The Eixample, the 19th century grid expansion of Barcelona that caused dozens of entirely new neighborhoods to spring up, created a serious need for more churches. New apartment buildings and houses were built to house a city that was already bursting at the seams, and many of these people would need somewhere nearby to go to mass. In addition, many of the religious orders arrived from other cities, and those which had previously been housed in the old city took advantage of the opportunity to move out into less cramped, more modern quarters. By doing so, they were able to expand their respective communities, inhabit better facilities, and provide for the spiritual needs of the influx of residents into these new districts.
One beautiful example of this is the Church of St. Francis de Sales on the Passeig de Sant Joan, one of the broad avenues leading up from the old city to the new. The church is considered the finest Neo-Gothic structure in the city, and the greatest example of the work of Joan Martorell i Montells, one of Gaudí’s teachers and an important influence on his pupil’s understanding of both surface treatment and interior space. Despite its Victorian uprightness, it anticipates in its decoration some of the wildness of Modernista decoration with which Gaudí and others would come to define late 19th and early 20th century Barcelona.
The church was built to be the main chapel of a convent for the Order of the Visitation of Holy Mary, founded by St. Francis de Sales and St. Jane de Chantal in France in 1610. In 1874 three sisters from the same Catalan haute-bourgeois family wanted to enter the convent of the Visitation Sisters in Madrid, where their favorite aunt was a member of that religious community. The sisters applied and were accepted to the convent. Unfortunately, the Left-leaning government of the time was trying to curb the powers of the monastic communities, and refused to allow any existing convents to admit new members.
As luck would have it, the family’s influential confessor Father Salvador Casañas (later Cardinal-Archbishop of Barcelona) agreed with the family and the Madrid nuns that this would be a golden opportunity to found a new house for the order in Barcelona. The Mother Superior of the Madrid convent gave permission for five of their sisters to move to Barcelona and help set up the new community. The girls’ mother offered a spacious house that she owned as a place to begin, until more appropriate accommodation could be located or built, and after some months of construction the nuns arrived from Madrid to help establish the new monastic community.
Upon their arrival in 1874 the Visitation sisters were aided by the Archbishop, the local Jesuits, and influential parish priests to get their foundation going. In the spring of 1875 the three sisters whose plight had brought about the foundation of the new community were admitted to the novitiate. They were soon followed by a number of other local women eager to join the order.
Land was purchased on the Passeig de Sant Joan that same year, and construction on the monastic complex began. The nuns were able to move into the monastery by 1878, but the church was not completed until 1885. During attacks by Leftists in 1909 and again during the Civil War in 1936, the nuns were forced to abandon the monastery, and the church was sacked.
The story of the community during the Civil War was particularly heart-wrenching. Bodies of the sisters who had been buried at the convent were taken out of their tombs by the Leftists, desecrated, and put on public display on the steps of the church like a sideshow attraction. The sisters who had abandoned the convent went into hiding with friends and family members, to escape execution by firing squad or militia gangs. Subsequently an Italian military ship arrived in port in Barcelona and many of the sisters, along with other surviving priests and religious from other orders in the city who chose to leave, were escorted by Italian naval officers to the ship and were able to flee the rest of the Civil War. Over 800 priests and religious were taken to Genoa, and the Visitation Sisters were housed at a Visitation monastery there temporarily while accommodation could be found. Most were sent to Turin, but a few remained in Genoa or nearby.
Following the Civil War the sisters returned to Barcelona, but the decision was made not to return to the original convent given what had taken place there and the extent of the repairs needed. A new home was found further north in the Horta section of the city, and in 1942 the Marist Brothers took over the former convent. In 1950, the Marists turned the chapel over to the Archdiocese for use as a parish, which was named for St. Francis de Sales in honor of its historical association with the order he and St. Jane de Chantal had founded.