Parroquial Mayor, Cuba's Oldest Church
By: Raúl García / Photos by Prensa Latina
For over 300 years, the bells of Cuba's oldest church, the Iglesia Parroquial Mayor del Espíritu Santo, have rung day and night, inviting parishioners in this central city to worship the Holy Spirit.
As the centuries have passed, the bells continue to toll, in sadness and happiness, and the clock in the church's 100-foot bell tower strikes every half hour.
A local family, the Pasamontes, has taken charge of these famous old bells for over a century. It was in the early 19th century that José Feliciano Pasamontes Montes, born to a Galician father and a Cuban mother, first climbed the 103 steps leading to the top of the bell tower.
According to some accounts, José Pasamontes spent more time among the bells than with his family. Others say that his children accompanied him when he climbed the tower to ring the bells.
Today his grandson, Alfonso Rafael Pasamontes Alfaro —popularly known as Cuco Pasamontes— is in his 70s, and he continues to delight locals with the ringing of the bells. In the future, one of Cuco's grandsons will carry on the family tradition. Taking care of the bells is a real art, Cuco says: “I learned that every ring has a specific liturgical meaning, but you can also harmonize with Cuban musical rhythms and traditions.”
The Parroquial Mayor is one of the most important examples of 17th century architecture in the central province of Sancti Spíritus and in Cuba. The provincial capital is the city of Sancti Spíritus, which means “Holy Spirit.” Located 350 km east of Havana, this beautiful colonial city will celebrate its 500th anniversary in 2014.
In its early days, the Parroquial Mayor played a major role in efforts to convert the indigenous population to Christianity, in support of the conquistadors. The original adobe church, with its wooden, palm-thatch roof, became the center of urban development in the area.
With he first came to visit in 1661, Bishop Fray Alonso Enríquez de Almendáriz suggested to King Felipe II that the church should be rebuilt to make it larger. Subsequently, Sergeant Ignacio de Valdivia largely funded the construction of the new building between 1620 and 1680, including a rectory.
Legends and traditions have accompanied the church throughout its more than three centuries of existence. The bell tower still holds four carillons (a set of fixed chromatically tuned bells sounded by hammers) that were crafted from gold, silver and bronze by Cuban artisans in the years 1771, 1835, and 1853.
The bell tower, the country's tallest when it was built, still has its original clock, which was bought in 1771 with 600 pesos that locals had collected for the construction of a bridge over the Yayabo River, another of the historical jewels found in this villa.
The building still has its original roof structure, along with Arabic details, brick archways, alfarjes (carved wooden ceilings) in the main nave, and a vaulted roof in its chapel, the Capilla del Cristo de la Humanidad y la Paciencia.
This architectural complex and its traditions are one of the most extraordinary elements of the Sancti Spíritus historical district, where huge efforts are being made for it to be designated as a World Cultural Heritage Site by UNESCO.