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  • Natalie Taylor

HISTORY OF SAN MIGUEL: The Mulatto chapel Part 2

Imagine yourself walking along Insurgentes Street, starting at the site of the Biblioteca, then heading east toward the Ignacio Ramirez market. Were you to take this walk at present you would walk past the

church of Santa Ana, then the Chapel of Loreto, the Oratory church, the La Salud church facing the large Plaza Civica with the statue of Ignacio Allende on a horse, and then finally, before reaching Colegio Street, you would pass in front of the tall, yellow building—the Colegio de San Francisco de Sales.

Now imagine that the year is 1710 and you take the same imaginary walk. None of those buildings would have been there—most likely you would find small, humble houses along the way, but mostly empty fields. The only building that you would pass, would have been the original Church of Tercera Orden on the other side, facing San Francisco Street. But the large San Francisco church with the tower, and the gardens with the statue of Christopher Columbus would have been empty space. Every one of the churches, except for the Franciscan church of Tercera Orden, and the school mentioned above, came about after the Oratorians came to San Miguel el Grande.

The Confederation of Oratories of Saint Philip Neri is a “society of apostolic life” of secular men and priests who live together in a community, bound by their commitment to charity. The order was founded in Rome in 1575 by Philip Neri. Unlike a religious institute—the members of which take vows and are answerable to a central authority, or a monastery in which monks are likewise bound by vows in a community, the Oratorian community is made up of members who commit themselves to a particular, independent, self-governing local community.

Philip Neri, concerned about the poor preparation and relaxed morality of the Catholic clergy in Rome, created this new institution in which secular priests and lay men would dedicate themselves to moral elevation through study and prayer. The congregants of each unit would be governed separately with total independence from each other. Pope Paul V approved the congregation’s constitutions in 1612. The constitution’s guiding principles were prayer, preaching piety and instruction of youths by establishing schools. During the 17th century the Oratories spread throughout New Spain, and in 1712 an Oratorian congregation was established in San Miguel el Grande.

Below is a map of San Miguel as it would have appeared in the early part of the 18th century. The black lines represent the Camino Real—the Royal Inland Road as it crisscrossed the town. The only religious buildings at that time would have been: 1) The Mulatto chapel. 2) The church of the Third Order. 3) The Parroquia.

The first Oratorian congregation in New Spain was established in the city of Puebla in 1651. From there they continued their trajectory throughout the land, and in 1712 arrived in the town of San Miguel el Grande. The establishment of the Oratorian Church here, has been veiled by time and as always, the story is written by the victors. However, there are a few clues that tell us that the transition was not completely free of discord.

The Oratorian priest Juan Antonio Perez de Espinosa was known for his impressive sermons. He was living in the city of Queretaro when he was invited to give a sermon in San Miguel el Grande during Lent. He was also advised of talks about establishing an Oratorian church in San Miguel on the spot where the mulattos had their chapel of Ecce Homo. This was sanctioned and supported by the elite of the town—the wealthy Spaniards and Criollos—who disparaged the Mulatto congregation because they did not have “proper decency” and because of claims of their “overly boisterous” celebrations.

Father Espinosa’s sermon was overwhelmingly successful, and soon after came the founding of the new Church of the Oratory, which incorporated the existing Mulatto chapel. According to the official biographer of Juan Antonio, his brother Isidro Perez de Espinosa, the Mulatto brotherhood willingly cooperated and surrendered their space to the new church. He stated:

After Lent, the officials of the village got together and agreed to give the church [the chapel of the Mulattos], to Father Juan Antonio…with agreement from the parish priest…and the major steward of the brotherhood… [Claiming] it would be to their advantage and they would not lose any of their rights…They agreed to the proposal and on April 21, 1712 the bishop issued a license…

It is here that we need to ask ourselves how plausible this is. The Mulattos had been in charge of their chapel for over a century, since 1595. They had enjoyed their independence and were one of the wealthiest brotherhoods in San Miguel, with their greatest possession the sculpture of the Black Jesus called Ecce Homo, venerated by the entire population. Why would they cede their ownership of the chapel and the holy image? What would they gain?

There was a meeting on May 2, 1712 of all the principals: the Mulatto brotherhood, the parish priest, the officials of the town, as well as over 300 Spanish residents who were very much in favor of the takeover.  When the presiding government official asked if there were any objections, he was told that the Mulattos had prepared a document stating their opposition and the reasons for it. The Mulattos offered a piece of paper to be read by the notary.

He took it out of his breast pocket and handed it to the notary…When he opened it, he found a blank piece of paper…which the Mulattos upon seeing it turned as white as the paper itself….[the notary] said that the document contained no writing. Perturbed and confused [the Mulattos] hurried to the house of the man whom they had contracted to write the paper…but could not find him.

They were then told to state their cause orally, but because they were unable to do so, Father Juan Antonio proclaimed that “God had changed their hearts…” and therefore nothing impeded the takeover of the old chapel. The official version is that it was indeed a miraculous act of God that justified the establishment of the new church. And that, completes the story.

The agreement allowed the Mulatto brotherhood to keep possession of the precious sculpture of Ecce Homo, which had been used as a talisman to bring on the rains during droughts. As in the past, each priest of a community would request to borrow the statue for a certain time, but then return it to the brotherhood. All seemed to go well for a few years, but in 1718 Father Espinosa complained to the bishop that the Mulattos were celebrating the Ecce Homo improperly, because their festivities were “profane” and were frequented by “vagabonds…and vulgar folk…”  Other disputes erupted through the years, many of them obviously based on economic power—disputes about collections, and charges for religious services and funerals.

In 1727 the Mulatto brotherhood was directed to cede their ornaments, chalices, jewels, and all other regalia used in the celebration of the festival of Ecce Homo. The bishopric then granted the Oratorians the rights to the statue, stipulating that the Mulattos could still use it in their services by asking for it in advance, but could only keep it for a determined amount of time. Then came the final order that all church service fees were to go to the Oratorians, thus stripping the brotherhood of any economic gain. And in 1742, the bishop directed the statue be moved to the Parroquia, where it has remained to this day.

The arrival of the Oratorian congregation greatly modified the lives of the residents of San Miguel. It completely changed the urban landscape with the addition of several religious buildings, intensifying devotion to religious life, especially for the wealthy members of the community. Over the first thirty decades after their arrival the Oratorians had constructed their church, one of the most prominent religious structures in town; they founded the Colegio de San Francisco Sales (1734); the church of La Salud (1735); and within the church of the Oratory was constructed a most ornate chapel, the chapel of Loreto (1733) which was financed by one of the wealthiest men in town—Tomas de la Canal.

With the passage of time, the original Mulatto chapel disappeared from the city’s landscape. If not for the ancient doorway with the statue of the virgin of Solitude high above it, and the old documents speaking of the transition, no traces would remain. I believe it is important to preserve the alternative telling of the story, and to keep in mind that there once was a powerful Mulatto brotherhood that played a significant role in the evolution of San Miguel.

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Jul 02

Once again, thank you, Natalie. The history of this chapel has always fascinated me. Thanks for all your research. David Black


Tom Hammer
Tom Hammer
Jul 01

Excellent article, thank you! By the way, it is spelled Querétaro.

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