Santa Àgata

Santa ÀgataCapella Reial de Santa Àgata
Built: 1302-1312
Founded: Before 1173
Function: Former royal chapel; currently museum space
Address: Plaça del Rei

The Royal Chapel of St. Agatha is part of the main royal palace of the Catalan kings, known as the Palau Reial Major, located just to the SE of the Cathedral. It sits atop a well-preserved section of the old Roman walls that originally surrounded the city. The chapel’s thin, 120-foot tall bell tower is one of the many that mark the “Gothic Quarter” at the heart of the oldest part of town. Although Gothic detail was later added toward the top of the belfry, much of the existing tower structure was one of the original Roman watchtowers.

Construction of the present chapel began in 1302, during the reign of Jaume II and his wife Blanche of the French House of Anjou, to replace a smaller Romanesque chapel dedicated to the Blessed Virgin. The choice of the Sicilian martyr St. Agatha as the patroness of the new chapel was likely a conscious choice by Jaume II to reflect his rule over the Kingdom of Sicily, and relics of the saint were housed here. The new structure, built in part to the King’s design, features lofty vaults and buttresses in the then-new Gothic style. The intermingling of the four bars of the Catalan royal house and the fleurs-de-lis of the French royal house throughout the vaulting bear testament to the close relationship between Catalonia and France at the time. Sadly, the first major event to take place here upon the chapel’s completion was Blanche’s funeral in 1310.

After more than four centuries of care by members of the Mercedarian Order, the chapel ceased to host religious functions during the political upheavals of 1835, when many other churches, monasteries, and chapels around the city suffered similar fates, and in 1844 it was sold to a factory owner for industrial use. Fortunately, in 1866 it was named a National Monument, and restoration and preservation efforts began. It subsequently became part of the City History Museum, which it remains today.

Santa Maria de Vallvidrera

Santa Maria de VallvidreraEsglésia de Santa Maria de Vallvidrera
Built: 1540-1587
Founded: Before 987 A.D.
Function: Parish church
Address: Actor Morano 9

Up in the Collserola Mountains which ring the city of Barcelona, stands the late Gothic church of Santa Maria de Vallvidrera. As is true of many of the city’s churches, this parish is far older than the current structure which it occupies. The first documentary evidence for a parish community in the Vallvidrera district comes from 987 A.D., when an inventory lists a church that existed on the site as being a mission or satellite parish of the very ancient parish of Sant Cebrià (St. Cyprian) of Valldoreix, a town on the other side of the mountain range.

What is interesting is that there is some written mention as early as 1058 A.D. that this church was a basilica. This poses an interesting historical question: was the structure built in the style of a Roman basilica, or did it have an important religious significance or canonical distinction that caused people to refer to it as a basilica? The question will likely always remain unanswered, given the far-distant time period involved, the fact that Lefists burned many of the parish records in 1936, and the structure as it stood in the 11th century no longer exists.

By the 12th century there was a large enough population in the still-sparsely populated Vallvidrera district for the church to become independent of Valldoreix, and come under the direct jurisdiction of the Archdiocese of Barcelona. The community continued to worship in the old church until the structure became impractical. This was then torn down and replaced with a Gothic structure in the mid-to-late 16th century, which is the building that visitors see today.

During the 19th century with the arrival of the locomotive and better roads up into the mountains, the area became a popular place for wealthy city dwellers to build their weekend or summer houses. The higher altitudes and verdant vegetation provided a cooler place to spend the hot and humid Barcelona summers. The arrival of tramways and the construction of the nearby Basilica of Tibidabo also helped to being more residents into the area.

With the arrival of the Civil War in 1936, the church was trashed and burned by the Leftists, and among the losses were a number of very esteemed 17th century altarpieces that poor foresight had prevented from being moved to the National Museum on Montjuich, where they might have been saved. The church remained in disuse for over a decade afterward, before popular attention was drawn to the sad state of the building. It was subsequently partially restored and re-opened by the Archdiocese, and mass continues at the present with the assistance of the local Capuchin friars.

Sant Francesc de Sales

Sant Francesc de SalesEsglésia de Sant Francesc de Sales
Built: 1882-1885
Founded: 1874
Function: Parish church; former convent chapel
Address: Passeig de Sant Joan 88

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.

Sagrat Cor

Sagrat CorEsglésia del Sagrat Cor de Jesus
Built: 1883-1889
Founded: 1881
Function: Parish church/school chapel
Address: Casp 27

The Jesuits have always had a close historical attachment to Catalonia, since St. Ignatius of Loyola came to the holy mountain monastery of Our Lady of Montserrat and renounced his secular life in favor of a life of service to God. Indeed, he penned his Spiritual Exercises in the city of Mataró, not far from Barcelona. While the Betlem church on the Ramblas is the largest and most famous of the Jesuit churches in the city, the magnificent church the Jesuits built in the 19th century to the Sacred Heart of Jesus holds a great relic of St. Ignatius’ conversion, as will be explained below.

The domed Sacred Heart or “Sagrat Cor” church on Carrer del Casp should not be confused with the Basilica of the Sacred Heart atop the mountain of Tibidabo, built with the encouragement of St. John Bosco. That structure was intended to be an expiatory temple and pilgrimage site. Rather this Neo-Byzantine church, along with the attached school and the Jesuit residence were a collaborative effort between architects Joan Martorell Montells and Camil Oliveras i Gensana at a time when Barcelona’s residential population was expanding exponentially and needed new Catholic schools and parishes.

Sagrat Cor is one of the very few Barcelona churches that survived anti-Catholic destruction by Leftists during the Civil War in the 1930’s, retaining its original, very richly decorated interior. This reason alone would make it worthy of pilgrimage, particularly among those interested in the more eclectic styles of 19th century architecture and design. Although based in part on Byzantine models, the design also has significant elements of Romanesque and Gothic architecture.

When St. Ignatius made his pilgrimage to Montserrat in 1522, as a token of his conversion he left behind his sword before the image of Our Lady of Montserrat. The sword was preserved at the monastery for many years, until it was given to the Jesuits in 1907. It was then subsequently placed into a bronze and crystal reliquary, and set into the altar dedicated to St. Ignatius inside this church, just below the statue of the great Basque saint. This is such an important piece of Jesuit and indeed of world history, as a result of what St. Ignatius’ conversion brought about, that it is surprising that the presence of this amazing relic at this church is not better known.

Sant Martí de Provençals

Sant Martí de ProvençalsEsglésia de Sant Martí de Provençals
Built: 1400-1688
Founded: Between 400-500 A.D.
Function: Parish church
Address: Plaça Ignasi Juliol

This very ancient parish, named for St. Martin of Tours, may take its name from two different sources, lost in the mists of time. Pious legend recounts that St. Martin himself visited here during his lifetime, and that the house in which he stayed was used by the early Christians as a kind of primitive church. However attractive the story, this seems somewhat unlikely. It is more likely that the popularity of Saint Martin among the Frankish troops, and their conquest of Catalonia from the Moors, has more to do with the choice of this particular patronage.

With respect to the question of “Provençals”, there are various theories. First there is the fact that the area once stood in agricultural lands around the ancient Roman colony of Barcino, which later became Barcelona, and on maps of the period was marked as “agri provintiales”. The second possibility is that the district was named for settlers from Provence, in Southern France, who arrived with Frankish troops in 801 A.D.

In any case, while the origin of the first church dedicated to St. Martin on the site is unknown, it is believed to have been built sometime in the 5th Century A.D. The building which stood on the site was destroyed during Al-Mansur’s raid on Barcelona in the year 985 A.D. The ruined church was rebuilt by the Counts of Barcelona by 1010, and this building stood until the 1400’s. It was then replaced by the present structure, as the parish came under the patronage of the Canons at the (now-Basilica) of Santa Maria del Mar. The altarpiece of St. Martin, attributed to French painter Antoine de Lonhy, who also designed the windows for Santa Maria del Mar, is now kept in the National Museum of Catalan Art in Barcelona.

Further additions were made to the church in the 17th century, adding a Baroque overlay to the Gothic bones of the building, until its completion in 1688. Although the church suffered some significant damage in the 20th century due to the various Leftist uprisings which took place, it has always come back and been restored by the parishioners. The area is now home to one of Barcelona’s largest immigrant communities, giving it a much higher population than it enjoyed for most of the 1500 years the parish has stood at this site.

Sant Llàtzer

Sant LlàtzerCapella de Sant Llàtzer
Built: 1144-1171
Founded: Before 1144
Function: Former hospital chapel; now used by Sant Egidio community.
Address: Plaça del Pedró 2

The small, ancient Capella de Sant Llàtzer (Saint Lazarus) was originally the chapel of the now-demolished leper’s hospital of Santa Maria dels Malalts (Our Lady of the Sick), and was built sometime between 1144-1171. At the time of its construction in the Raval district, the hospital was well outside the city walls (given the rudimentary understanding of leprosy at the time), but now the site lies within the modern downtown. The hospital continued in this location until 1906, when it was moved into the far NE corner of the city, and the old structures began to be demolished. The chapel continued to serve as a parish for the neighborhood, although it was always too small to serve the local needs.

In 1913 the chapel was de-consecrated by the diocese, and eventually fell into disrepair. Some attempt at preservation was made in the 1950’s, followed by a recent restoration by the City Council in the 1990’s. Stylistically, its exterior is related to other remaining Romanesque-era churches in Barcelona, including En Marcus, Santa Llucia, and Sant Pau del Camp. Recently, the chapel again came back to life with the arrival of the Sant Egidio Community, which not only holds mass and special events in the chapel, but also works with the poor in the area with assistance from both the Caritas division of the Archdiocese and the relevant city social services departments.

L’Ajuda

L'AjudaSantuari de la Mare de Déu de l’Ajuda
Built: 1912-1916
Founded: 1516
Function: Shrine church
Address: Sant Pere Més Baix 18

The Sanctuary of Our Lady of Help is one of those teeny-tiny little off-the-beaten-track churches that one stumbles across when wandering through the old city in Barcelona. For many years it was associated with the very ancient convent of Sant Pere de les Puel.les, which stands nearby. Today it is a center for Franciscan spirituality in downtown Barcelona.

The earliest mention of a group of Barcelona citizens desiring to build a shrine to an image of Our Lady under this title dates from 1516, and the image of the Virgin which is honored by the members of the shrine dates from about this time. The local organization gathered together to try to address the needs of the poor, elderly, and suffering in the area, under the appropriate patronage of Our Lady of Help. The first actual building on the present site was not completed until 1546. This building, which unfortunately suffered from structural problems, was replaced with a second shrine in 1800.

In 1835 the little church with its revered image of the Virgin became home for a group of Capuchin Friars, when they returned to Spain following the expropriation of monastic land by the previous leftist Spanish government. In 1884, the Archdiocese decided to turn over administration of the shrine over to the Capuchins, who have held charge of the shrine ever since. This custodianship has not been without tragedies, however.

In 1909 the entire shrine and the friars’ rooms were burned down to the ground by Leftists, and the 500-year-old image of Our Lady received some minor damage. With the help of the Archdiocese and architect Bonaventura Bassegoda, the shrine was rebuilt by 1912. In 1936 the shrine was partially destroyed by the Leftists, again, who this time also managed to murder two of the Capuchin fathers.

The Capuchins had entrusted the image of the Virgin to one of the local ladies who supported the shrine, and it was hidden away in her home until the end of the war when it was returned to its church and the building restored. In 1961, Our Lady Help of Help was proclaimed the Patroness of the Sant Pere district, where the shrine stands, and in 1998 a ceremony was held to mark her canonical coronation. The shrine is by no means luxurious, but in addition to celebrating the mass, it continues to serve as a site for lectures and discussions on Franciscan spirituality, as well as ministering to the needs of the Sant Pere district. In fact, because of the shrine’s members’ dedication to serving the needs of the poor, the shrine was awarded the city’s Gold Medal of Honor in 2004 for services to the community.