The Baroque church of La Mare de Déu de Betlem (“Our Lady of Bethlehem”), more commonly referred to simply as “Betlem”, was once considered the most beautiful church in Barcelona. It was originally the chapel for a Jesuit school, and its founders, who took the Counter-Reformation ideals of both St. Ignatius and Trent very seriously, created a magnificent celebration of the power of the True Faith. Unfortunately, what remains today is a shell of its former magnificence.
Catalonia has an important role in the history of the Jesuits. During St. Ignatius of Loyola’s conversion, he went to visit the shrine of Our Lady of Montserrat, Patroness of Catalonia, about an hour outside of Barcelona. There he had a vision of the Virgin and Child, and left his military gear there, renouncing his former life as a military warrior. He then spent the next several months as a hermit outside the nearby town of Manresa where he continued to experience visions on an almost-daily basis.
In 1553 the Society of Jesus was granted permission by the City Council to build the first church along the Ramblas, on the site of the present building, along with a school. This original structure was consecrated two years later. In 1671, upon the canonization of the Catalan Jesuit St. Francis Borgia, great festivities were held along this part of the Ramblas, with the unfortunate result of the church catching fire and burning down. The present church was begun several years later, and completed by 1732 in a High Baroque style.
In 1767 the Jesuits were expelled from Catalonia, and the church moldered for more than a decade. Services resumed in 1787, staffed by the diocese, and continued until the Napoleonic period. The current parish was not officially created until 1835, but remains very active in providing aid to the poor in the local community of El Raval, traditionally part of the “red light” district of Barcelona. Appropriately enough, during Advent and the Christmas season it hosts many displays of carefully constructed traditional nativity scenes, visited by thousands of people each year.
During the Civil War in 1936, Betlem was burned by the Leftists, causing the vaulting to collapse and all of the interior decoration to be destroyed. This is considered by most architectural historians to be among the greatest of the city’s losses during the Civil War. Today, although the facade has been fully restored, and altarpieces from other churches and private collections placed in the side chapels, the interior is a sad reminder of the destructive quality of socialism.