June 26, 2013

En Mi Lindo Puerto Rico: A Personal Experience with Iglesia de San José

I was five when we moved to paradise. Equipped with a couple of suitcases, my mother and I left our home in northern Virginia to embark on a new adventure in Puerto Rico—“La Isla del Encanto” (The Island of Enchantment), with its picturesque white sand beaches, aqua blue ocean water, exotic animals, tropical climate, and the only rainforest in the United States.

It may seem worlds away, but Puerto Rico has been an American territory for over 50 years. And when I think of my own childhood there, I immediately remember the places and experiences there that helped shape who I am today.

One area where the old and new comes together in Puerto Rico is through the grandiose architecture of Old San Juan. I remember Spanish colonial buildings sitting next to huge modern condos, which existed alongside tiny bodegas and panaderias, decorated with African-inspired artwork.

Blue and yellow buildings on an Old San Juan street, with two men standing outside and chatting.

photo by: Betty Tsang/Flickr/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Tropical hues on the Spanish Colonial homes of Old San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Old San Juan is the second-oldest European-founded city in the Americas. Many of its historic sites are steeped in religious traditions that date back hundreds of years, reminding visitors of the island’s diverse spiritual, cultural, and adventure-filled past.

My mother and I spent many weekends visiting the old city, including regular stops at the San Juan Cathedral. The majestic, 16th-century cathedral is among the rarest of medieval structures in the New World.

We would marvel at the architecture, light candles, and kneel to pray for our loved ones. Creepy as it may sound, we would never leave the cathedral without paying a visit to the wax-coated, mummified remains of San Pio (Saint Pius), a baby-faced first-century Christian martyr, encased in a glass tomb at the cathedral.

Puerto Rico’s first Governor and legendary Spanish explorer, Juan Ponce de Leon, also rests in a marble tomb in the cathedral. The Spanish conquistador who came to the New World in search of the Fountain of Youth was buried at his family parish, San José Church, for almost three centuries before being moved to the cathedral in 1909.

San José Church, or Iglesia de San José, was built on land donated by Don Juan Ponce de Leon, under the supervision of Dominican friars in 1532, making it the second-oldest church in the Western Hemisphere and certainly one of the oldest structures in the city. Yet the church has been closed for 13 years and is experiencing severe deterioration and structural damage problems. (This would explain why we haven’t been able to tour the church during our last few visits to the island.)

A white medieval church built in 1532.

photo by: Daderot/Wikimedia Commons

Exterior of Iglesia de San José, 2011.

Black and white church interior with pews and alter.

photo by: U.S. Library of Congress, "Built in America" Collection/Wikimedia Commons

A 1933 photo of the church's interior.

In June 2013, I was thrilled to learn that this enduring religious attraction of my youth, San José Church, had been added to the National Trust’s list of America's 11 Most Endangered Historic Places. And, like I was, you might be surprised to learn that this structure—built long before the Mayflower arrived in New England—is the first site in Puerto Rico to be named on the annual list.

The church has gone through extensive renovations over the past several years, and construction has been slow progressing. Patronato de Monumentos de San Juan, a nonprofit organization in charge of the restoration effort, is committed to doing authentic restoration, including the use of original materials and techniques, which will take longer but will ensure the long-term preservation of the structure.

A coalition of community organizations and individuals have been involved in the preservation effort as well, but additional funding is needed to restore this irreplaceable treasure. The church’s website prominently displays a Spanish-language public service announcement featuring Puerto Rican actor Benicio del Toro, requesting community support.

I think that the true heart and soul of a person exists in the places representative of their past. Such places gave me perspective and taught me to embrace my ancestry and my heritage. Yet some of the places I remember from my childhood in Puerto Rico are not even around anymore. Others are in disrepair or have been traded in for modern structures and paved roads. That always saddens me. It’s as if a piece of my own DNA has been removed.

The 11 Most list reminds me that there are many layers to our history and identity as Americans. I hope that bringing the public's attention to the restoration needs of rich cultural resources like San José Church will spur other restoration projects on the island. In the meantime, those places will live on—in their full glory—in my memories and in my heart.

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Jessica Coscia is a blogger and freelancer for various media outlets such as Fox News Latino and Examiner.com.

By: Jessica Coscia​

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