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'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.

Sant Pere Nolasc

Sant Pere NolascEsglésia de Sant Pere Nolasc
Built: 1710-1746
Founded: 1704
Function: Parish church; monastic chapel
Address: Plaça Castella, 5

The Congregation of the Mission, a religious order founded by St. Vincent de Paul in 1624 and more commonly known as the Vincentians, arrived in Barcelona in 1704, and took up residence in the Raval district, traditionally the home of Barcelona’s immigrant communities and the urban poor. They named their community the Casa de Sant Sever, after St. Severus, Barcelona’s martyred 4th century bishop. The order continued to grow in size until 1808, when the buildings were appropriated by the French for use as a military hospital during the Napoleonic wars.

After Napoleon was defeated the Vincentians were able to return in a partial fashion, part of the complex having been turned by the authorities into a tobacco factory. In the early 1930’s the brothers were in such precipitous decline and the buildings in such a poor state, that they decided to sell them to the local authorities. Their former home was turned back into a military hospital, which it remained until 1940 when a new military hospital was built in the Vall d’Hebron district far outside the city center.

Unfortunately the Vincentians only had a short time to enjoy their new digs. In 1933 they built a new home for their community, close to Sant Pau del Camp, using the proceeds of the sale of the convent. However in 1936 this building was completely destroyed by the Leftists, as indeed was much of their old convent.

After the war the city razed the remains of the newer convent to create a public square, and the same fate befell most of the old establishment as well. Only the inner, earlier of the two large chapels which originally stood on the site, and part of the cloister were preserved. The existing chapel was built between 1710 and 1746 in a Baroque style, and dedicated to St. Severus and to St. Charles Borromeo. It features an enormous dome covered in a mosaic pattern of roof tiles, unusual for Barcelona church architecture, as well as twin bell towers at the entrance portico typical of the style of counter-reformation churches of the period.

After restoration, the chapel was turned over to the Mercedarians, who re-named the building in honor of their founder, Barcelona’s St. Peter Nolasco, and the church remains in their care today.

Ermita de Santa Creu d’Olorda

Ermita de Santa Creu d'OlordaErmita de Santa Creu d’Olorda
Built: Between 800 – 1000 A.D., with later additions
Founded: Before 986 A.D.
Function: Chapel
Address: Carretera de Sanson s/n

The Hermitage of the Holy Cross in Olorda, a settlement located in the Collserola Mountains which ring the city of Barcelona, is of very ancient and somewhat mysterious origin. Much of the present building is believed to date from between 800-1000 A.D. Subsequent additions to the building in later centuries, as well as the destruction of the Civil War, have had an impact on the appearance of the present structure.

The first documentary evidence for the existence of a chapel on this site is dated 1032 A.D., although the settlement around it is known from an even earlier document. In the year 986 A.D. King Lothar (941-986 A.D.) of the Franks deeded this land to the Monastery of Sant Cugat, just over the other side of the mountain from the former village of Olorda. This fact, in combination with the architectural style of the building leads historians to believe that the hermitage was probably already of considerable age at the time the Frankish King willed the land to the Benedictines.

The present bell tower was added around 1300, and enlarged in the 17th century when a Renaissance front portal was added to the facade. It remained a popular pilgrimage site, but as to when the last hermit was in residence here, no one is quite certain. In the 19th century with the development of the train and tram lines, the area began to grow in population, and the chapel came under the administration of larger parishes nearby, in turn.

By 1915 the chapel came under the authority of the parish of Saint Vincent, the main church in the former village of Sarrià, now one of the more exclusive northern residential districts of Barcelona and under which it remains today. Given its somewhat remote location, it became a popular excursion and picnic post, particularly on religious feast days, when the youth from the local parishes would come here to celebrate mass and participate in games and other activities. Because this was never a highly populated area, following a significant amount of destruction during the Civil War in 1936, the chapel languished for a considerable period of time.

Recently, I am pleased to say, interest in this ancient chapel has seen an increase, and Saint Vincent and two of the other northern parishes have announced that beginning on September 14, 2010, the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, appropriately enough, a mass will once again be held in the ancient chapel after many years of remaining closed. If interest is shown, the other parishes will try to see if they can provide sufficient staff to continue to celebrate the mass at the Hermitage on a regular basis.

Mare de Déu del Carme

La Mare de Déu del CarmeSantuari de la Mare de Déu del Carme
Built: 1911-1929
Founded: 1909
Function: Parish church; former monastic church
Address: Diagonal 422

The Sanctuary of Our Lady of Mount Carmel is one of the comparatively newer churches in Barcelona, as it was built in the early 20th century at a key location along the Avenguda Diagonal, the main thoroughfare laid out in the 19th century. The Diagonal cuts across the city grid diagonally from NW to SE, and connects the newer parts of Barcelona – the so-called Eixample or “Expansion” district – to some of the older parts of the city and the seafront. A host of new parishes had to be built in the Eixample as people began to move out of the old city into the new, and with the arrival of thousands of immigrants this need continued to grow.

This particular church and the convent attached to it were originally founded by Archbishop Laguarda to serve as a home for a community of Carmelite nuns, although they left the parish during the Civil War. It is one of the few examples of the Neo-Byzantine style in Barcelona, a form which proved more popular in the U.S. and Northern European countries than in the Iberian Peninsula. Here in Washington, D.C., for example, both St. Matthew’s Cathedral and the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception were built in a Neo-Byzantine style.

Catalans tend to prefer pointy buildings to domed ones, for one thing, and there are comparatively few domed churches in Barcelona. The juxtaposition of this church close by the Casa de les Punxes – a Gothic Revival turreted fantasy of an apartment building – shows how cosmopolitan Barcelona’s architects were in the late 19th and early 20th century as they explored many types of building styles. From an architectural standpoint, one either loves the strangeness of these places – the richness of the mosaics, the darkness of their interiors – or one is put off by them.

Sant Jaume

Sant JaumeEsglésia de Sant Jaume
Built: 1394-1500
Founded: 1391
Function: Former monastic church; currently parish church
Address: Ferran 24

This primarily Gothic-style church, begun in 1394, is located in the heart of the “Call”, Barcelona’s Medieval Jewish ghetto, and in this respect there is always a hint of something melancholy about it. A synagogue originally stood on this site, but was later torn down to make way for the present church. However the present name of this church is not the name with which it began its service, but rather recalls a long-gone structure nearby, and the era of Apostolic missions to Spain, in the earliest days of Christianity.

According to pious belief and long tradition, the Apostle St. James worked as a missionary in what was then known as Hispania, modern-day Spain, one of the largest and wealthiest of the Roman colonies. His shrine at Santiago de Compostela is of course well known, but it is believed that he preached in many cities, including Barcelona and Tarragona. Whether or not this is the case we do not know. We know that St. Paul specifically wrote in Romans 15:23-28 that he was planning to visit Spain, to preach there, so it is not outside the realm of possibility.

Whatever the truth of the stories, the very old church dedicated to Sant Jaume (St. James), first mentioned in a document of 985 A.D., was torn down in 1823. Part of the building reportedly dated from the arrival of Christianity in Barcelona, and it had been expanded over the centuries until it occupied the site of the ancient Roman Forum, where supposedly St. James had preached. The building was torn down to make way for the Plaça de Sant Jaume, or St. James Square. This new square roughly corresponds to the dimensions of the old Forum, and is dominated by the Generalitat (Catalan government) headquarters on the north side, and Barcelona city hall on the south. The parish community was moved temporarily to Santa Monica, a convent along the Ramblas, but was later moved to Holy Trinity church, which was renamed for St. James.

Originally, Holy Trinity was the parish church of Jews who had converted to Christianity but chose to remain living in the Call. It was built on top of the remains of the Lesser Synagogue, of the two that existed in Barcelona during the Middle Ages. After the expulsion of the Jews and suspected Jews in 1492, the Church of the Holy Trinity, as it was known then, was turned over to a group of nuns – from which order I have been unable to discover – who built a convent next to the church.

In 1522, ownership of the convent and the church were given to nuns of the Trinitarian Carmelite Order, who after some expansion and remodeling took up residence on the site in about 1529, and remained there until their expulsion by the government in 1835. They also built a large school on the Ramblas in the 17th century, which remained in use until the Napoleonic period. Following the anti-clericalism which marked that era, the nuns were expelled, the convent demolished, and the school was sold. It was then that the old convent chapel became the parish of Sant Jaume, while the school was burned, torn down, and became the site of the Liceu, Barcelona’s sumptuous and historic opera house.

Much of the interior, of course, was burned and destroyed by the leftists in 1936. The present church has been remodeled numerous times, given the changes in ownership over the years, and is something of a stylistic hodge-podge, with Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, and Neo-Gothic elements. It is a building not devoid of interest, but the primary reason to visit is to see the former retablo of Barcelona’s Cathedral, a 14th-century feast of incredibly delicate stone gingerbread. The high altar was moved here from the Cathedral in 1971 when the diocese made the regrettable decision to replace it with a rather unpleasant early 20th century Crucifixion group.