In the 16th Century Spaniards were serious about religion. The king and queen ruled the country with the Catholic church at their right hand. Together they instituted the Spanish Inquisition – one of the cruelest, longest-running cases of “My Way or The Highway” in human history. When the Conquistadores came to the New World, these strong religious ideas sailed with them. And to ensure that all those souls (both Spanish and Indigenous) were going in the right direction, churches were required – lots and lots of churches. The successful town of Morelia was a perfect example.
There are a surprising number of churches in the historic centro of Morelia, and they come in all sizes. It’s difficult to walk more than a few blocks without spotting the bell tower of yet another Spanish Colonial church. Almost all are still active places of worship, and are an integral part of the community. Worshippers come and go during the day to pray, meditate, or light a candle for a loved one. We’ve picked a few of our favorites, which vary from large and grandiose, to small and intimate.
The largest and most important church is the impressive Cathedral of the Divine Savior of Morelia, dominating the Plaza de Armas. It’s the seat of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Morelia, crown jewel of the historic area, and it dwarfs all other buildings in town.
Construction began in 1640, and took 100 years to complete, which explains its variety of architectural styles. But to the builders’ credit, the styles blend together perfectly. With it’s distinctive blue and white domes, this cathedral would not be out of place in any European capital, but the fact that it was built in an isolated colony on the other side of the world makes it even more extraordinary.
Right down the street from the Cathedral stands the Monastery of San Francisco. This church and convent abut a bustling plaza crowded with running children, loitering teenagers, families waiting for the bus, and Morelia’s ubiquitous ballon vendors.
The weathered Renaissance exterior attests that this is one of the oldest religious buildings in town. But it only takes a couple of steps inside to see that to the congregation it’s still a very sacred place.
The smallest and most intimate church we visited is the Chapel of San Juan. This simple church isn’t on any tourist list, and we stumbled onto it when making a fruit and veggie run to the neighborhood market. It was built in 1696, and when compared to the other churches in town it’s tiny. But there was something appealing about this small chapel. It looks and feels like a church from a small Mexican village; the kind where hard-working farmers and their families came on Sunday. There was a feeling of peace in this chapel that I didn’t feel in the other churches in town.
In a 2010 survey, 83% of Mexicans said they were Catholics. Even if only half of these folks are church-goers, that takes churches – lots of churches.