Montevideo means view from a mountain. The capital of Uruguay gets its name from the fact that there is a headland 505 feet high, topped with a lighthouse and old Spanish fort, on the western side of the Uruguay River.
Concerned that the Portuguese might be moving into the area from Brazil, Bruno de Zabala, the Spanish viceroy of Buenos Aires, established a fort in 1717. Subsequently, Zabala founded the town in 1728 and gave it the name San Felipe y Santiago (St. Philip and St. James).
The name was later changed to Montevideo. But the cathedral still bears the names of those two saints, whose feast day is May 3. Both are patron saints of Uruguay.
The construction of the first church began in 1726, with the fortification of the city. Construction of the present cathedral began in 1790; built in neoclassical style, with a dome and two 133-foot towers, it marked a revival of classical architecture.
The cathedral was consecrated on October 21, 1804, by the bishop of Buenos Aires, Jose Benito Ortega, who, at that time, was responsible for the ecclesiastical jurisdiction of the Oriental Republic of Uruguay and also was the last bishop Spain placed in South America.
The cathedral has been used continuously since 1804 for worship, except from 1806 to 1807, when the church was used as a war hospital to attend to the injured from both sides during the English invasion of Montevideo.
When services first began in the cathedral, the floor was simply packed earth. In 1905, a checkerboard floor was placed with black and white marble from Belgium.
All of the other materials used came from local sources, with the exception of some of the ornaments on the main altar, which came from Italy and Spain.
Between 1949 and 1960, two of the side altars were replaced by funeral monuments for the first bishop, Hyacinth Vera, and the first archbishop, Mariano Soler.
As one enters the cathedral, on the right is the Blessed Sacrament Chapel. Above the ornate original altar are statues of the Blessed Virgin and Sts. Philip and James. In front of the original altar is the cathedra, the bishop’s chair.
After the Second Vatican Council, a new altar was built so that the priest could celebrate Mass facing the congregation. It is a wooden altar with four facades and in the shape of a table. The front face shows Jesus and the Twelve Apostles during the Last Supper. The side panels portray the great Church Fathers of the East and West. The back face shows the Eucharist as a point of culmination of the culture and history of humanity: Before the host, people of all social classes and ages are portrayed in adoration.
To one side of the altar is a chapel dedicated to Our Lady of the Rosary. Portrayed with the Virgin are statues of Sts. Dominic and Catherine of Siena. The whole side altar is framed in individual paintings depicting the mysteries of the Rosary. The Virgin is seated with the Christ Child in her lap. Beneath the image are the words: “Ave Maria.” Above the whole scene is a gold crown supported by two angels.
Outstanding within the cathedral, it struck me, are the many brightly lit chandeliers. In front of the sanctuary to either side is a large chandelier. There are chandeliers of smaller size, five on either side, along the length of the main nave. In front of the entrance to the cathedral is a centrally located chandelier.
In addition, richly adorned twin pulpits are located on pillars in front of the sanctuary. To the left of the sanctuary is a unique white marble statue of St. John Marie Vianney, the Curé of Ars. This takes on new meaning this year, as June begins a year dedicated to priests, as called for by Pope Benedict XVI. St. John Vianney is the patron of parish priests.
A Future Pope Was Here
In 1870, the church was elevated to the rank of a basilica by Pope Pius IX. As a young priest, the future Pope had lived in Montevideo for three months and would say daily Mass here. When the Diocese of Montevideo was created on July 15, 1878, the basilica was declared a cathedral.
Today, the church is called the Cathedral of Montevideo, the Metropolitan Basilica and also the Chapel Temple, since it serves the parishes of the Immaculate Conception and Saints Philip and James.
The cathedral has been nurturing the faith and culture of the people for more than two centuries. In recent years, it has been a center of cultural activity, including concerts of different types: choral concerts, symphonic concerts and even a bandoleon concert.
Joseph Albino writes
from Syracuse, New York.
Metropolitan Cathedral of Saint Philip and Saint James
CP 11000 Uruguay
Arquidiocesis.net: click on “Parroquias”
Planning Your Visit:
The cathedral is open from Monday through Saturday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. On those days, Masses are at noon and 5 p.m., but only at noon on Monday. On Sundays the cathedral is open from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., with Mass at 11 a.m. Confessions are heard before and after Masses.
The cathedral is located in downtown Montevideo at 1373 Ituzaingo Street on the corner of Sarandi Street. It is located in front of Matriz Square in what is called Old Town. From the Carrasco Airport, one can reach the cathedral by taxi. It is a half-hour drive. For those visitors who arrive by cruise ship, it is a five-minute drive by taxi from the port.