Monday, February 29, 2016

The Colonial Churches of Leon

Have you ever visited a town in any Latin American  or stopped in a town on your way to your all inclusive holiday? Have you ever walked by an old church that looked run down and dirty without giving it a second thought because you are not religious. Stop doing that. I learned that lesson a while ago. Pause on your way to where ever you are in a hurry to get to, turn and walk into that old derelict looking church. Give it some time and look around. These are not your sterile North American Catholic churches. Try and appreciate the history, the beauty and the artwork all around you. I find I now go looking for churches because each one is so different in their similarities. I do have the fear of being struck by lighting every time I enter one of these beauties so I just hold my breath and hope for the best. Thank you Catholic up bringing.

This brings me to Leon. A town with a large collection of Colonial Catholic Churches. I have taken the time to visit each one of these and appreciate them for their historical and structural beauty. I am by no means a student of architecture and I will not attempt to distinguish between Gothic, Byzantium or Renaissance structures. (I had to look those words up). What I do is I go off alone (If I am with another person or a group) and just quietly take it in. I know this may sound a bit off to some of you but to those that know me they will understand. I try and get a feel for the history of the place. Historical sermons about war and revolution, artisans creating the interior, peasants worshiping from the pew I am sitting in. I can literally sit for an hour and disappear into my own imagination.

There are 12 churches in Leon. There are a number of tunnels that connect the Cathedral with the other churches that were used as hideouts or escape routes during terrorist attacks by British, Dutch, and French pirates. One of the tunnels was used by a priest who saved the treasures from when the English Pirates invaded. However, the tunnels are not accessible to the public for some have been converted to the sewer system service. These tunnel were also used by the Samosa regime as torture and death tunnels connecting them to various prisons in the city.

Basilica Cathedral of the Assumption – The Cathedral of León

This is where it all happens!

Built in 1814 this 200-year old cathedral is the largest in all of Central America and a World Heritage site. Having survived earthquakes, volcano eruptions and a civil war its age and history are on proud display located in the heart of the Leon. This a great starting point for touring the city, exploring local foods or checking out the nearby street shopping markets.  The Cathedral of Leon, is considered the largest colonial religious building in Central America, which will appreciate fresh and oil paintings of great artistic value. You can also take a tour of their cellars or climb its steep stairs that take you to the roof from where you can appreciate a wonderful panoramic view of Leon.

Because of its solid, anti-seismic construction its walls have endured earthquakes, volcanic eruptions of Cerro Negro volcano, and bombings during civil wars. Several cannons were placed on the roof both during the siege of the city by conservative forces in 1824 and during the Revolution of 1979.

Iglesia La Recoleccion
Iglesia La Recoleccion
Covered in a dark and well-worn yellow facade La Recoleccion’s exterior makes it the most beautiful in the city. Built in 1786 it’s also been restored, thanks in part due to Spanish and Italian funding
Among the churches of the city of Leòn, la Recolección is one of the most beautiful. Located on the “banks street” and distinguished for its exquisite cliff of stucco with a perfect Latin American baroque style, what have taken to be considered the one with more importance in this city.

-- I was guilty of calling this church an eyesore, until I peeked inside. My bad

Iglesia El Calvario
Iglesia El Calvario

Iglesia El Calvario as viewed from the Cathedral. Momotombo is in the back on the right

Located 5 minutes walk down central street from the Leon Cathedral. El Cavario is perched above the street and has a flamboyant exterior that demands attention from a distance. The bright yellow facade between the red brick bell towers feature painting of biblical scenes.
It was built in the first half of the eighteenth century. In the late nineteenth century it was in terrible shape virtually demolished so early twentieth century it was rebuilt retaining its original appearance.
The Church sits at the top of Real Street and is one of the urban landmarks of the city. A park is has been built near the church for worshipers to rest but there is a huge Pepsi logo that takes away from any beauty that may have been there. No matter where you go, Coke and Pepsi have been there first.

--  This church has the prettiest exterior and is used as a landmark when giving directions. The view is pretty special when looking from the Cathedral. There is a nice little park behind the church where at any time you can walk through and see couples making out like nobody else is around. Kind of odd really.

Iglesia de San Felipe

Church of San Felipe, a large building that occupies an entire block, it was built in 1685 for blacks and mulattoes worshipers. In 1859 it underwent an extensive expansion that gave it its present form, whereas the tower was restored in 1983.

-- Dirty and drab and it could really use a cleaning but the grounds are maintained an it is quite tranquil in its environment. Most people, myself only give this church a passing glance but the solid little bugger has withstood war, revolution, earthquakes and volcanoes and has come out without a scratch.

 Iglesia San Juan de Dios

This is my neighborhood.

The façade of Iglesia San Juan de Dios, which overlooks a park of the same name, is a mottled grey and not exactly what you would call pretty. The exterior was reconstructed in the 1850s and it conceals a lovely white interior with glass cases of saints and delicate ceiling murals. The church itself was originally constructed in 1739.

--  Be aware during your visit that the nearby park is dirty and feels dodgy (says many a guidebook) I find myself killing time here quite often and its quite nice. Lots of people and friendly. The church is on the edge of Leon's relatively safe downtown and this is neighborhood does appear sketchy only because it is not full of tourists, which is why I chose to live here. That is changing with the opening of a new hostels in the area. 

Iglesia de San Francisco

Located just a few blocks West of the Leon Cathedral. It was built in 1639   as is one of the city’s oldest. It’s not as vibrant as some of the others but still worth checking out.

-- I walk by this church all the time and sometimes forget that it is here. Kids skateboard on its mezzanine and it's a general meeting place as it sits on the main street.

Iglesia de Subtiava 

The Subtiava church is located in the Subtiava neighborhood in León; a neighborhood still strongly tied to its indigenous roots. Known only as the "Church of Subtiava" located in the ancient Indian district of the same name. Construction of the church started in 1698, and was completed in 1710. Detoriation and militar violence damaged the church during the 1800s, but reconstruction took place at the beginning of the 20th century. The interior is impressive with very large wooden beams and pillars.

-- When I think Subtiava I think "bus to the beach". This church is the gathering and starting point for most parades to the Cathedral.

Iglesia de Guadalupe
Church is not on a hill. That would be my amazing photography skills in all their horrifying glory
Iglesia de Guadalupe in the far background

- The Guadelupe Church is located south from the central plaza. The church, surrounded by a small park, marks the end of the central avenue (Avenida central). The church was constructed at the end of the 19th century. It is the only church in León facing north, supposedly to face the center of the city

-- I like this neighborhood and wander here often. It is quiet and there are zero and I mean zero tourists. This is the church you see in the famous picture from the revolution. This picture depicts the FSLN and their first tank used in their war.

 Iglesia de Zaragoza

The Zaragoza church is located in a neighborhood with the same name, a couple blocks northwest of the central park. The exact date of construction is not known, but it is estimated that construction started between 1884 and 1886, and ended in 1934. There is a certain military feel to it. The high towers constructed with stones and big pillars give the building also a castle-like image.

-- The first time I walked past this church I immediately thought of a medieval castle not a church. It was night and it creeped me out. I double stepped it back to the main street pretty quick like the scardy cat that I am.

 Iglesia de Laborío


Built in the seventeenth century this neighborhood housed the naborios. This was the name that was designated in colonial times to the Indians dedicated exclusively to domestic services of the residences of the Spanish. The facade was altered but the main body and chancel remain unchanged.

-- I never thought much of this church as it looks like any older western style church. Then I discovered the history and the fact that the facade was upgrade in a more modern style. Like so many things, learn about them before you judge. The grounds and barrio are quite nice. I had lunch on the steps here while on this self directed walking tour of the cities churches.

Iglesia de la Merced

Home to León’s patron saint, La Virgen de La Merced, this not-so-immediately enchanting gray edifice is considered the city’s second-most-important church.
After Volcán Momotombo erupted and forced the cities evacuation, the Leónese built a new church here in 1615, replaced with the current building in the early 1700s.
Located on the corner of Central Park noeste 1 ½ c north. The old church of the Merced built in 1662 was demolished to lift the current church in its place.

-- This church has a huge park area surrounding it and is filled with families day and night. It is in the heart of the tourist district and one of my favorite places, aside from the central park, to grab a coffee and watch the world go by. The square is always clean which is an oddity for Leon.

There are other Colonial churches including San Jose, San Felipe. There a many modern catholic churches and on any given Sunday you can walk past what was once a store front but for the day there are church services, usually in the poorer barrios. This is one religious crazed country.

The people, like their churches have suffered. Invasion, occupation, war, oppression, revolution, American economic terrorism, hurricanes, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions , political corruption and poverty. Yet they endure. One of the reasons I came back to Nicaragua is the spirit of the people. They know they are poor and they do not have to be told life can be difficult. I am real difficult, not "man the WiFi is not working" difficult. There is a strength in these gentle and proud people. A strength I admire and respect. Something I will never fully comprehend.

 Like their churches the people of Leon and Nicaragua can appear a bit dirty and worn on the outside. Then have them open up to you and you will find a world of calm beauty, happiness and goodness you never knew possible.

The primary lesson I have learned while being a part of Nicaragua Redux. Do not just pass the dirty old church. Open the doors, walk inside and look around. Be a part of it for as long as you can. You will leave with a completely different and mostly positive bounce in your step.

Yes, the church is a metaphor 

1 comment:

Carson Coronado said...

That cathedral is beautiful. I love the architecture of it. The Iglesia La Recoleccion is very ancient looking and probably has a ton of history. It is really cool that you travel around and take pictures of these churches. People who love architecture will enjoy really your blog. I have been to Mexico once and loved all the beautiful stone buildings.