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Santiago de Cuba's cathedral of hard knocks


If you are a serious believer in omens, you might conclude that God was trying to tell you there shouldn't be a cathedral in Santiago de Cuba. In its over-400 year history, the cathedral has been burnt, shattered, plundered and otherwise damaged so many times it's hard to keep count.


In fact, the present building is the fourth on the spot to be called a cathedral, and it stands on the site of previous chapels and a convent. Today it serves as the center of its local archdiocese, but when it began it was the Catholic center for all of Cuba, and for Florida and Louisiana as well.


It's not a huge building; it covers a square block in central Santiago, facing Parque Cespedes. Unlike most cathedrals, it can't be entered from the street; it sits on a one-story platform, whose base is occupied by shops and offices and a cathedral museum.


Inside, its history is reflected in the beautiful but quite modern decor, mostly dating to 19th and 20th century renovations. After all, how much would you expect to remain after this litany of destruction?

  • Construction started 1522; almost as soon as it was finished in 1526, it burned to the ground.
  • The 1528 replacement was not yet finished in 1553, when a pirate raider demanded 80,000 pesos to not destroy it.
  • In 1562, 1586 and 1603, French corsairs plundered the Cathedral; the 1603 raid set it on fire.
  • By the time it had been repaired again, the English pirates, Henry Morgan and Dolleys had burned it again, and stolen the bells.
  • The so-called Second Cathedral was completed by 1674; the following year it had to be closed because of earthquake damage. Further earthquakes in 1678 and 1679 finished the job.
  • In 1686, construction started on the Third Cathedral, whose roof collapsed before it was opened in 1690. Repairs weren't completed until 1719.
  • In 1766, a huge earthquake, Santiago's biggest, collapsed most of the church, and the rest had to be pulled down.
  • The Fourth Cathedral, built between 1810 and 1818, is roughly the building we know today, despite serious earthquake damage in 1852 and 1932.

As you can see from the pictures, though, the Cathedral is in excellent condition at the moment, all dressed up for the city's 500th anniversary celebration this year.


One truly unusual feature we noted is the recent reburial of several Santiago archbishops in the cathedral floor, just before the altar. These three include the first archbishop of Cuba, elevated in the 18th century, and two quite recent incumbents, all moved to the cathedral in 2004. The altar itself is quite simple, and stands with a background of beautiful dark wood carving.

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The areas along the side walls include a variety of statues, relics and paintings in bright colors.


The ceilings and other fittings are also quite impressive.


The large plaques on the facade mark the cathedral's founding in 1522, and the major renovation of 400 years later. In the file picture below, you can see that the facade has changed color in the current spruce-up.


Day or night, the cathedral's towers can be seen from most parts of the old city, since it sits at one of the high points. At bottom, one of the bands that perform in Parque Cespedes, in front of the cathedral, entertaining visitors...and collecting contributions.



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The best part of every trip is realizing that it has upset your expectations

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