southwestern municipality of San Germán, the second city founded by the Spanish in Puerto Rico. Porta Coeli was first a convent built by Dominican friars at the dawn of the 17th century. Only ruins remain of the convent, where the iconic church now stands. Porta Coeli’s name translates to “Heaven’s Door,” and it does give this impression when viewed from the bottom of the steps, as it overlooks the Plazuela de Santo Domingo from its snug corner of the cobblestone Dr. Veve and Ramas Streets. VIEW VIDEO
Iglesia San José – San Juan, PR
Previously dedicated to Saint Thomas Aquinas, the church is the only true gothic building resting on U.S soil and the second oldest church in the New World. Restoration efforts for the church have uncovered some of the earliest murals in the Americas. In the center of the Plaza San José stands a bronze statue of Spanish conquistador Juan Poncé de León, the first Governor of Puerto Rico appointed by the Spanish Crown. Around the plaza you will find various local bars, restaurants, and a couple of museums. VIEW VIDEO
Hotel El Convento – San Juan, PR
Founded in 1646 by Doña Ana de Lanzós, this convent for Carmelite nuns was inaugurated in 1651. The original structure was demolished in the nineteenth century, when a chapel was erected in the neoclassical style. Completed in 1858, this reconstruction included the building’s façade, central patio, and second floor. The nuns left the convent in 1902, when it became an apartment complex and theater. In 1960 the building was refashioned into the now famous hotel. VIEW VIDEO
Catedral de San Juan – San Juan, PR
The building began construction in 1521 in the Late Gothic style. Some of the original architectural components that remain to this day are: a vaulted tower, gothic ceilings, and a circular staircase and four rooms. These are rare examples of Medieval Architecture in the Americas. The cathedral was renovated in the Neoclassical Style of its façade which was completed in 1852. Located near the transept is a marble tomb that holds the remains of Juan Ponce de León, the Spanish conquistador who colonized Puerto Rico. The tomb is one of Spanish sculptor Miguel Blay’s master works. VIEW VIDEO
Capilla del Cristo – San Juan, PR
Between 1634 and 1638, this chapel dedicated to Santa Catalina was raised at the bottom of Del Cristo Street. Legend tells of how in June of 1750, during the traditional horse races of Las Fiestas de San Pedro, Captain Baltasár Montañés rode his horse into the wall next to the Chapel. Both the rider and his horse were saved from the fall by this structure. Don Tomás Mates Prats, the governor’s secretary, deemed this a miracle. Having invoked El Cristo de la Salud to take care of the rider, Don Tomas hung a painting of the Christ in this Chapel to commemorate this miraculous occurrence. VIEW VIDEO