Cuenca’s churches: a history of faith

As travelers or dwellers, we have all felt a city’s heart beat in tune with ours. Breathing in a new place is a unique type of falling in love, an inner rapture with its rhythm and beauty. Every city gives off a singular scent, a singular sensation to whom may experience it; to describe such a thing poses a challenge for words, thankfully “wonderful” and “magical” come to our aid. Most central cities of our modern world are made up of globally-cultured people, free-thinkers believing in an array of Gods. It is in few places, apart from spiritual capitals, where we still see a city’s culture revolve around a religion shared by most of its inhabitants. Cuenca, the city we now call home, is one of them, with its catholic spirituality intact and present everywhere from its buildings and art, to its moral values and catchphrases (“Dios mio”, “Bendito sea Dios”, “¡Virgen santa!”). This mystical land embraced by mountains and blessed with rivers and forests has venerated many different gods in its time: The Cañari culture praised the macaw bird and the snake, the Incas’ god was Inti, the sun. Cuenca’s current chief of belief, is the Roman-Catholic God, alongside a strong faith in Jesus and the Virgin Mary. With the arrival of the Spanish conquerors in the year of 1557, came colonization and an imported God the new settlers imposed upon the old. 458 years later, the Catholic culture in Cuenca is ever present, and in no place can you feel it transpire to its fullest as in its beautiful churches. Let us take an imaginary walk into the heart of Cuenca’s sacred temples, all prized pieces of architectural heritage. In chronological order, the most beautiful and representative buildings constructed in the name of faith.

At the very end of the famous “Calle Larga” and Calle Alfonso Jerves, we arrive at:

1557 – “Church of All Saints” – Once a ceremonial site of the Cañaris and Incas named “Ushno”, this first religious site originally known as “San Marcos Chapel” was constructed provisionally to hold a mass in honor of the new Spanish city in 1557. In 1885, “Todos Santos” became a parish. The current structure dates back to 1924, flaunting a recently restored gothic façade in white and a pastel-colored neoclassic interior. The emblematic cross that rests on the top of this church was once used to visualize the boundaries of the young city of Cuenca.

We now head to Calle Bolívar and Luis Cordero, in the lovely central park.

1567 – “Church of the Shrine” or commonly referred to as “The Old Cathedral of Cuenca”. Ten years after the Spanish founding, the newly erected Cathedral became the main place of worship in colonial Cuenca. It upheld its status of Cuenca’s only cathedral until 1967, year in which the New Cathedral was consecrated as such. Trademark baroque pastels and gilded details bring alive paintings of another era, along with a noteworthy life-size sculpture set of the last supper. It is now a Museum of Religious Art, charging a $1 fee for locals and $2 for visitors.

3 blocks away, in Calle Presidente Córdova and Padre Aguirre, we will experience:

1582 – “San Francisco Church”, The first Governor of Cuenca, Gil Ramirez Dávalos, conceded an entire block to the first Franciscan convent. Its construction ended in 1789, and since then has been administrated by the Jesuit and Salesian order, and currently the city’s Archdiocesan Curia. Since colonial times until today, the church’s outside areas remain lively common grounds for fine crafts, flower, and food vendors, as well as being the workplace of handymen.

Up the road, 4 blocks lead to you to Calle Gran Colombia and Padre Aguirre:

1604 – “Santo Domingo Church” is the name of the 2nd place winner for Cuenca’s largest church. 12 pillars sustain this beautiful building of eclectic style, while the “Virgen of the Rosary”, nicknamed the “Morenica” for her curly, dark-colored hair, graces the golden altar. A 6-ton church bell, now retired, was called the “Hoarse Moreno” for its raspy call.

Calle Presidente Antonio Borrero and Presidente Córdova will take you to:

 1682 – “Church of Immaculate Conception – Museum of the Conceptas”, born in the year 1559 as the first order of cloistered monastery to be founded in Cuenca. Their only communication with the outside world was through the “torno”, a barred room for commerce and contact established in 1791. Today, it stands as a museum alive with a grand display of neoclassic paintings and unique sculptures, as well as figures and spaces reminiscent of their cloistered past.

The streets Calle Mariscal Sucre and Padre Aguirre will invite you inside the:

 1730 – “Carmen of Assumption Church”, where colonial art reigns supreme, surrounded by the traditional flower sale in its exterior. The “baroque front” with its solomonic columns carved in marble, frames the grand entrance, and gives way to an interior bursting in renaissance art, gilded frames, mural painting and a regal pulpit of gold. On your way out, be sure to ask for a customary refreshment prepared by the Carmelita nuns called “agua de pítimas”, a savory infusion of various garden-grown herbs, tea leaves and rose petals.

The last, but oh-so not least stop, is half a block away in Calle Benigno Malo and Mariscal Sucre. Prepare for an unforgettable step inside the most magnificent display of Cuenca’s faith:   

1885 – “The Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception – New Cathedral”, breaks ground in 1885, reaching completion after 90 years. The grandeur of Cuenca’s largest church begins in the marvelous mind of Juan B. Stiehle, the German reverend whose talents in the areas of construction and woodwork made possible a significant amount of Ecuador’s religious infrastructure. When the Cathedral was first constructed, 9,000 out of Cuenca’s 10,000 inhabitants could fit in the building. Olden styles such as the romantic, gothic and renaissance became one in the making of the Cuenca’s cathedral, scattering beauty in the rose windows of infinite color and detail, the pink floor made of Carrara marble, the colossal arches and the beautiful blue domes, now an iconic image of Cuenca. Due to faulty calculations, the original number of towers stumbled upon a limitation of structure, but not of beauty. A sacred place for believers or non-believers, the “New Cathedral” and all of its predecessors summarize the spiritual legacy of colonial Cuenca, inspiring awe in visitors from afar and pride in those born near.

Related posts