Sant Agustí Vell

Sant Agustí VellConvent de Sant Agustí
Built: 1349-1700
Founded: 1309
Function: Currently civic arts center; former monastic community
Address: Comerç 36

The presence of monastic communities following the Augustinian rule in Barcelona is supposedly very ancient. Admittedly, the further one goes back into local history and legend one finds the two somewhat inextricably intertwined. However it is often the case that legends have a significant basis in fact.

What we know for certain is that the important early Church father Saint Paulinus of Nola (354-431 A.D.), who was married to a Catalan lady and had land holdings in Catalonia, was ordained a priest in Barcelona on Christmas Day 393 A.D. by Lampius, the then-bishop of Barcelona. It is said that during the year or so he spent in Catalonia before returning to Italy (where he later became a bishop), he founded a community based along ideas adopted from his friend and contemporary Saint Augustine of Hippo. There is some documentary evidence that this proto-Augustinian community continued until the invasion of the Moors in the 8th century, and possibly survived it at the site of what is now the Romanesque church of Sant Pau del Camp, about which I have written previously.

Whatever their origin, it is formally documented that the Augustinians established a monastic community on Carrer del Comerç in Barcelona’s Borne district in 1309. This was close to the Basilica of Santa Maria del Mar, which was the original resting place of Saint Eulalia, Patron Saint of the City, who is now interred in the crypt of Barcelona’s Cathedral. The cornerstone for the church of the monastery, dedicated to Saint Augustine, was laid in 1349, but construction on the enormous complex continued until around 1700. During their residence in the Borne, the monks at Sant Agustí assisted in pastoral functions for the parishioners at Santa Maria del Mar.

For centuries as the monks of Sant Agustí Vell ministered to the poor in the neighborhood, they simultaneously fostered good relationships with the wealthy merchants who built their medieval townhouse palaces nearby. For example, in 1529 several of the monks died while caring for victims of the black plague, which had hit the city that year. This combination of good will and good geography allowed the monastery to grow quite rich, and to commission works such as the magnificent Altarpiece of St. Augustine by the great Catalan medieval painter Jaume Huguet, completed in 1486, and which is now housed in the National Museum of Catalan Art.

The church and much of the monastic complex were destroyed by massive shelling on the part of the Bourbons in 1714 during the Wars of the Spanish Succession, when the Catalans backed the losing Imperial Austrian House of Hapsburg. The new Bourbon King of Spain, the former Duke of Anjou, took the title Felipe V and ordered much of what remained of Sant Agustí demolished, so as to build a massive new citadel to keep Barcelona in check. The monks were forced to find new quarters in the Raval district, in the western part of the old city, and founded the Baroque complex of Sant Agustí Nou, whose church still stands.

The remains of the old complex, now known as Sant Agustí Vell or “Old St. Augustine’s”, including part of one side of the cloister and part of one of the lateral aisles of the church, were converted into a military barracks and storage depot. More recently, the city government took over the site and established the “Centre Cívic Convent Sant Agustí”. In addition to a bar/cafe, gallery and meeting rooms used by locals, it hosts a series of concerts, discussions, and exhibitions throughout the year. Over the past decade the site has become particularly well-known internationally for its biennial Festival of Electronic Music and Sound, featuring dozens of internationally-known digital artists, musicians and DJ’s.


Convent dels Àngels

Convent dels ÀngelsConvent de la Mare de Déu dels Àngels
Built: 1562-1568
Founded: Before 1473
Function: Art Museum/Arts Foundation; former Dominican convent
Address: Plaça dels Àngels

It is an unfortunate fact that many of the convents and monasteries in the old, historic nucleus of Barcelona did not survive the first wave of Leftist iconoclasm that led to the destruction of these religious communities under Napoleon, and later under secular Spanish governments inspired by his infernal example. Unlike other large cities on the Iberian Peninsula such as Madrid or Seville, the religious orders that exist in Barcelona today are often housed in late 19th or early 20th century buildings, located far from the urban core, rather than in their original locations. The remains of the large convent of Our Lady of the Angels is an example of what happened to a thriving community of Dominican nuns in Barcelona, destroyed within a century thanks to such interference.

The first mention of a chapel dedicated to Our Lady of the Angels comes from 1473, when a building under this title is mentioned as existing in the fields outside of the city walls, where the present Ciutadella Park stands. In 1485, this chapel was given into the care of the Dominican sisters, who began to build an enormous convent around the chapel a few years later. Unfortunately, because the site was located well-outside the safety of the city, after numerous encounters with robbers and brigands, by about 1550 it was determined not to be a good place for a group of women to live by themselves.

The solution was provided by the City Council who a few years later turned over to the Dominicans a chapel located on a street known as “The Foot of the Cross”, within the city walls on the western side of old Barcelona. Safe within the city, the Dominicans began to build a new convent of Our Lady of the Angels, creating a large structure that dominates the square of the same name. Architecturally, it is something of a jumble sale, a mix of Late Gothic and Renaissance styles, and one cannot help but wonder what the original, grand building outside the city must have looked like. However, the sisters continued to live here for the next 250 years.

After Napoleon and the later Spanish version of the dissolution of the monasteries in the 19th century, the convent was initially turned into a jail, as happened with several other monastic houses in the old districts of Barcelona. With gradual regrowth in tolerance for the Church, the building was subsequently given to the parish of Sant Antoni Abat nearby, and served as a mission parish under the protection of that parish. The nuns were thus able to return until the Tragic Week of 1906, when the complex was burned by the Leftists and the Dominicans once again had to flee. After this final expulsion, they did not return.

The complex was sold off and then used mainly as a warehouse, until it was purchased and restored by the city government for use as a conference and exhibition space in 1984. In 1995 Barcelona’s Museum of Contemporary Art, known as MACBA, was built next door, and since 1999 the old convent has been the home of FAD, which despite its “faddish” name is Barcelona’s century-old institute for the promotion of those wanting to study and exhibit contemporary arts, architecture and design. The former chapel of the convent is an exhibition space and concert hall used by the Contemporary Art Museum.

Sant Ramon de Penyafort

Sant Ramon de PenyafortEsglésia de Sant Ramon de Penyafort
Built: 1155-1500
Founded: 668 A.D.
Function: Parish church; former monastic church
Address: Rambla de Catalunya 133

Like the newly-designated Basilica of the Immaculate Conception, the parish church of Saint Raymond of Penyafort located on the Rambla de Catalunya began its life as something else than what it is now. Although dedicated to Saint Raymond today, the church has gone through many name and purpose changes, and originally stood several miles away from its present location. Thanks to the efforts of Barcelona’s citizens, it is a beautiful and fortunate survivor of the Middle Ages, after a very circuitous path.

It is known that a pilgrimage church dedicated to Santa Eulalia del Camp (“Saint Eulalia-in-the-Fields”) was established north of the city in the seventh century. The first mention of this comes from Quiricus, Bishop of Barcelona from 658-667 A.D. When he was transferred to Toledo to become bishop there, Quiricus sent funds for the establishment of a church dedicated St. Eulalia and in the keeping of the Augustinian friars, to be built on the ruins of an old temple dedicated to Venus which stood in the fields outside the city walls. There is little mention of this community again until 1155, when Bishop Guillem de Tarroja re-founded and rebuilt the place, asking the Augustinian friars to return to the complex with the purpose of providing a community of regular canons from Santa Eulalia del Camp.

In 1347 when Maria d’Aragó, daughter of King Pere III, died, she left a monetary legacy in her will to found a new Dominican convent in Barcelona. The community was to be dedicated to St. Peter Martyr, the great Dominican opponent of dualism, who was killed by the Cathars in April of 1252 and canonized in March of 1253 – the fastest canonization in Church history. It was the Princess’ nephew, King Pere IV, who laid the cornerstone of the new building in 1351, close to the waterfront and the medieval shipyards. During this same time period, the church and the cloister at Santa Eulalia del Camp, in the hands of the Augustinian monks, was being built in typically clean-edged, Catalan High Gothic style.

The first Dominican nuns began to arrive later in 1351 from Languedoc, the part of Catalonia now in France, to help get the new community on its feet. At first they were lodged in temporary quarters near Santa Maria de Jonqueres, whose church is now the aforementioned Basilica of the Immaculate Conception. In 1354 they moved to quarters next to the monastic building their community would later come to own, the complex of the Augustinians at Santa Eulalia del Camp.

By 1357 the new Dominican waterfront monastery was completed, and the nuns moved in. Unfortunately, despite the picturesque setting by the sea, the port area proved to be too dangerous and within two years, the nuns had to move to new quarters within the city walls. Work began on a new monastery in the western part of the city, near some of the newer monastic communities and the city hospital, and by 1371 the new home for the itinerant nuns was completed.

In 1423 the nuns abandoned this new structure – which was bought by the Poor Clares thirty years later and named Santa Maria de Jerusalem – and purchased the old monastery of Santa Eulalia del Camp. Three years before, the Augustinians of Santa Eulalia del Camp merged their community with that of their neighbors and fellow Augustinians, the Canons of the Knights of the Holy Sepulchre of the Monastery of Santa Anna. In some respects this was a homecoming for the Dominican community, who had lived and worshiped here while their original home was being built 70 years earlier. The nuns dedicated their new home to the Mare de Déu de Montsió, because one of the chapels in the monastic church, dedicated to Our Lady under that title, was popular with the local residents.

During the anti-clerical uprisings of the 19th century, the nuns had to abandon the monastery twice. Severe damage was done to the structure during these periods, and because of this and the expansion of the Barcelona city grid in the 19th century, in 1882 the church and the cloister of the monastery began to be disassembled, stone by stone, and moved to the new boulevard known as the Rambla Catalunya. By 1888 the nuns were able to move into their newly-renovated and newly-relocated home, and remained there until the Civil War in 1936-1939, when they had to flee once again.

Following the destruction wrought on the complex by the Leftists during the Civil War, in 1947 the nuns decided to move out of the city altogether, settling in the Barcelona suburbs at an old country estate in Espluges. The nuns left their beautiful church behind but, bizarrely enough, they took their equally beautiful cloister with them to their new home. (One can only imagine the conversations that went on between the Prioress and the Cardinal-Archbishop about that project.) The parish of Sant Ramon de Penyafort was then established by the Archdiocese in the old church which the Dominican nuns had left behind.

Santa Margarida la Reial

Santa Margarida la ReialMonestir de Santa Margarida la Reial
Founded: 1599
Function: Monastic church
Address: Pomaret 34

Visitors to this quiet, out-of-the-way convent of Capuchin nuns may not be aware that this is the third location for the Poor Clares of St. Margaret, who have had some travels over the years. Their case is similar to that of many of the religious orders in Barcelona who started out in the old city, and ended up scattered about all over the new. In this case, the Order was formally founded in 1599 and established in the old city; moved north into the new city in the 19th century; and moved further north in the 20th.

The Venerable Àngela Margarida Prat Serafi was born in 1543 in Manresa, a city not far from Barcelona, into a poor but large peasant family. She moved to Barcelona to obtain work as a housemaid, and eventually married a man who physically and emotionally abused her to such a degree that her own parish priest tried unsuccessfully to intervene. She gave birth to three children, only one of whom survived to adulthood – a girl who became a Franciscan sister.

After the death of her husband in 1582, “Mother Serafina”, as she came to be known, began to sew and embroider to pay for herself and her family, and became increasingly devout, trying to discern whether she had a vocation. She developed friendships with the Capuchin Friars, who became her spiritual directors, and with their guidance she eventually opened a primary school. Over time, she came into contact with other women of poor background like herself, who were attracted to the strict interpretation of the Rule of St. Clare, and they gradually formed what by 1593 had become the nucleus of a monastic community. Unfortunately, because they were all poor women, they did not have the dowry funds necessary to properly form a Capuchin Order and obtain a building to use for a convent.

When Philip III became king of Spain upon the death of his father Philip II in 1598, he arranged to marry his cousin Margaret of Austria the following year. Following their wedding in the city of Valencia, the couple made a royal progress, visiting many of the important cities of their kingdom, and stopped in Barcelona. One of the ladies-in-waiting to Queen Margaret, a noblewoman also named Margaret, had heard tell of the piety of Mother Serafina, and arranged to meet her.

She was so taken by what she heard, that Mother Serafina was presented to the King and Queen and the nobles of the court during their stay in Barcelona. They too were taken with Mother Serafina’s piety, and particularly the new Queen who shared the name “Margaret” with her. The royals promised to help arrange the foundation of the convent, and through these connections both the order and the convent have since borne the title “la Reial” to indicate their royal favor.

With the assistance of the Crown and the Barcelona city council, the group received formal recognition from the Papal Nuncio as Capuchin Nuns, and they were able to purchase a house located near the Dominican Convent of Our Lady of the Angels. This location quickly became too small, and renovations and expansion had to begin. So not long after moving in, in 1601 they temporarily moved to quarters at Santa Maria de Montalegre – a location which I have recently written about – before its conversion into a seminary for the Archdiocese.

While at their temporary digs, Mother Serafina was made the abbess of the convent, and in 1602 the original group of nuns received their first novices. Among these novices was Blessed Maria Àngela Astorc (beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1982), who herself went on to found numerous convents and write extensively on spiritual matters. The Capuchin nuns were able to move back to the newly completed convent in 1604. Mother Serafina herself died in 1608 in the second convent she had founded, in her home town of Manresa, and was buried there. She was declared Venerable by Pope Pius XI in 1933.

The nuns remained at the original convent site until 1881, when they were merged with their sister house from Mataró, and moved to a new, much larger location in the north end of the city known as Sant Gervasi. They remained at this location until 1909, when their convent was burned down by Leftists during the “Tragic Week” uprisings, and the sisters had to flee. Rather than rebuild at this site, the nuns sold the land for construction of the beautiful Galvany Market, which still stands today, and they themselves moved to a new location further north in Sant Gervasi. [Unfortunately, I cannot find any information at this point on the design or interior of the current convent.

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.