Grecia, Costa Rica: Grecia's Red Metal Church
When I visited Costa Rica more than 8 years ago, one of the first towns on my tour was Grecia. I was enchanted by the town and its natural beauty. The rolling hills that lead you into town are planted in sugar cane. To the north and west of downtown the mountain ridges are dotted with coffee plantations.
Also there is an overall cleanliness to the town that shows pride from its residents. However, the one thing that really stands out about Grecia is the big, red, metal church, Nuestra Senora de las Mercedes (Our Lady of Mercy) that punctuates the north end of Grecia’s central park.
Having read several travel books I knew that this unique structure had been shipped to Costa Rica from Belgium in the late 1800’s and that it was made in its entirety of metal. However that was about as much information as I could find on this spectacular house of worship. Living in the area and having asked many people, Costa Rican and expats alike, I have heard many stories about the churches origins. Some say that the church was mistakenly shipped to Grecia, Costa Rica, when it was really intended to be sent to a town in Greece, as an obelisk? You see the Spanish word Grecia translated to English is Greece. Another story has the church being mistakenly sent to Puntarenas, Costa Rica instead of Punta Arenas, Chile.
Even if the church was correctly shipped to Costa Rica, the idea that the materials were brought into the port at Puntarenas, Costa Rica can definitively be ruled out. Why? When the materials arrived in Costa Rica between the 1892-93, the Panama canal was not yet built, meaning the ships would have had to come all the way around South America at Cape Horn to dock in Puntarenas making for a very costly and unnecessary journey, especially given the easy access at the Port of Limon for such a trans-Atlantic journey. In addition, the railway between Puntarenas and San Jose was not completed until 1910. Interestingly enough not one of the stories I heard explained why the town had decided to build a metal church.
Putting all the old wives tales aside I wanted to know the “true” story behind Grecia’s metal church. I started my research in earnest at the University of Google and soon discovered that the metal church was indeed intended for Grecia, Costa Rica. It was an effort realized with the help of the townspeople of Grecia, the Catholic Church, the Costa Rican government and Alejo E. Jimenez-Bonnefil, a successful coffee producer from the area who was in charge of finding a company to build, then import the metal structure, which in the end came from Belgium.
In order to get to the bottom of the choice in materials, which I would find out was quite practical, we would need a little history about Nuestra Senora de las Mercedes in Grecia. I stumbled upon the churches website at: http://www.lasmercedesgrecia.es.tl/Inicio.htm, which was very informative.
Starting around 1840 Grecia had a small chapel that was built out of adobe (mud and straw) with a thatched roof. The exact location is unknown, but most historians believe it was located where the present day bus station/central market are located. As the town began to grow so did the need for a newer and larger church. In 1844 the town began construction on a new church that was finished by the end of 1847. The new structure was built on the present site of the red metal church, and was constructed of wood. Originally the roof was thatched out of palm fronds but in 1853 it was converted to “tejas” or Spanish barrel tiles made from clay. At the same time a brick floor was installed. A few years later a tower would be added to the wooden structure.
As the town grew so did the church. The wooden church was severely damage by a fire so in 1872 the community brought in a Guatemalan gentleman with the last name of Estrada to repair, expand and “convert” the church into a masonry structure. The idea was that a structure of masonry would be indestructible by fire. Estrada put his heart and soul into his labors and by 1888 the construction was nearly complete and the iron roof was being installed when a devastating earthquake shook Grecia, damaging the towers and partially destroyed the sanctuary that Estrada has so lovingly built.
The towns people were heart broken but not swayed and stood fast in their faith. In 1890 the locals sought out the counsel and advise of Bishop Thiel, the second bishop of Costa Rica, who suggested using “new technology” by building a metal church that was earthquake proof. By 1891 a contract was signed with the Belgian firm Dresse Aux Ateliers de la Societe de Couvillet, that specialized in metal structures.
By October of 1892 the first pieces of metal arrived at the Port of Limon on two cargo ships, the Turquoise of France and the Rock Hampton of England. Once unloaded the materials were then transported by rail from the Port of Limon to Alajuela. From Alajuela the supplies were then loaded onto ox carts and wagons, making the final journey of 21 kilometers to Grecia. The wagons often needed up to 14 yoke of oxen to pull the heavy loads across the rugged terrain between Alajuela and Grecia, each trip taking up to one week.
The materials were scattered in what is now the central park of Grecia for two years while the townspeople re-cooped financially and looked for a contractor and engineer who would undertake the task of assembling the church. With technical and financial assistance from President Rafael Iglesias Castro and Mr. Lucas Fernandez, the church which was finally completed in December 1897. The only exception was that of the windows and doors, which were not sent with the rest of the materials from Belgium. In 1911 the doors and window frames were ordered from Clement Casa Costructtore in Ferro Prada, Milan, Italy. Hand painted and blown glass windows were also acquired in Italy adding to the beauty of this magnificent structure.
Today Nuestra Senora de las Mercedes, Grecia’s big, red, metal church, stands as a symbol of the determination and perseverance of the local townspeople. It is also an unmistakable symbol of the town itself and a point of local pride. The next time you are in Grecia, take a moment to walk around this beautiful monument that was not only an engineering and technology advancement in its day but a shrine to the human spirit through the blood, sweat and tears that were involved in making this house of worship a reality.
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