The Church Convent of San Francisco, Cartago’s Gritty Gem

The church's main façade

photography by: Omri Westmark

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Up until 1823, the now satellite city of San José, Cartago, was the capital of Costa Rica. Although its glory days are long gone, the town still abounds with dozens of monuments and historically significant sites. At first glance, the concrete building between Cartago's 4th and 6th avenues might seem like an uninspiring Soviet-style sport arena, however, this brutalist friary's predecessor once played a major role in the spread and subsequent dominance of the Catholic Faith throughout the country.

Located 25 kilometers east of San José, the historic city of Cartago boasts myriads of culturally significant places to explore, albeit none of which is as famous and popular as the Basilica of Our Lady of the Angels. Attracting massive throngs of pilgrims and visitors alike, the famed basilica is the largest church in Costa Rica, and as such, often outshines the rest of the city.

 

Tucked away between Avenida 4 and 6, the Church Convent of San Francisco (also known as the Capuchin Fathers’ Church) is obviously far eclipsed by its larger and more lavish counterpart, yet what it lacks in size and grace, it definitely makes up for in its sheer importance as the cradle of Catholicism in Costa Rica.

 

Following the conquest of Central America by the Spaniards in the 16th century, multiple Catholic preachers were engaged in a broad campaign to spread Christianity throughout the region. A group of high-profile religious clerks was based in Cartago, the then political center of the newly established Spanish colony of Costa Rica.

 

The same speck of land on which the modern-day church stands on was formerly home to an older friary that served as the base of operations for the intrepid missioners, all of whom belonging to the Franciscan order. The preachers often ventured deep into the most remote areas of the country as part of their endeavor to spread Catholicism among local tribes, a mission that a couple of centuries later turned out as a big success, as Costa Rica today is predominantly Catholic.

 

Unfortunately, the original convent church along with much of the city was destroyed during the colossal earthquake that hit the country in 1910, and claimed the lives of more than 1,000 people.
The brutalist-style church was erected in 1988, with parts of the stained glass and altar that survived the disaster being incorporated into the new structure.

 

While many onlookers might regard the current edifice as an eyesore, the convent’s exposed concrete façade is somewhat mitigated by a lawn and a pair of bronze sculptures in front of the main entrance, including a quaint statue of St. Francis playing with his dog. Additionally, the religious complex, where friars live and work, also includes an orchid garden, an old graveyard, a library and even a chicken coop.