Iglesia de San Francisco de Asís
Dominating Plaza de San Francisco on the south side, the Iglesia de San Francisco de Asís (Oficios, e/ Amargura y Brasil, tel. 07/862-9683, daily 9 a.m.–5:30 p.m., entrance CUC2, guide CUC1, cameras CUC2, videos CUC10) was launched in 1719. The great church was reconstructed in 1730 in baroque style with a 40-meter bell tower crowned by St. Helen holding a sacred Cross of Jerusalem.
Iglesia de San Francisco de Asís was eventually proclaimed a Minorite basilica, and it was from its chapel that the processions of the Via Crucis (Procession of the Cross) departed every Lenten Friday, ending at the Iglesia del Santo Cristo del Buen Vieja. The devout passed down Calle Amargura (Street of Bitterness), where Stations of the Cross were set up at street corners.
The Protestant English worshipped in the church during their tenure in Havana in 1762; Catholics refused thereafter to use it.
Iglesia de San Francisco de Asís and adjoining convent reopened in October 1994 after a complete restoration. The main nave, with its towering roof supported by 12 columns, each topped by an apostle, features a trompe l’oeil that extends the perspective of the nave. The sumptuously adorned altars are gone, replaced by a huge crucifix suspended above a grand piano. (The cathedral also serves as a concert hall, with classical music performances hosted 6 p.m. Sat. and 11 a.m. Sun. Sept.–June).
Members of the most aristocratic families of the times were buried in the crypt; some bodies are open to view. You can climb the campanile (CUC1) for a panoramic view over Habana Vieja.
The nave opens to the cloisters of a convent that today contains the Museo de Arte Religioso, featuring religious silver icons plus the lectern and armchairs used by Fidel and the pope during the latter’s visit in 1998. A music school occupies part of the building.
A life-size bronze statue (by José Villa Soberón) of an erstwhile and once-renowned tramp known as El Caballero de París graces the sidewalk in front of the cathedral entrance. Many Cubans believe that touching his beard will bring good luck.
© Christopher P. Baker from Moon Cuba, 5th Edition