Puerto Vallarta's Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish (Parroquia de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe) is a city icon, it dominates Vallarta's downtown skyline and is one of the favorite symbols and landmarks of the city, not only in photos but also shirts, logos and postcards.
If you've been to PV, you have surely visited it. If you are going to visit the city, be sure to add it to your list of things to do in town, it not only is great for your souvenir photos, you'll get a glimpse of one of the most important city monuments and the spiritual center of the Catholics in town (religion in Puerto Vallarta).
There's always activity around and within the church, the church bells are rung by the sextants 30 and 15 minutes prior to each service, but it reaches almost a level of frenzy in the 12 days of the Our Lady of Guadalupe Festival (also known as Feast of Guadalupe), held every year from December 1st to the 12th.
During these festivities you'll notice a mix of both traditional Christian and Aztec motifs, young warriors dance in the streets, processions advance through the streets and include lots of banners, music, singing, and colorfully decorated floats mainly with scenes that include the Virgin and Juan Diego, commemorating the miraculous apparition of the Virgin of Guadalupe to the Indian peasant called Juan Diego on December 12th, 1531. These festivities are attended by tens of thousands, locals and visitors.
Processions lit by candlelight start off on Juarez Avenue close to the Woolworth Store (yes, there's still one in town!) and advance toward the Our Lady of Guadalupe Church / "Cathedral".
On all the side streets and the Main Square, you'll find vendors selling all kinds of food, sweets, souvenirs, toys and more. Tip: don't even consider driving into town during these celebrations, though alternative routes are offered during this period, parking will require a miracle.
A photo from the early 1920s, you can see construction around the small chapel
Like any town in the lands that were part of the Spanish conquest of America, you'll find a church, always located prominently by the main square in any village or town; many are out of proportion with the size of the city or town, others are very basic, with almost nothing but an altar. Puerto Vallarta is, of course, no exception.
The history of this important church in town is quite interesting and represents, in a building, the changes the town has had along the way, going from a small village all the way to a big city. In the church, you'll recognize various styles, like the neoclassical in the main building and the renaissance-style towers.
The first church that was built at the current Parish's location was a small very rustic chapel that was established on April 15, 1883, by Father Sabino Virute in honor of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
The foundations for a new church were started in 1903. In 1915 Father Francisco Ayala arrived and he, with foresight, suggested a bigger temple than the one they were working on. So the existing new construction was demolished and new stronger and deeper foundations were built.
The existing foundations were strengthened and finished by 1917, including the main pillars and walls. Construction really began in earnest in the early 1920s around the still functioning chapel, including the blessing of the Eucharistic or the major bell in 1926. The official start date, celebrated at the church each year with a mass, is October 12, 1921.
Construction work halted completely in 1926 when a conflict between church and state escalated to outright war, known as the Cristero War, which ended in 1929.
Church construction started again in 1929 and in 1930 the dome (cupola) was finished. By 1940 the entire building was finished, except the main bell tower and the two smaller flanking towers.
On December 12, 1951, the chancel and the Hammond organ installed in it were used for the first time (notice the date). The father at that time, Rafael Parra wanted the belfry finished by that date, but this wouldn't be the case until 1952. The main tower above the belfry continued beyond 1952 and was finished in 1955.
To "crown" the Parish, what better than a crown. It was built in 1963 and placed on the main tower in 1965 (based on the city historian, Carlos Munguía Fregoso). It was sketched by the priest Rafael Parra Castillo, the same person who designed the tower. The original crown was designed and sculpted by José Esteban Ramírez Guareño in 1965.
The crown IS NOT, as normally found online, a replica of one supposedly worn by Carlota, the mistress of Emperor Maximilian in the 1800s, which furthermore - as explained on the Parish website - only would have been a tiara based on her hierarchy within the nobility.
Read more on the Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish Crown.
Under Father Luis Ramirez's supervision, in 1987 the facade and the smaller lateral towers connecting to the belfry were finally finished and what we now know as the Our Lady of Guadalupe Church was finally ready.
The church itself, not a cathedral, as many name it (it's not presided by a Bishop), is not really a sophisticated architectural design, it's a mix of styles that is a result of the different parish priests' tastes and ideas that appeared along the way, elements are neoclassic, like the main building, the crown is reminiscent of baroque European temples, the side towers have a renaissance touch, and so on.
As stated in the official Parish document directed by Father Luis Ramírez and researched and written by Félix Fernando Baños López:
"The Church of Our Lady of Guadalupe is not the product of sophisticated culture. It is an expression of village art. It accurately symbolizes the authentic urban look of Puerto Vallarta and was constructed according to the regional version of highlands' style - one of the varieties of Mexican architecture influenced by the Viceroyalty. The architectural style of the finished temple is the combined result of various factors: the guidance and influence of the various pastors, construction foremen and artisans. Their interpretations were influenced by the skills of their crafts and the religious and plastic values of their time - a time whose values belong more to former centuries than to this one" (20th Century)."
Puerto Vallarta skyline in 1963, note the missing crown on the church
The end result is surprisingly appealing and certainly makes for a beautiful landmark in Puerto Vallarta.
The original design of the church indicated that it is a tribute to the original Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City. In the church, there is an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe that people venerate, a 1945 oil replica by Ignacio Ramirez, an artist from Guadalajara.
The original church crown was damaged by weather and erosion and was restored in 1981. On October 9th, 1995, it fell off and was destroyed by a strong earthquake with its epicenter in Colima.
At the time it was replaced with a "temporary" fiberglass model that stayed there much too long. In 2009 it was finally resculpted and replaced with one by the famous Jaliscan artist, Carlos Terres. Read more about the crown itself.
Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish (Parroquia de Guadalupe)
Address: Hidalgo # 370, Puerto Vallarta.
Tel: (322) 222-1326
English Mass at 4pm on Saturdays and Bilingual at 10am Sundays.
Surely the church is now a symbol of this famous beach destination, a very Mexican Puerto Vallarta, that should not only be admired from the outside, but also from within.
In contrast to the religious images on painted wood, the marble altar, carved wooden confessionals and the image of the Virgin Guadalupe by Ignacio Ramirez, artist of the state of Jalisco, this building is full of love, devotion and sacrifices and must be included on the list of places you should visit on your trip to Puerto Vallarta.