San Francisco Church is one of the biggest attractions in the city – even Tarzan has paid a visit! But more on that later.
For tourists, Iglesia de San Francisco is an opportunity to see a restored colonial church. For locals, it’s a place of pilgrimage – they come to pray for miracles at the tomb of Saint Hermano Pedro de San José Betancourt. Native to Tenerife, in the Canary Islands, he’s the first canonized saint in Central America.
Facade, San Francisco Church
This complex houses a church, a museum devoted to Hermano Pedro, ruins of the convent, and vendor stalls.
Handicrafts Market, San Francisco Church
Entrances to San Francisco Church
There are two doors from which to enter the church grounds: Saint Bonaventure‘s entrance, which dates back to the early 17th century and is located near the intersection of 1a Avenida Sur and 7a Avenida Poniente. Saint Francis‘ entrance, a late 17th-century addition, is accessible via Calle de Los Pasos.
St. Bonaventure Gate
St. Francis Gate
The changing architectural tastes of the 17th century are reflected here, as the Saint Bonaventure door has simpler Doric columns, while the newer St. Francis gate sports Solomonic columns. The Saint Bonaventure entrance featured a replica image of its namesake saint – the original statue can be seen at the Museum of Colonial Art.
Construction of San Francisco Church
The Franciscan missionaries were one of the first religious orders to arrive in present-day Guatemala. When the second capital was destroyed, they were also one of the first to move to the site of present-day Antigua. The first church Franciscans built, in 1541, was located at the current site of Escuela de Cristo Church, which is just a couple blocks south. That church was damaged during the earthquake of 1575.
For 10 years, Franciscans collected funds to build a new church, which they eventually built at the location it occupies to this day.
Franciscans carried on a heated rivalry with the Dominican friars of Santo Domingo Convent and the Jesuits of Compañía de Jesús, each trying to outdo the other in wealth and political
influence. Franciscans succeeded in obtaining permission from the Spanish Crown to establish Saint Bonaventure College, a prestigious institution where famous painters studied, such as Alonzo de la Paz, Cristobal de Villalpando, and Thomas de Merlo.
Throughout the years, there were many additions and renovations to the church. Master Architect Diego de Porres finished the current Baroque-style church in 1702. It features Solomonic columns and above the entrance, a coat of arms of the House of Habsburg, a two-headed eagle, representing the ruling Spanish monarchy at the time.
Abandoning The Church
Damaged substantially by the earthquakes of the 18th century, the complex was mostly abandoned, though a small chapel was built on the premises in 1774 to serve the needs of the small number of people that refused to move to the new capital.
In 1871, the chapel of the Third Order was rebuilt. Most of the temple remained in ruins, serving as a playground and housing a small number of families.
Restoring San Francisco Church
Main nave, San Francisco Church
The church was returned to Franciscan friars in 1960, who began a controversial restoration process, as they focused on rebuilding a structurally healthy church. Historians and architects were up in arms about the approach, which did not place more emphasis on restoring colonial-era details.
The current temple is but a shadow of the opulent temple it once was, and lacks the richness of the artwork the original temple possessed.
The temple’s north bell tower was rebuilt in 1967. The southern tower originally had a clock, but now remains in the condition it has been since the 1773 earthquakes.
Inside San Francisco Church
At the temple, look for Cristo de las Ánimas, located on the transept left of the main altar – it features a crucifix made out of corn husks, hence the locals’ name of this image as Cristo de Tuza (Corn Husk Christ). It dates back to the 17th century and is thought to be the work of Felix de Mata.
Corn Husk Christ, by Felix de Mata
Though buried in San Francisco since his passing, Hermano Pedro’s body has been relocated numerous times. His current resting place, Vera Cruz Chapel, is accessible through a separate entrance by the church’s north entrance. Access is restricted to the church from here by a metal fence.
Visiting Hermano Pedro’s Tomb
To visit, walk past the Esquisuchil tree (scientific name Bourreira Huanita), planted on March 19, 1657, one of several planted by Hermano Pedro throughout Antigua.
Hermano Pedro Statue
Adjacent to the tomb are the ruins of Concepción Chapel, housing the Garden of Saint Hermano Pedro, along with a bronze sculpture. A stained-glass window behind the tomb depicts the death of Hermano Pedro and his arrival in Heaven.
Commemoration of Hermano Pedro’s death
San Francisco’s Prayer Candles
Hermano Pedro’s tomb
At the tomb, take note of the different colored candles, each representing a specific prayer request. These candles are for sale on the stalls outside the church. Some candles are shaped in the form of the petitioner’s affected body part – ear and eye-shaped candles are among the most common.
Candles for sale on the market
Each candle has a specific meaning, based on the request of the petitioner. Their meanings are as follows:
Red = Love
Blue = Work success
Pink = Health
White = Children
Purple = To overcome vices
Green = Business success
Yellow = Protection
Light blue = Success at school
Black candles aren’t sold at the church and are removed if found out by the clergy. What is the prayer request attached to black candles? The destruction of enemies.
Hermano Pedro Museum
Next door to the church is the ruins of the San Francisco Convent. There’s a small fee of 5Q to enter the museum and convent.
Your first stop should be the small, one-room “museum” – more like a shrine, to Hermano Pedro. The entrance hallway to the museum is lined with crutches and gift offerings to Hermano Pedro, thanking the saint for his answers to their desperate prayers. By the way, photography is not allowed in the hall.
Hermano Pedro’s bell
After a few steps, you’ll enter the spacious room, which is filled with the earliest known paintings of Hermano Pedro, as well as his personal artifacts. Look for his famous bell, which rang at night as he walked the streets warning the residents to repent and helping those he found along the way.
Also worth checking out are his self-flagellation instruments, to mortify his flesh, as well as the human skull he kept by his nightstand to remind himself of the brevity of life. I get itchy whenever I see the rough underwear he forced himself to use on a daily basis.
San Francisco Convent Ruins
In its time, the Franciscans had one of the largest convents in the city, trailing only in size to that of the Dominicans at Santo Domingo Church. Most of the Convent is in ruins and there’s very little signage, unlike the ruins at La Merced Church’s Convent.
The convent’s signature fountain is missing, which was moved to Santa Teresa Convent and served as the bath for prisoners when Santa Teresa was used as the men’s jail cell in the late 1900s. When the jail was closed and moved to Chimaltenango, San Francisco’s fountain was once again relocated to the atrium of La Merced Church, where it sits today.
Convent ruins – San Francisco
Wander around the ruins, as they’re mostly empty. There are some tables in the back if you’d like to have a quiet time to read or pack a lunch for an enjoyable picnic.
A Place to Meditate
The chapel next door, Capilla de Adoracion Perpetua Anunciación del Señor was established in 2009. Be sure to be as quiet as a mouse, since they strictly enforce silence inside the chapel – chatty tourists and those with photographic cameras are discouraged from sticking around.
You can visit the chapel anytime – it’s open 24 hours a day. It’s an excellent place to meditate, or if you want to disconnect from the outside world. Fiddling with your smartphone inside is not allowed. Visit and try to sit still, alone with your thoughts, for 15 minutes – you’ll be surprised how unbearable/terrifying and/or enlightening it is.
Tarzan Comes to Antigua
Before San Francisco Church was restored in the 1960s, it served as a backdrop for The New Adventures of Tarzan (1935), a Hollywood film directed by Edward A. Kull. It follows the adventures of explorers searching for the Green Goddess, an idol worshiped by natives “deep in the jungles of Guatemala.”
Filmed in various locations in Guatemala, the movie starred Bruce Bennet, a.k.a. Herman Brix, a silver medalist in the shot put in the 1928 Olympic Games. Brix also did his own stunts.
The New Adventures of Tarzan
You may be surprised to discover that the grunting Tarzan of today bears little resemblance to the well-mannered, almost James Bond-like cultured Tarzan originally created by author Edgar Rice Burroughs. Bennet was praised by film critics for accurately portraying Burrough’s version of Tarzan on film.
This black-and-white film can be easily found on YouTube, as it’s now in the public domain.
Skip to about the 50-minute mark to see how severely damaged the church was before its restoration. Agua, Fuego, and Acatenango volcanoes can also be seen.
Check out the full list of things to do in Antigua Guatemala, here.
Ever visited San Francisco Church?