Divine churches where saying ‘I Do’ feels like a dream

By Peter Martin 13032 0

Couples say “I Do” in all sorts of places: By the sea, on a boat, in the sky. That’s not to say the traditional church wedding is out. Far from it.

Puerto Rico is fortunate to have some astonishing churches to get married in. Whether in metropolitan San Juan or out on the island, these iconic temples are part of the island’s rich architectural patrimony. To be married in one of them, as many couples from the island and mainland states choose to do every year, is to confer a sense of solemnity to a special day universally regarded as a milestone event in the life of a person. Plus, let’s not forget that walking down the aisle as a newlywed couple to the strains of Mendelssohn’s famous wedding march has got to be a pretty awesome thrill. Even if it’s canned music!

A favorite wedding venue, the Cathedral of Saint John the Baptist in Old San Juan is the second oldest church in the Western hemisphere and the oldest on U.S. soil. Last year it celebrated its 500th anniversary.

From its vantage location in the heart of San Juan’s historic quarter, the cathedral overlooks San Juan Bay. Its neoclassical facade belies an elegant interior with lovely stained-glass windows, bronze chandeliers, and extensive trompe l’oeil decorations, including a spectacular colonnade portico painted around the soaring dome ceiling above the altar.

When first built in 1521 the church was a simple structure with wooden walls and a thatch roof. Work on the permanent structure began in 1540 and continued for centuries; the current facade dates to the 1800s. 

The church has a rich history. In 1598 the British navy turned up in the old city and looted the temple, absconding with all its valuable objects. In 1615, it lost its roof to a hurricane. Ponce de Leon, Puerto Rico’s first governor, is buried in a marble tomb close to the church transept. 

Also in Old San Juan is the San Jose Church, the second oldest in the Americas established in 1532 under Spanish rule. The church is one of the earliest surviving examples of 16th century Spanish Gothic architecture in the Western hemisphere. 

It was the resting place of Ponce de Leon for 350 years (1532-1735) and later his remains were transferred to the Cathedral of Saint John the Baptist. It still bears his coat of arms. San Jose Church remains as the final resting place of Jose Campeche, one of Puerto Rico’s most revered artists. 

San German is a charming town on the island’s west coast. There you will find the Church of San German Auxerre, one of the oldest churches in the Western hemisphere. 

It too has a venerable history. Spanish settlers founded the parish in 1510 but the permanent structure of the church dates to 1688. It has been refurbished several times due to earthquake damage in the 18th and 19th century, with the bell tower rebuilt in 1920.

San German de Auxerre has an impressive facade overlooking the main town plaza but what is truly breathtaking is the interior with its soaring vaulted ceiling decorated in an exquisite trompe l’oeil design imitating wood coffers. The pattern is repeated throughout the entire length of the ceiling with more trompe l’oeil flourishes along the arches. A stunning chandelier shines over the nave with additional chandeliers along the sides. The church is listed in the U.S. National Register of Historic Places since 1984.

One of the most charming temples in Puerto Rico and a popular choice for weddings is Saint Spyridon Church in Trujillo Alto. It was built in the 1930s by missionaries from the Mexico Archdiocese of the Greek Orthodox Church. They chose the most unlikely of places for the building: a former leper colony established in 1876. 

Exquisite in its simplicity, Saint Spyridon is a sweet, intimate chapel painted in the white and blue colors of the Greek flag. A rapprochement between the Catholic and the Orthodox Churches makes it possible for Catholics to marry in this church. 

And then there is the much beloved Stella Maris Church in Condado, San Juan’s tourist sector. It used to be a small, modest structure but a renovation led by architect Federico Montilla, his last project before retiring, has transformed it into one of the most exciting buildings in San Juan.

Montilla designed the new church in a mission style that is at once perfectly grand and contemporary. Among its outstanding features are the dramatic sloping roof of red brick shingles and two towers, the belfry in front and a larger tower in back topped by a cupola with rounded windows around it. One enters the church through a majestic, 10-foot-high black iron gate topped by a stunning, round stained-glass panel with a flower design. The flower motif is repeated on the facade in 12 narrow stained-glass windows, the work of local artist Edward Ferraioli.

Inside, a stunning see-through chapel is visible on one side of the entrance. The interior of the church is airy and minimalistic with a few grand touches: the gigantic sculpture of Christ on the Cross hovering over the altar and the stained-glass windows along the nave which soften the golden glow streaming into the temple. 

Given the popularity of these churches, couples contemplating a wedding should make sure to reserve the church well ahead of the blissful day. Some churches require reservations six to eight months of advance. Couples who live in the U.S. can make all the arrangements through their local parish.