Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Spain in London

When Henry VIII decided to create his own church and then outlawed Catholic churches for British citizens, the only place Catholics could legally attend Mass was in the foreign embassies of Catholic countries (Spain, France, etc.). The Spanish were particularly diligent in supporting the Church, and even bought the bodies of martyred Catholics. The Spanish ambassador bought the body of St John Southworth, a priest hanged, drawn and quartered under Oliver Cromwell, had it stitched together again, and sent it to Douai.  At the time of the French Revolution, it was hidden, forgotten and then rediscovered years later during the building of a road. It was returned to Westminster Cathedral in 1930, and is now in the Shrine of the English martyrs (with a silver face mask and hands covering the skeletal remains).  But all thanks to the Spanish Ambassador.


But here is the gem:  the Church of St James Spanish Place, which is a 19th building on the site of the Spanish Embassy and chapel under Elizabeth I. Spanish Place refers to the traditional name of the street, which it still bears.

It had a long and complicated history, but the church that currently stands on the site was built in 1890 and finally consecrated in 1940.  It’s still in existence and has regular masses, with several Latin or English Novus Ordo and a couple of Traditional Rite masses every Sunday. To learn more about its fascinating history, go here:

It is filled not only with beautiful items from the earlier Spanish chapels, but with very fine artworks by English religious artists of the early 20th century.  There’s a truly beautiful chapel in memory of parishioners who lost their  lives in WWI, for example, with stunning carvings by Geoffrey Webb (who did most of the work in the chapel).  Much of the earlier work in other parts of the church was done by our old friends Mayer of Munich, who did the windows at the Cathedral Basilica of St Augustine in 1909.

In any case, here’s the remarkable stone altar frontal. It is a Virgin and Child, made of marble according to one account that I read (although it looks more to me like alabaster), painted or stained.  The haloes are mother of pearl inlays.  One of the features of this church – and every English church that I saw – is the use of different marbles and other stones, a specialty of which I was unaware, although I did know that prior to the advent of Henry VIII, the English specialized in making affordable alabaster altar pieces and carvings, which were sold throughout Europe. There are a number of them in Spain.

I wish my cell-phone picture had turned out better, but this will at least give you an idea of it…


Saturday, June 2, 2012

Our Lady of Esperanza

I haven’t been back to Spain since my December trip (although I hope to go again this summer, possibly back to the Camino) but I wanted to give signs of life.  So here’s my most recent Spanish thing.

Last week, I was back in my home town, New York City, and I went up to Our Lady of Esperanza on 156th St, between Broadway and Riverside.   It’s not open all the time, so I decided to go to Sunday mass at the church and I consulted the diocesan website, which seemed to be a little out of date. I thought I would be attending the main Spanish mass, but I ended up at an English mass, although most of the attendees appeared to be members of the large Dominican population in the neighborhood (which used to be Irish and Jewish when I was a child).  They were probably bilingual to some extent, but their major language was clearly English. In other words, this was the second or possibly third generation, following the usual NYC immigrant path.  In addition, a number of the families seemed to be Dominican/Irish, so an entirely new group has started in Upper Manhattan!


It is a beautiful little church with an interesting history.  The building was built in 1909 with a donation and support from Sra. Da. Manuela de Laverrerie de Barril, wife of the Spanish Consul-General in New York at that time.  They were friends of Archer Huntington, founder of the Hispanic Society and its museum, which are right around the corner on Audubon Terrace, and it was in fact his cousin, Charles Huntington who designed the building.

It was intended for the Spanish speaking peoples of New York, who at that time were not very numerous and were located mostly in the area of 14th St on the West Side, where the tiny Spanish church, Our Lady of Guadalupe, was located. 

There are very beautiful things in it – the sanctuary lamp, for example, was donated by Alfonso XIII – and the design is truly lovely.  It looked to me as if the signature on the St Joseph altar read, “J. Sorolla, 1912”.    Unfortunately, the companion painting of the Virgin on the other side has disappeared and been replaced by a paper copy.  I hope it was simply out for restoration, but I doubt it.

While the church appears to have a group of active and friendly parishioners, who were having a rummage sale on the street outside when I visited, it is clearly in need of maintenance and even repair and restoration. The little sign on this beautiful window showing St Augustine with his mother, St Monica, says “Please don’t open the door, it’s (almost) broken.”


This is one of those difficult situations. The church and the diocese should restore and maintain the property, because the Spanish speaking peoples of Upper Manhattan (and their Irish in-laws!) deserve to have this wonderful gift featuring the Spanish heritage. At the same time, I can understand that there are other concerns. 

The pastor – or at any rate, the priest at the mass I attended – is African, and gave a homily in his heavily accented English that told people not to fear spirits (he named some, either African or from the Caribbean voodoo/santeria cults) because the Holy Spirit was stronger than all of them.  This may sound silly, but the problem is that many people from Caribbean cultures (and even in Mexico) believe in these spirits, and having the Church tell them not to worry because God in Our Lord Jesus Christ is good and more powerful than all spirits releases them from fear.  This was exactly the message that St Patrick gave to his spirit-terrified Irish converts back in the 5th century.

So I know there are things more important than maintaining an historical art treasure, but at the same time, beauty and faith and evangelization all work together, and I wish some wealthy New Yorker would take up this mission of Spanish beauty.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

300 Years of the Biblioteca Nacional

I´m in Madrid right now and I went to a new exhibit today that commemorates the 300th anniversary of the National Library. The building in which it is currently located was built for it in the 19th century, and it had been located in a couple of other places in the preceding century or so.

They have brought out wonderful things for the exhibit, and you can see original documents – not facsimiles – from the earliest times of the book  - or even written document – in Spain.  You can see parchments, books, maps, photos, and even hear early sound recordings.

I lucked out, however, because I saw something completely different downstairs in their permanent exhibit. They had moved something from that exhibit upstairs to the special exhibit and replaced it with this:


What is it? Part of a set of measuring and mapping tools made for the Spanish king Carlos II when he was 14 years old in the late 17th century.  I was delighted, because I am going to be giving a talk on early maps of St Augustine and I wanted to show people the tools used in creating them. So here they are.

However, this set was a multi-purpose tool.  It was designed by a Jesuit in Toledo, and even included a way the user could use the device to tune instruments.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Walls of St Augustine

After a long, long silence – as a result of my labors with Tolomato Cemetery this year – I have made a pre-New Year’s resolution to resume this blog. The posts may be sporadic, but they’ll be there!

One of the most interesting things going on in St Augustine right now is the dig at the Mission Nombre de Dios.  This is near the site where the Spanish landed, and is the site of the first church or chapel that they built.  There was an Indian mission at the site and a chapel with an image of Nuestra Señora de la Leche y Buen Parto, Our Lady of Milk and Safe Childbirth, known locally as Our Lady of La Leche.  The original image,  a sculpted figure, is thought to have been carried off in Palmer’s Raid in 1728.

The Mission is also the site of the first stone church built by the Spanish in 1677, although the exact location of this has been lost for centuries.

The original church was blown up by the Spanish themselves during Palmer’s Raid in order to prevent the South Carolinians from using it to attack the Castillo. The current chapel on the site dates only to the early 20th century, but it replaces several earlier ones destroyed either during British attacks on St Augustine or by hurricanes.   But no sign of the original church remained.

Just this fall, new information surfaced about the location of this church.  It was actually old information, discovered by a priest stationed at the shrine in the 1950s, but like everything else about the Mission, it had been lost.  The priest felt that he had found the location of the foundations of the building and did a map of it, although unfortunately because of changes over the years, the map was fairly meaningless. But Dr. Kathy Deagan, who has devoted her life to digging up St Augustine, sat down and analyzed it and came up with some ideas about its location.


On he very first test pit, they found a wall.  And here we see it: a massive coquina wall or foundation.  Was it the original church?  Was it perhaps the church and Franciscan convent?  Or was it something else altogether?  I’ll keep you posted as Dr. Deagan and Dr. Jim Gifford pursue this surprisingly elusive past.

Friday, January 28, 2011

More Mysteries under St Augustine

This photo shows you everybody who’s anybody in St Augustine archaeology, puzzling over the latest find under our streets.  Carl Halbirt, Susan Parker, Buff Gordon, Herschel Shepherd, and Kathy Deagan (blond hair, green shirt with her back to the camera) and St Augustine Archaeological Association members Toni Wallace, Janet Jordan and Lin Masley ponder a series of 16th/17th century postholes.

The postholes (now just stains in the soil) were found in the course of digging up San Marco Avenue to put a tourist trolley stop in across the street from the Castillo de San Marcos. There are many postholes of varying sizes, and speculation is that these were from temporary buildings used during the construction of the earliest fort in the 16th century.  There is also the possibility that the buildings were storage buildings or some other utility structures. Herschel Shepherd suggested that we consult Spanish traditional architectural styles to answer some of the questions about the size, placement and possible use of these buildings.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Spanish New Orleans?

Spain had a significant but now nearly ignored or even unknown influence on Louisiana in general and New Orleans in particular. I’m in New Orleans this week and thought I’d look for Spanish traces.


I didn’t have far to look. The Cabildo was built as the  headquarters for the Spanish governor and council in the 18th century. Spain acquired Louisiana shortly after it gave up St Augustine, in both cases because of the settlement of the Seven Years’ War (French and Indian War).  Louisiana was under Spain from 1764 to 1803; in fact, it was Spanish until just a few days before the Louisiana Purchase, which made it American.  In a complicated treaty maneuver, Spain returned Louisiana to France, and the US then purchased it. In fact, the agreement for the Louisiana Purchase was signed in the Cabildo, which nowadays is the Louisiana State Museum.

Interestingly enough, the Spanish governor of Louisiana was a man named Alejandro O’Reilly. Yes, that’s right: another of the Wild Geese, the Irish who went to the Continent.  He’s no relation to St Augustine’s Fr. Miguel O’Reilly, his contemporary and fellow Irish Spaniard.

Here’s another little trace of Spain.  If I find any more, I’ll let you know.


Friday, December 31, 2010

Twelve Grapes till Midnight

OK, Hispanophiles – ready your grapes!

The first time I ever participated in the mysterious Spanish grape ritual was years ago with a group of people –whose names I have long forgot, since I had only met them a few hours earlier on the train – in the Puerta del Sol on what had to be the hottest New Year’s Eve on record.  Still, it was fun trying to cram our mouths with grapes or time their chewing appropriately.  Some people had brought peeled grapes, which I would say is the way to go if you really want efficiency.


This Spanish custom, which is now spreading throughout the Spanish speaking and even Anglo world – I’m sure I’ll see some folks here in St Augustine tonight chomping down on their grapes – actually originated in 1909 as a commercial promotion after a bumper grape harvest in Northern Spain.  It was obviously a “custom” waiting for its moment!

But whatever and wherever, ¡ Buen Año Nuevo! Happy 2011!