The Cathedral of San Juan Bautista is named after Puerto Rico’s patron saint, Saint John the Baptist. It is located in the heart of Old San Juan and was built in 1521. It is the second oldest church building in the Americas, however it has been destroyed and undergone restorations more than once. It remains Puerto Rico’s grandest religious building and a site of great historical importance.
Then bishop of San Juan, Alonso Manso, was responsible for the construction of the cathedral, which is one of San Juan’s oldest buildings. At the time he had a vision to construct a temple which would be similar to, if not larger than, the Cathedral of Seville, which is the third largest church building in the world today.
A hurricane caused extensive damage to the building in 1526 and a second hurricane, in 1615, removed the roof. Extensive restorations took place in 1917 and the facade was added in the 1800s.
Once the cathedral held many treasures, however it was subject to numerous robberies and pillaging over the years, most notably in 1598 when troops under the Earl of Cumberland attacked the city and looted the church. Today it has two notable and famous requires; the tomb of Juan Ponce de León and the mummified remains of St. Pio.
Juan Ponce de León was born into a noble family in León, Spain. He served as a page in the royal court of Aragon and then became a soldier and fought against the Moors in Granada. It is believed that he accompanied Christopher Columbus on his second voyage to the Indies in 1493. He became the governor of Hispaniola (present day Haiti and Dominican Republic) and then set off to explore San Juan Bautista (as Puerto Rico was then known) after hearing rumours of large amounts of gold on the island. He took 50 soldiers and founded a settlement at Caparra, near what is now San Juan. When he returned to Hispaniola for supplies he was named governor of Puerto Rico.
In 1521 he was fatally wounded with an arrow and died in Havana, Cuba. His remains were transferred to Puerto Rico, where they were kept in the Iglesia de San José. In the early 1900s the body of Juan Ponce de León was moved to the Cathedral of San Juan Bautista and placed in a marble tomb.
St. Pio (Saint Pius) was one of the first martyrs of the Roman persecutions against Christians in the first century. His remains were brought to Puerto Rico in 1862 when San Juan’s bishop, Mariano Rodríguez de Olmedo, felt it was important to have a real relic of a Christian martyr in the cathedral. The wax-coated mummy is encased in a glass structure inside the cathedral.
The cathedral is also the resting place of Luis Cardinal Aponte Martinez, the archbishop of San Juan. He served as the archbishop for 34 years and to date he is the only Puerto Rican to have been elevated to a cardinal of the Catholic Church.
- There is no admission fee but donations are welcome
- Mass is held on Saturdays at 19:00, Sundays at 9:00 and 11:00 and on weekdays at 19:25 and 12:15
- The church is open daily from 8:00 to 16:00
N.B. Information accurate at time of publishing according to AboutTravel.