The Church In Porto Rico

: Myths & Legends Of Our New Possessions & Protectorate

If the Spanish colonies have been immoral, it must be granted that they

have been religious. This fact has made them easier to govern, for the

words of the priests and friars have been accepted as divinely inspired

at times when, as a matter of fact, they have been inspired only by the

governor or the garrison colonel. The church in the colonies is nothing

like the modern and American institution that we know. It is a survival

from the Middle Ages. Yet it has shown shrewdness in Porto Rico,

Cuba, and the Philippines, its prosperity proving that the Spaniard

can be a thrifty mortal whether he wears a monkish cowl or a military

uniform. Much money has been demanded by the church, but much of it has

been honestly spent in the beautifying of altars and the dressing of

the statues. Our Lady of the Remedies, in the Church of La Providencia,

San Juan, for example, wears a cloak worth fifteen hundred dollars,

and is emblazoned with twenty thousand dollars' worth of jewels; but

then, she is the patron of the island. The priests have been quick to

see an advantage in benefits or disasters and have often impressed

the natives by lessons drawn from natural phenomena. Thus, in 1867,

a conspiracy for the overthrow of Spanish rule had been organized,

and violence was hourly expected: but on the eve of an uprising the

island was shaken by an earthquake. The priests made the most of

this, assuring the natives that it was a warning from heaven never

to interfere with Spaniards; so the insurrectos stealthily laid down

their arms and stole away to their various substitutes for employment,

leaving their Lexington unfought.

In one way this willingness to keep out of fights has been a

bad thing for the island, because insurrection became a matter

of business with some of the natives. They used it as a mode of

blackmail. These insurrectos would throw a wealthy planter into a

state of alarm by pretending to hold meetings on his premises. He knew

that if the authorities got wind of this it might go hard with him,

for if he were suspected of being a member of a lodge of the White

Saber or the Red Hand, it could mean imprisonment, perhaps death;

so he paid the revolution something to move on and occur on some

other man's land. By levying thus on fear and policy a few members

of an alleged junta managed to live quite comfortably without work,

and it is whispered that the padres of certain villages received

their share of the reluctant tributes.

Porto Rico has been the place of abode of some noted fathers of

the church, including two martyrs who were canonized by Pius IX. as

saints: Charles Spinola and Jerome de Angelis. They left Portugal

for Goa in 1596, but having been blown far out of their course,

they put in at this island to repair their ship, and there for two

months they preached with success. On their return to Lisbon they

were captured by English pirates, who treated them kindly, however,

and set them safely down in London. They reached Portugal eventually,

and ended their work in Japan, where the people killed them. These and

other saints receive the prayers of the people on stated occasions,

for in Porto Rico the saints have not only their special days, but

their special crops, and guard them from special injuries. Thus, the

farmer prays to St. James, it is said, when he asks for deliverance

from tobacco-worms, while he must address St. Martial if he wants to

free his field from ants.

Of the holy hermits who have resided on the island, several have

dwelt in the caves where Caribs or Arawaks buried their dead, but

the best-known shrine is that of Hormigueros. The Church of Our Lady

of Monserrate, which crowns a hill and is a conspicuous landmark,

is said to have been copied from the chapel of a Benedictine

monastery in Barcelona, which is famous in Spain for its statue of

the Virgin, carved by St. Luke and carried to Barcelona in the year

50 by St. Peter. The Monserrate church was founded in 1640 by a poor

farmer. He had been ploughing over the hill-top, though weak with

fever, and before he could finish his work he fell to the ground

exhausted. After he had partly recovered, and had gone back to the

plough, he turned a tile up from the earth, on which was engraved a

portrait of the Virgin, and no sooner had he taken this object into his

hands than his pain, his fever, his lassitude disappeared. Convinced

that the relic was sacred, he carried it to his priest, and on that

very day he gave the land he had ploughed for a votive church. It

has become the best known sanctuary in Porto Rico, for the large

painting of the Virgin, copied from the smaller portrait on the tile,

is just as potent as the original in curing diseases. In the last

half-century a hundred miracles have been performed, and the silver

and golden arms, legs, ears, eyes, fingers, feet, livers, and hearts

that have been given to the church, in thanks and testimony, amount

in value to sixty thousand dollars; for a patient who has been cured

or helped is expected to send a little model, in precious metal, of

the part of him that needed mending. At intervals these offerings are

melted up for the altar service and decorations, and few churches in

America have such resplendent candlesticks, chalices, draperies and

vestments. The altar is of silver plates, and the gold cross upon

it weighs thirteen pounds. Pilgrims to Hormigueros go from all parts

of the West Indies. They are lodged, free of charge, in an old house

behind the church, each cripple or invalid receiving a bed and chair,

but no food. The pilgrims must supply their own sustenance. On entering

the church, in procession, they are sprinkled with water from the

Jordan, and then kneel before the cross, where the cures are worked.