Gothic churches are rare in the New World, but Puerto Rico has two: Porta Coeli, built in 1606 in San Germán, and San José, built in the 1530’s in Old San Juan.
The honor of being the first church on the island—and perhaps the oldest church in the western hemisphere—goes to the San Juan Cathedral down the street from San José, although the original building was blown away in a hurricane and the current cathedral structure dates from the 1800’s.
San José Church began life as a Dominican monastery and chapel dedicated to Saint Thomas Aquinas, and was renamed by the Jesuits who took it over in 1865.
By whatever name, San José is a remarkable place. Architecture buffs will be impressed by its gothic details. History and art fans will note that Puerto Rico’s first governor, Juan Ponce de Léon (of Fountain of Youth fame) donated the wooden 16th century crucifix. The 15th century altar was brought to San Juan from Cadiz, Spain.
Puerto Rico’s most distinguished artist, José Campeche, is buried here. Juan Ponce de León was originally laid to rest here but his remains were moved to a more elegant setting in the San Juan Cathedral. His coat of arms marks a wall, however, and his statue, cast from the bronze of cannons captured from the British in 1797, stands in the middle of a little plaza in front of the church.
Be sure to visit the Dominican Convent next door. Built in 1523 on land donated by Ponce de Leon, it has been a convent, barracks, and U.S. military headquarters. It is now the home of the Puerto Rico Institute of Culture and hosts many concerts and exhibitions.
How to Get There
San José Church is in Old San Juan on Morovis St, between Norzagaray and San Sebastián streets.