The oldest Catholic church built on U.S. soil takes its name from St. John the Baptist: La Catedral Metropolitana Basílica de San Juan Bautista or the Metropolitan Cathedral Basilica of St. John the Baptist in Puerto Rico.
Originally built in 1521 — more than 500 years ago — the cathedral located on Calle del Cristo in Old San Juan was rebuilt in 1529 after a storm destroyed the original church, according to the cathedral’s website.
The current structure dates back to 1540, the Associated Press reported in 2021.
Today, the church serves as the seat of the Archdiocese of San Juan and the National Shrine of Our Lady of Divine Providence, the patron saint of Puerto Rico. Pope St. Paul VI named the church a minor basilica on Jan. 25, 1978, at the request of Cardinal Luis Aponte Martínez, the archbishop of San Juan.
The cheerful yellow-walled cathedral greets visitors with high, decorative ceilings, bright stained-glass windows, ornate statues and historic relics. Wooden pews mold the black-and-white checkered floor into the shape of a Latin cross. A crucifix hangs above the marble altar, and a window depicting the Annunciation, behind it.
Arches connect giant columns that frame the nave while carrying golden candelabras and fans providing relief from the heat.
Behind the columns, on either side, several chapels or rooms appear: The Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament, the Chapel of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the Chapel of Our Lady of Divine Providence, the Chapel of St. Pius I and the Relics, the tomb or mausoleum of Juan Ponce de León, and the Chapel of the Immaculate Conception.
In one of the more elaborate chapels, the Our Lady of Divine Providence Chapel, a crowned statue of Our Blessed Mother appears, wearing a shimmering white gown and blue cape made of fabric. She holds a Baby Jesus horizontally across her lap, in a posture comparable to the pieta. Her head bends down gently toward his, she cradles his hand upward, between hers, along with a rosary.
Her image appears again outside of the cathedral above the gift shop, this time in tile.
Other chapels hold the remains or relics of historic or saintly figures. According to its website, the cathedral houses the remains of the Spanish explorer and conqueror Juan Ponce de León, the first governor of Puerto Rico, as well as San Pío, or St. Pius, an early Christian martyr.
It also contains relics of Pope St. John Paul II from his 1984 visit to Puerto Rico and the relics of Blessed Carlos Manuel Rodríguez Santiago (1918-63), the first beatified Puerto Rican.
Visitors can find statues including of the Pieta, Our Lady of Guadalupe, Our Lady of Sorrows, St. Joseph and St. Sebastian.
In addition to being the oldest U.S. Catholic church, the cathedral is also the second oldest church in the Americas, after the Cathedral of Santa María la Menor in Santo Domingo, the capital of the Dominican Republic, according to the basilica’s website.
The original structure of the cathedral was made of wood, with a thatched roof and stone walls, according to its website. Throughout the years, it has been rebuilt and restored while weathering several storms. Now, once again, the cathedral is asking for help.
Today, the cathedral needs nearly $1 million worth of restorations, including the restoration of its windows and interior bell tower along with the whitewashing and painting of the upper north side and the repair of the roof.
Visitors can spot areas where stonework peeks through portions of the damaged exterior. Chipped walls and faded portions of the painted ceiling dot the interior.
In early May, the Federal Emergency Management Agency announced that it would dedicate nearly $10.7 million following Hurricane María to three centuries-old structures in Old San Juan “that are considered architectural jewels and house hundreds of years of history within their walls.”
The cathedral is one of them.
“For the Catedral de San Juan, over $177,000 of its reconstruction funds are for mitigation measures,” the press release read, adding that “the waterproofing of the roof will be reinforced, a coating will be applied to the clear glass windows to prevent cracks and breakage, and impact-resistant non-reflective panels will be installed to protect the stained-glass windows.”
The cathedral also accepts online donations through the Givelify mobile giving app.