Catedral de San Ildefonso, Mérida, Mexico

Cathedral of St Ildefonsus, Mérida, Yucatán, Mexico


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Mystery Worshipper: Beebe
Church: Cathedral of St Ildefonsus
Location: Mérida, Yucatán, Mexico
Date of visit: Sunday, 7 March 2010, 10:15am

The building

The cathedral was built from stones taken from an old Mayan temple. It was begun in 1561 and finished in 1598 and is the work of master builder Juan Miguel de Agüero, who was also responsible for Mexico City's cathedral and the fortifications of Havana, Cuba. St Ildefonsus is said to be the oldest cathedral in the Americas. There are three semicircular arched entries, two towers and one stained glass window that shows an eagle on a cactus. The interior has large columns on either side and several side chapels. Noteworthy is the Capilla del Cristo de las Ampollas (Chapel of Christ of the Blisters), where today's service was held. According to legend, natives once witnessed a tree catch fire and burn all night without being consumed. From its wood was made a statue of Christ, which was placed in a nearby church. The church caught fire and was completely destroyed, but the statue was found to be intact but covered with blisters. It has been at the cathedral since 1645.

The church

The cathedral appears to be eager to play an active role in the lives of the faithful. They instituted an English speaking service in March of this year, the first of which was the occasion of this Mystery Worshipper's visit.

The neighborhood

Mérida is the capital and largest city of the Mexican state of Yucatán. It was founded in 1542 on the site of the Mayan city of T'ho, which had been a center of Mayan culture and activity for centuries. Thus, many historians consider Mérida to be the oldest continually occupied city in the Americas. In the late 19th century the city prospered from the production of henequin, a plant used for making rope, twine, and a rather potent liquor. At one time Mérida was said to be home to more millionaires than any other city on earth. Many large and stately homes have been restored as office buildings. Nowadays Mérida enjoys a reputation as one of the most tranquil and safest cities in Mexico. Nearby are numerous ruins and ecological sites popular with tourists. Every Sunday in the immediate neighborhood of the cathedral is held Mérida en Domingo, a celebration featuring costumed dancers, native crafts, and plenty of food from local restaurants.

The cast

A very handsome English speaking Hispanic priest who introduced himself as Father Roberto, who I believe may have been Pbro Roberto Cuellar Portillo, rector of the cathedral.

What was the name of the service?


How full was the building?

Mass was held in the Chapel of Christ of the Blisters, which seats about 60 people. It was probably half full. However, this was the first English speaking service and the news about it was spread primarily by word of mouth.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

A gentleman asked, "English?" (How did he know?) He then directed me to the chapel. In the chapel, everyone entered quietly and sat just as quietly.

Was your pew comfortable?

The pews were not at all comfortable! The kneelers were too distant from the pews.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

Quiet and reverent. People sat and some prayed quietly.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"Welcome to the English speaking service."

What books did the congregation use during the service?

None. Most people knew the service by heart. As an Anglican, I could also figure out most of it. Those not familiar with our tradition would probably have had a hard time.

What musical instruments were played?

A nun played a guitar and accompanied three of her sisters in Christ, who sang all the hymns and responses in Spanish! This was a bit disconcerting. However, we were promised that they were going to learn them in English very soon with the help of some of the attendees.

Did anything distract you?

The most distracting thing was the statue that gave the chapel its name. It is quite large and seems almost to overpower the altar.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?

The worship service was very comfortable. Father Roberto tried to make everyone feel at home. Occasionally he would ask one of the people to translate a word or two into English for him, which I found rather endearing.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

12 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?

8 – The sermon followed the readings and was very well presented.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

Father preached on Exodus 3:1-15 (God appears to Moses in a burning bush and commissions him to free the Israelites from bondage in Egypt). Moses doubted his ability to do what God wanted, but God never gives us more than we can handle.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The sermon was the best part of the service. Father Roberto is an excellent speaker and delivered his sermon in a clear, well thought out manner.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?

The pews! They were not made for the ex-pat community who made up the majority of people attending this service. They, along with your average tourist, are simply not the size of the native population.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?

Father Roberto greeted everyone. People introduced themselves to one another. As this was the first service in English, no one had known anyone before, except for maybe people who were neighbors in the community. I met a few people and made plans to meet them again later.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

There was no coffee hour. After all, this was a Roman Catholic church. However, Father Roberto said next Sunday he would try to be like the Protestants and have coffee and donuts!

How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?

5 – As this is not my denomination, this is a tricky question. However, since it is the only English speaking service around, there is little choice. If I tell Father Roberto that I am not R.C. he will have to deny me communion. So, "Don't ask, don"t tell!"

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

Yes. The service was wonderfully inclusive.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?

Father Roberto, who is everything one would want in a priest. He is kind, charming, interesting, welcoming and thoughtful. Another thing is the fact that the building is the oldest cathedral in the Americas.

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