More commonly known as the “Church of the Citadel”, the 18th century Church of Saint Felix Africanus is the parish church of the armed forces in Barcelona. It falls under the jurisdictional control not of the Barcelona Archdiocese, but rather of the Spanish military Archdiocese. Despite its long history, it is not a structure that has, in general, a particular fondness among most Barcelonans.
The church, also known as the “Capilla Castrense” or “Military Chapel”, was originally part of the gigantic Ciutadella or “Citadel”. This was a star-shaped fortress that Philip V, the first Bourbon king of Spain, commissioned upon his victory over Barcelona in the Wars of the Spanish Succession on September 11, 1714. The completed citadel was the largest fortress in Europe, and an indication of how much the Bourbons loathed the Catalans for having supported the Habsburgs; naturally, Philip wanted to keep them from re-asserting their autonomy or independence from Spain.
The present-day church was the military chapel of the Spanish troops garrisoned in Barcelona. Like the rest of the buildings of the citadel, the chapel was designed in a somewhat heavy, imposing Baroque style under the direction of George Prosper Van Verboom, a Flemish military engineer in the service of Philip V. Verboom took a personal interest in the design of the entire complex, as indeed he had in the bombing of the city into submission. Although his design for the chapel was never fully executed, as Verboom planned to add additional radiating chapels and pavilions for ceremonial purposes to the structure, what stands today is arguably the only Northern European Baroque building in Barcelona – a city which does not have a significant amount of Baroque architecture, and most of that which does exist having being based on Southern European models.
One of the most controversial aspects of Verboom’s design for the citadel was the demolition of a significant part of the old Ribera district, home of Barcelona’s fishermen since Roman times, and of which the Basilica of Santa Maria del Mar was the religious center. Most of the residents were forcibly moved into what rapidly became the high-rise slums of the district known as Barceloneta, down by the city harbor. De-population of the surrounding areas of the city quickly followed, and Barcelona proper was shut up inside the city walls for the next 150 years to stagnate, until the coming of the industrial revolution and less regressive Spanish governments.
After Barcelona opened the old city walls, it took almost ten years to clear away the remains of the old citadel, so massive were Verboom’s structures. The only parts of the complex left standing were the chapel, the governor’s palace (now a technical school), and the arsenal, which is now the home of Catalonia’s parliament. Surrounding these buildings the city fathers commissioned a vast, beautiful city park along the lines of Central Park in Manhattan, which features numerous gardens, fountains (including one of Gaudí’s earliest works), an Arc de Triomphe, promenades, monuments, an artificial lake, the Natural History Museum, and the city zoo.
While still technically a military chapel in addition to being a parish, the church has become very popular for weddings as a result of its new Eden-like garden setting, and unusually ample parking in downtown Barcelona.