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Santo Cristo del Buen Viaje

Santo Cristo del Buen Viaje

As is characteristic of colonial Cuban churches, the Santo Cristo del Buen Viaje rose from humble origins. On March 3, 1640, the Governor proposed that a new hermitage be built to serve as the final stop along the Via Crucis procession. A site near the old city wall in Old Havana proved to be an ideal location because of the large plaza along its south side, and in 1664 the construction of la Ermita de Santo Cristo del Buen Viaje was completed. Not much is known about the original construction, except that it faced east and had a ceiling composed of alfarjes. It acquired the unofficial nickname of el humilladero, which referred to the Crosses of the Calvary placed in the roads during the Via Crucis. After the Congregación del Oratorio de San Felipe Neri used Buen Viaje as their headquarters from 1672-1693, the Bishop Compostela expanded the hermitage into an "ayuda de parroquia." By this time, Buen Viaje was frequented by travelers and sailors. Havana was an important seaport, and sea travel during the colonial era was very dangerous. The phrase "buen viaje" means "good voyage" or "good trip," and seafarers sought out the church and its patron deity to pray for protection or thanksgiving during their travels. Ironically, history has shown that the church itself might have benefited from some divine protection of its own during its lifetime. On a number of different occasions, harsh storms and hurricanes struck the port and devastated the church. The first of these came in 1694 when a storm left the church in shambles. When Pedro Morell de Santa Cruz became bishop in 1754, he completed some notable renovations that his predecessor had begun. He Santo Cristo del Buen Viaje expanded the chancel and the transept to make the church take on the form of the Latin American cross, and it is likely that the two octagonal towers in the front of the church were constructed during his tenure. In 1789 and in 1868 Buen Viaje narrowly escaped demolition attempts. In 1789 the diocese of Cuba was split into two separate dioceses, each of which required its own cathedral. Because Buen Viaje was so centrally located and had such a magnificent plaza, it became an ideal prospect-and a target for demolition-when the search began for a site for a new cathedral. Nevertheless, plans were made to build elsewhere and it survived to see another day. The most significant modifications to the Santo Cristo del Buen Viaje came immediately following the devastating hurricane of 1926 when the Augustinians, under the leadership of Lorenzo Spirale, began serious efforts at restoration. Spirale hired the architectural firm of Morales y Companía to renovate the building. The original stone walls were demolished so as to further expand the transept, and new stonework was installed where the original primitive parts of the church had been. Some of the more decorative aspects of the church were also modified during this project. The aisles were widened, large Tuscan columns were built, and nine marble altars were added, each of which was devoted to a particular saint who had not previously been worshipped in the Buen Viaje. To provide a sense of continuity, the crucifix from the original hermitage hung fearlessly in the center of the church's back wall. The most celebrated pastor in the history of the Buen Viaje was Father John J. McKniff, an Augustinian who led the congregation from 1941-1968. Among other things, he founded and developed a hospital, a number of Catholic Action groups, and the Escuela Parroquial del Santo Cristo, a free school for poor children next to the church. Since his death in 1994, a formal petition to beatify Father McKniff was submitted to the Vatican. The Augustinians left Buen Viaje in 1968, and the parish has been led by a group of Salesian priests since that time. Buen Viaje experienced a final architectural blow in 1993, when the entire ceiling of the presbytery collapsed onto the marble altar beneath it. The ceiling has since been restored and the church stands proudly in Old Havana. Mark Kendall 

Fernández Santalices, Manuel. Las antiguas iglesias de La Habana: tiempo, vida y semblante ( Miami: Ediciones Universal, 1997). 
Iglesia del Santo Cristo del Buen Viaje. Home page on-line. Available from ; Internet; accessed 3 October 2006. 
Ortega Alvarez, Ana Lucía. Iglesias de Cuba ( Madrid: Agualarga, 1999)
Suárez Polcari, Ramón. Historia de la iglesia católica en Cuba. Volumes 1 and 2 ( Miami: Ediciones Universal, 2003)
Testé, Ismael. Historia eclesiástica de Cuba. Volume 3 (Burgos: Tip. de la Editorial El Monte. Carmelo, 1969)
Weiss, Joaquin E. La arquitectura colonial cubana ( La Habana: Letras Cubanas, 1979).
Copyright (c) 2007 Jean and Alexander Heard Library, Vanderbilt University