By Kellly Wise Valdes
With the recent passing of Fidel Castro and the ease in travel restrictions between Cuba and the United States, many are planning to visit our island neighbor just 90 miles south of Florida. The colorful religious traditions in Cuba are renowned for its beauty and rich heritage. One such place is the Havana Cathedral.
This 18th-century cathedral is also known as The Cathedral of the Virgin Mary of the Immaculate Conception and is one of eleven Roman Catholic cathedrals in Cuba. It is the most prominent building located in the center plaza of Old Havana. Acclaimed Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier famously described the Cathedral as “music set in stone.” This ornate building is smaller than many other metropolitan cathedrals around the world.
Construction on the church began in 1748 by the Jesuits. The Society of Jesuits asked the City of Havana for a permit to build a church in 1710. The relations with the authorities in Havana were tense and they waited decades for a permit which was finally granted in 1727. Construction began in 1748 but King Carlos III of Spain expelled the Jesuits from Cuba in 1767prior to the Cathedral’s completion. King was displeased with the Jesuits and wanted to prevent the intervention of the Catholic Church in state affairs. The Franciscan Order completed the church ten years later in 1777.
The Cathedral is reported to be the only example of a baroque construction with asymmetrical features as one of the bell towers is wider than the other. This feature was constructed in order to allow the water that accumulated on the plaza to flow through the streets during the colonial period.
The exterior of the cathedral was originally ornate, but weather and political turmoil have deteriorated much of the detail. As with many buildings in Cuba, the building material includes coral, cut and hauled from the edge of the sea. Fossils of marine flora and fauna can be seen in the building blocks of the cathedral. The inside of the building was mostly “cleansed of excess ornamentation” in the 19th century. The cathedral’s interior is in the neoclassical style with black and white marble floors, stone pillars and eight side chapels. The altar is capped with a marble and onyx dome that shields a statue of the Virgin Mary. Although now silent, the bells are cast with gold and silver mixed into the bronze which causes a soft tone when rung.
In 1796 the remains of the Christopher Columbus were moved to the Cathedral from the island of Santo Domingo where they remained until 1898, when Spanish domination over Cuba ended and the relics were taken to Spain and placed in the Cathedral of Seville. It was one of the first buildings to be restored since the Revolution of 1959. In March 2016, President Barrack Obama met with Cardinal Jaime Ortega at the Havana Cathedra to support the importance of the church in helping to foster the island’s transition to a more-open society. To learn more about the rich heritage of Havana Cathedral, visit sacred-destinations.com/cuba/havana-cathedral.