Most visitors to Puerto Rico seem unaware that the oldest church anywhere in the United States can be found on the Caribbean island territory.
Puerto Rico, discovered by Christopher Columbus in 1493, was later established as a Spanish colony in its own right by conquistador Juan Ponce de León in 1508 — a full century before Samuel de Champlain’s founding of Quebec and 99 years before the English settlement at Jamestown in Virginia. It was from his base in Puerto Rico that Ponce de León discovered Florida in 1513.
As with elsewhere in the New World, clerics and other missionaries propagating the Christian faith through the lens of the Roman Catholic church stood side-by-side with explorers as Spain grew its empire.
Having been founded in 1521, the Puerto Rican capital of San Juan is in the midst of its quincentennial anniversary. The occasion, delayed by the coronavirus pandemic, kicked off earlier this month with a visit by King Felipe VI of Spain.
Located at the heart of Old San Juan, as the historic old town is called, the Metropolitan Cathedral Basilica of St. John the Baptist (Catedral Basílica Metropolitana de San Juan Bautista) was one of the first buildings erected.
With its dedication to St. John the Baptist, the cathedral is a reminder that San Juan’s very name comes from John the Baptist, the prophet who prepared the way for Jesus Christ. Reminders of this Christian heritage are everywhere, including in the heraldry of the territorial government’s coat of arms and great seal.
The cathedral has gone through various iterations since Bishop Alonso Manso, the first prelate.
Notably, a significant renovation in the 19th century resulted in the present neoclassical appearance. A later alteration after the U.S. acquired Puerto Rico following the Spanish-American War extended the height of the west front along Christ Street (Calle del Cristo) to ensure the seat of the Roman Catholic bishop wasn’t overshadowed by the construction of a now-demolished Protestant church belonging to Episcopalians.
However, traces of what originally stood can be found at the cathedral’s east end, which houses a small chapel constructed out of sandstone in a vernacular adaption of medieval Gothic architecture. As far as this columnist knows, the space is one of only two examples of true Gothic anywhere on U.S. soil. The other is the recently restored Church of St. Joseph (Iglesia de San José), also in Old San Juan, with its Gothic vaulting dating to 1532.
One of the cathedral’s most important treasures is the circa 1836 tomb of Ponce de León. He was interred in San Juan after dying in Cuba from wounds sustained during a 1521 battle with Indians in southwest Florida.
Sadly, a thorough restoration is desperately needed, as category-five Hurricane Maria inflicted significant damage to both the exterior and interior.
If you go
The Metropolitan Cathedral Basilica of St. John the Baptist is open daily with no admission charge for visitors. Roman Catholic masses are celebrated at 9 and 11 a.m. every Sunday and again on Monday, Tuesday and Friday at 12:15 p.m.
Book a room at the Palacio Provincial Hotel. The relatively new boutique hotel, housed within a Spanish colonial-era building, has incredible views of the cathedral from its rooftop infinity pool.
Discover Puerto Rico has full trip planning resources available through its website.
Dennis Lennox writes a travel column for The Christian Post.
Dennis Lennox writes about travel, politics and religious affairs. He has been published in the Financial Times, Independent, The Detroit News, Toronto Sun and other publications. Follow @dennislennox on Twitter.