Home away from home
La Parroquia de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe
Our Lady of Guadalupe church could not have a more congenial setting. It’s about three blocks away from the Bahia de Banderas in Puerto Vallarta, Jalisco, Mexico. Strolling along the coast on the malecón—a broad sidewalk with restaurants, cantinas and shopping—I was a bit conflicted about going to church. Hmm, cocktails or church? How about cocktails, then church? After all, I’m on vacation. But my better side got control, and I made the noon service without a cocktail.
The church, while not big by modern standards, must have been an incredible undertaking when it was built starting in 1903. It’s less impressive from the outside, basically a brick cathedral, but it’s got this really cool crown on top of the bell tower, which, if my Lonely Planet guidebook serves me, was modeled after the crown of Empress Carlotta, who at one time administered Mexico with Emperor Maximilian.
The interior is something to behold. Much of the surface area is gilded, turning what could have been a somewhat run-of-the-mill building into an opulent house of worship. Surrounding the nave are statues of various saints and personages, candle wall sconces, stained glass windows, bas-relief stations of the cross that looked like they were carved from sandstone, paintings, a glass case holding a lifelike mannequin that represented Jesus Christ in death—someone had dropped a tour operator’s business card in the case—and other objects too numerous to mention. That’s not to say it was all traditional. There were modern accoutrements, like those electronic flickering candles you sometimes see in restaurants and columnar fans scattered around. The arched ceiling was held by four thick gilded columns. The dominant colors were cool green and white on plastered walls and ceiling. There’s a small but busy chapel toward the front of the sanctuary.
There was seating for about 250 people on wooden, slatted pews. This was one of those old churches where the beautiful music seemed to come out of the heavens—the singers not visible from my vantage point, although I could see the organist to the right of the chancel. I’d guess there were about 70 people there for the service, about half tourists. Throughout the service, though, people came in, shuffled about, taking pictures and being touristy.
Much of the tabernacle was also gilded, and high above was a rendition of the famous image of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Puerto Vallarta’s patron saint.
The only problem with the 50-minute service was the acoustics in the sanctuary. It was designed to magnify sounds in pre-electronic amplification days, so the amplified voice of the priest and helpers was basically incomprehensible to me with all the ambient noises echoing off the marble floors. Now, I’ll admit my Spanish is a bit rusty, but I couldn’t recognize one word out of 10, not that this was such a problem because I’ve been attending Catholic services for nearly 48 years. While there were pacing differences, particularly in the beginning of the mass, it was easy to follow along, standing and kneeling at the proper times and offering the correct responses. Some people responded in English. The only time I really had a problem with the acoustics was during the sermon, although I could tell the priest had a gentle, instructional style, like that of a father to his children. I spent the whole sermon lost in thought about why I couldn’t understand what he was saying.
I think anyone who likes traditional Catholic services in comfortable surroundings accented by cool ocean breezes would enjoy spending some time in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. Actually, I think I’d recommend going to Puerto Vallarta to just about anyone for just about any reason.