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  1204: Cathedral of our Lady of Guadalupe, Ponce, Puerto Rico

Cathedral of our Lady of Guadaloupe, Ponce, Puerto Rico

Mystery Worshipper: Amanda B. Reckondwythe.
The church: Cathedral of our Lady of Guadalupe, Ponce, Puerto Rico.
Denomination: Roman Catholic.
The building: The cathedral dominates Ponce's old plaza. In 1660 a rustic chapel was built on this spot and since then fires and earthquakes have razed the church repeatedly. The present neoclassical structure with a distinctly Spanish flair dates from 1931 and preserves parts of the building that preceded it. The great door is flanked on either side by Doric columns and towers crowned with domes. The vaulted interior is done in cream and white, with dark brown pews. The high altar has been removed, but the original reredos of translucent alabaster, featuring a triptych of Christ the King, St Christopher bearing the infant Jesus, and a third figure I could not identify, was left standing. In front of the reredos is a communion table. Elaborate side altars and a Blessed Sacrament chapel repeat the general pattern of the reredos. Stained glass windows portray various saints of the Hispanic New World.
The church: I was not able to learn anything about the cathedral's ministries.
The neighborhood: The smallest and most easterly of the Greater Antilles, the island of Puerto Rico is a "free associated territory" of the United States, but the residents are fiercely independent and the visitor senses little that is American save for the currency, postage stamps, and the ubiquitous Starbucks and Walgreen Pharmacies. Claimed for Spain by Christopher Columbus in 1493, the island remained a Spanish colony until 1898, when Spain ceded it to the United States following the Spanish-American War. Since then, plebescites both for statehood and independence have repeatedly been defeated. The delightful city of Ponce, whose prosperous heyday ran from the late 19th century to the 1930s during the height of the sugar cane and rum trade, is Puerto Rico's third largest and sits on the island's southern coast. The architecture of Ponce is a mix of classical, art deco and Creole, vaguely reminiscent of New Orleans. Known as La perla del sur (pearl of the south), the city is full of immaculately kept plazas, churches, and highly decorative colonial homes, as well as some glorious fountains.
The cast: The Rev. Jesús Pacho, assistant vicar. At mass, Padre Pacho was assisted by an elderly server in street clothes whose name was not given.
The date & time: Friday, January 27, 2006, 12.00 noon.

What was the name of the service?
Benediction and Mass.

How full was the building?
The cathedral holds about 500. About 20 were present for benediction and almost 100 for mass.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
A woman handed me in silence a sheet of paper containing the order for benediction.

Was your pew comfortable?
Average, I'd say.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Before benediction, people were praying quietly in the Blessed Sacrament chapel in front of a monstrance holding the sacred host. After benediction was over, everyone present moved out into the nave, joining the others who were again praying quietly.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
Benediction opened with the chanting of Tantum ergo sacramentum veneremur cernui ("Down in adoration falling, Lo! the sacred host we hail"). And mass began with En el nombre del Padre, y del Hijo, y del Espiritu Santo. Amen.

What books did the congregation use during the service?
None, other than the order of benediction. No printed matter was in evidence. In the pews could be found neither missals nor hymnals.

What musical instruments were played?
None. The congregation sang several hymns unaccompanied and without printed text. There was a small electronic organ to the left, and the gallery was filled with organ pipes, although I saw no console.

Did anything distract you?
A narrow shelf was fastened to the back of each pew -- much too shallow for books -- and under each shelf were what appeared to be mininature coat hooks. I wondered what these were for. Several electric fans gave off a rather loud din. Padre Pacho bore a striking resemblance to Pope Pius XII.

Cathedral of our Lady of Guadaloupe, Ponce, Puerto Rico

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Benediction was the most perfunctory I have ever witnessed. The priest, vested in a green chausuble, entered unaccompanied by other ministers as the congregation chanted the Tantum ergo to the Gregorian setting. No incense was used. The priest donned a white humeral veil for the blessing, after which he returned the host to the tabernacle while the congregation recited the divine praises in Spanish. A sexton in street clothes unceremoniously removed the monstrance from the altar. Mass was an uneventful low novus ordo mass in Spanish, with the Kyrie, Sanctus and Agnus Dei sung unaccompanied.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
There was none.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
I was moved by the simple yet sincere faith that had brought these people into the cathedral on a Friday noontide for benediction and mass.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Puerto Rico is a mountainous island, and our tour van was not in A-1 condition. As the van huffed and puffed to climb over the mountains, I was reminded of the children's book, The Little Engine that Could. It was also sad to see that outside the tourist areas, the curse of colonialism (exploitation, abandonment and neglect) is so much in evidence on this beautiful island.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Some people left, others remained behind to pray, and still others reassembled in the Blessed Sacrament chapel, for what I don't know.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
There was none. I rejoined my tour group and we enjoyed a delicious lunch at the nearby Hotel Melia.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
4 – Were I a resident of Ponce, I would probably seek out a smaller, more active English-speaking congregation. I would like to return to the cathedral, however, on a more festive occasion.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
How much Padre Pacho resembled His Late Holiness.
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