Last updated: 11:00 AM ET, Thu March 10 2016

The Sanctity of Churches

Features & Advice | Brian Major | March 10, 2016

The Sanctity of Churches

PHOTO: The Church of La Compania in Quito, Ecuador. (Photos by Brian Major)

As a youngster I attended Lutheran and Methodist churches, and took catechism classes where I learned the principles of Christianity. In later years, as a student at an Episcopalian secondary school, I took religion classes that covered topics including the history of Islam.

Still as an adult I’ve haven’t been especially religious person or even a church-goer. Yet time after time I’ve experienced profound reverence and humility while touring churches around the world.

There’s a soul-stirring quality attached to visiting a house of worship, whether it’s an imposing urban landmark or a humble country chapel. I’ve been lucky to visit churches ranging from the Vatican to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Yet a few stand out in my memory.

I can still recall my amazement as I strolled the church of Santa Domingo during a 2011 visit to Cusco, Peru. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Cusco is considered a starting point for travel to Machu Picchu. But it is also a beautifully preserved colonial town that is an attraction in its own right. The city is filled with distinctive features, highlighted by the church of Santa Domingo.

Cusco was the capital of the Incan Empire from the 13th century under the leader Pachacuti, whose reign ended with Spain’s conquest of the city in 1534. Two years later a rebellion under Manco Inca led to the city’s destruction and its later rebuilding by the Spanish. 

European architects observed that Incan buildings, with walls constructed of enormous granite blocks shaped to fit together without mortar, did not collapse during the earthquakes common to the region. The colonizers shrewdly fashioned their own buildings using Incan walls and foundations.

Thus the grandest structures of the Incan empire were transformed to grand Spanish buildings. These include Santa Domingo, built in the 17th century in Cusco’s Plaza de Armas, the city’s main square, using the walls and foundation of the Qorikancha, the Incans’ revered “Temple of the Sun.”

READ MORE: Holy Spirits: Four Bars That Used to Be Churches

Today the church features amazing stonework visible in the curved wall beneath the church’s west end. It’s almost breathtaking to walk along the walls built of immense boulders and wonder at the human effort required to construct such marvels.

The Spanish launched construction on the Cathedral in 1550, taking nearly 100 years to complete the huge structure. Fashioned in the shape of a Latin cross, the church features a three-aisled nave supported by fourteen massive pillars. The nave is surrounded by 10 chapels and a large selection of magnificent period artwork.

A tour of the Church of La Compania in Quito, Ecuador in 2011 produced another wave of emotions. Having at this point some experience with grand Latin American churches, I was prepared for something special – or so I thought.

Still I was stunned by the interiors of this ancient church. Designed by Jesuit priests Marcos Guerra, Jorge Vinterer, Leonardo Deubler, Venancio Gandolfi and Hernando de la Cruz and built between 1605 and 1765, every centimeter of the interior is adorned in gleaming gold leaf and expressive, finely detailed paintings, sculptures and carvings.

Large canvasses depicting hell and the Last Judgment, attributed to de la Cruz, date back to 1620, an era during which the majority of parishioners was illiterate.

The painting’s power is visceral and unmistakable. Images depic the agonies of hell as experienced by such poor souls as the borracho (“drunkard”), who lies impaled on a bed of nails while a furious-eyed green demon with horns pours lava down his throat. Homocidas (“killers”) are run through with long pointed knives in the head, chest and arms. The Usurero (“user” or “extortionist”) is devoured alive by a razor-clawed demon.

In a 2014 walk through the historic town of Falmouth, Jamaica I found a more humble, but no less significant church nestled among quiet roads framed by 18th and 19th century pastel-colored brick merchant buildings and houses. The William Knibb Memorial Baptist Church, named for the English Baptist minister and missionary who worked to abolish slavery in the Caribbean, is a landmark structure in the city.

I happened to visit the church on a hot, sunny Sunday filled with blue skies that spoke to nature’s majesty. A plaque outside of the historic church reads, “Knibb arrived in Jamaica in 1825 to minister to enslaved Africans and eventually became the minister of the town’s Baptist church. Famous for his fiery denunciation of slavery, Knibb and other ministers were arrested for inciting the enslaved Africans.”

The plaque continues, “In 1832 the chapel was destroyed by the militia in retaliation for the Baptist involvement in the emancipation war. It was rebuilt and dedicated in April 1837.” The British government ended slavery in Jamaica on July 31, 1838. On that date Knibb’s congregation buried a pair of shackles in a coffin on the church’s grounds. The site was marked with a sign reading “Colonial slavery died 31 July 1838. Age 276 years.”  

Last year I visited a Haitian church that in some ways represents the hope and faith that defines religion. The historic Cathedrale St. Jacques et St. Philippe, in the Haitian coastal town remains intact and from outside is the very picture of a quaint local landmark.

READ MORE: The World's 8 Most Unique Churches

However the church, which dates to the late 1800s, has been closed to parishioners since the country’s devastating 2010 earthquake, which produced large cracks in the walls, severely compromising the structure. As local residents went about their daily routines, I walked around the building, marveling at another one-time masterpiece that’s been altered by Haiti’s earthquake.

Miyamoto International, a non-profit global earthquake structural engineering and project management company, is engaged in a $4 million project to restore the church, one of many historic structures in this town, which evolved as a coffee trading center before and after Haiti’s 1804 independence.

Following a major 1896 fire that destroyed most of the town’s buildings, wealthy coffee merchants rebuilt Jacmel, creating grand mansions that incorporated refabricated cast-iron pillars and balconies shipped over from France.

Many of the mansions were built with ground-floor warehouses, which today house artisan shops featuring original artwork and handicrafts, including papier-mâché masks, a local specialty, and carved-wood animal figures.

It remains unclear when the renovation will be complete and when Cathedrale St. Jacques et St. Philippe will re-open. Yet perhaps the words of Dutch social worker Corrie ten Boom describe the situation best: “Never be afraid to trust an unknown future to a known God.” 

For more information on Jamaica, Peru, Ecuador, Haiti

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