Carmelite Priest Cherishes Puerto Rican Cathedral’s History

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Father Roberto J. Perez, O. Carm., a retired Carmelite priest in residence at a Bronx parish, honors and cherishes the 500-year-old history of the Metropolitan Cathedral Basilica of San Juan Bautista in Puerto Rico.

“That’s when the faith came; our Christian faith, our Roman Catholic faith,” said Father Perez in noting the significance of the milestone. It is a history, he said, rich in culture and faith.

The Manhattan-born priest of Puerto Rican ancestry is the only U.S. resident who is a member of a Church group in Puerto Rico that had a leading role in organizing last autumn's liturgical and community celebrations opening the yearlong 500th anniversary celebration of the cathedral’s founding.  

“These were a series of events for the jubilee year that took place in the beginning of November; they will end next November,” Father Perez, 74, told Catholic New York in a recent interview. “It’s not only Masses; they’re having conferences, discussing different types of religious topics; there are six different dioceses in Puerto Rico.” 

Archbishop Roberto Gonzalez Nieves, O.F.M., of San Juan led the principal Mass Nov. 19; the concelebrants included other bishops of the island. (The archbishop served in the Archdiocese of New York early in his priesthood.)

Father Perez is a priest in residence and prior of the house at St. Simon Stock-St. Joseph parish on Valentine Avenue in the Bronx. The group in Puerto Rico he belongs to is called the Confraternity of Our Lady of Bethlehem.

“Everything was going on in the Caribbean. It’s a big deal,” said Father Perez, noting the significance of the earliest settlements in the Western Hemisphere, and thus the importance of the 500-year cathedral milestone. 

“That used to be my parish when I lived in Puerto Rico, when I was in my 40s. I am the only member of the Confraternity of the Virgin of Bethlehem who lives outside of Puerto Rico. It has a big devotion in San Juan.” 

Father Perez said he was sorry that he could not be in Puerto Rico for the November cathedral Masses and celebrations.

He was present for the feast day of Our Lady of Bethlehem, Jan. 3, and for civil celebratory activities featuring King Felipe of Spain. In addition to the Catholic faith, Father Perez noted, “the Spaniards gave us the culture, the culture that we pronounce; many of our  customs, words and phrases.”

Here is the historical and architectural story of the Cathedral of San Juan Bautista, as outlined in written material from celebration organizers in Puerto Rico: 

The Metropolitan Cathedral Basilica of San Juan Bautista de Puerto Rico is the seat of the Archdiocese of San Juan. It is located on Calle del Cristo in Old San Juan, a neighborhood within Metro San Juan. 

It was built in 1521, destroyed by a storm and later rebuilt. The church was named a minor basilica by Pope Paul VI in 1978 at the request of the late Cardinal Luis Aponte Martínez, then-archbishop of San Juan.

It contains the remains of the explorer Juan Ponce de León, as well as the martyr San Pío. And it contains relics such as those of vestments worn by Pope John Paul II on his visit to Puerto Rico in 1984.

The Cathedral of San Juan Bautista has a Latin cross plan consisting of three naves, a central nave and two lateral ones, where each side nave leads to three chapels. Each nave is aligned by each entrance door.

The cathedral contains an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe with the title of "Patroness of Mexico and Empress of the Americas.” The main altar is presided over by a crucified Christ and on the sides are the images of San Juan Bautista and the Virgen de los Remedios.

The cathedral is also the National Shrine of Our Lady of Divine Providence, patroness of Puerto Rico. It is the oldest church in Puerto Rico, and the second oldest in the Americas, after the Cathedral of Santa María la Menor in Santo Domingo. (The Confraternity of Our Lady of Bethlehem derives its name from a 16th century painting of Mary nursing Baby Jesus; the original painting went missing in Puerto Rico in 1972). 

Else Zayas León is a lead member of the Confraternity of Our Lady of Bethlehem in Puerto Rico. Hector Balvanera is a lead member of the Confraternity of Our Lady of Divine Providence in Puerto Rico. Both maintain contact with Father Perez about matters of the cathedral.

In recent emails, they cited the importance of the 500-year anniversary celebrations, with Balvanera noting that he sees the cathedral as a special “image of the union between Christ and His Church.”

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