santiago church merida yucatan mexico

Postcard from Merida, Mexico: Home of the first cathedral finished in the Americas

Above, Bells at the Top of the Facade of the Santiago Church in Merida

Under supervision of Spanish architects, Mayan laborers began building the Cathedral of Merida in 1562 with stones pillaged from one of their own temples. The cathedral was finished before the close of the 16th century and dedicated to the new outpost’s patron saint, San Ildefonso of Toledo (607-667).

As Ildefonso was conducting Mass in his role of Bishop of Toledo, Spain, brilliant light suddenly illuminated the entire church. Many of the celebrants fled in fear, but those who remained witnessed the Virgin Mary herself descend and enthrone herself at the altar. Grateful for his devotion and defense of her purity, she even gifted him with a splendid vestment, a chasuble, from her own son’s wardrobe. His association with the miraculous illumination must provide Merida with extra excuses to set off fireworks on his feast day, January 23.

The coat of arms at the center of the facade of the Cathedral (view images below) contained royal symbols of Spain – castles and crowned lions. When Mexico gained its independence, the symbols at on the center of the shield were chiseled off and replaced with a crown-wearing Mexican eagle.

At some point, someone explained the significance of the numerous nightmarish doorknockers with lion-like faces with mouths sealed shut and fishy creatures sucking on their cheeks, but I cannot recall. We found similar figures on the door of the Metropolitan Cathedral in Mexico City.

As we have traveled to Merida in the past, we neglected visiting or photographing many of her churches. They seemed only open when Mass was ongoing, not a suitable time of poking around in every chapel’s nooks and crannies.

In the recent post dedicated to food, it was pointed out that Lebanese immigrants contributed to the city’s regional cuisine, but they also brought veneration of Saint Charbel Makhlouf (1828-1898) with them as well. The monastic hermit now is popular throughout Mexico where the faithful drape ribbons inscribed with the names of their ailing loved ones over the saint’s widespread arms in hopes they will be cured. During these covid-19 times, his arms must be overflowing beyond capacity.

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