Why the American Revolution Left a Magnificent Cathedral in Spain Unfinished

Visitors from around the world share their thoughts on Malaga’s beautiful ‘La Manquita’

‘Santa Iglesia Catedral Basílica de la Encarnación’
‘Santa Iglesia Catedral Basílica de la Encarnación’ (photo: Lux Blue / Shutterstock)

One of the tallest churches in all of Europe, in Spain, was never finished despite 200 years of construction. Our American Revolution is to blame.

Making our way from the Azores islands, where we learned about Mother Teresa of the Azores and ‘Lord Holy Christ of the Miracles’, our second stop on my husband and my pilgrimage took us through the Strait of Gibraltar (stopping in southern Spain) to the ancient coastal city of Malaga. There, we visited the Cathedral of the Incarnation.

This massive cathedral, constructed from 1582-1782, is still missing one of two planned bell towers. The funds for the second one, which would amount to $20 million in today’s dollars, was spent by Spain to help fight the British during the American Revolution. As a result, to this day, only one of the two massive bell towers were built. The locals referred to this uneven-looking cathedral as “La Manquita,” or “the One-Armed Lady.”

The city itself is one of Europe’s oldest. It was first settled by the Phoenicians in the 8th century BC. It was occupied by the Romans until the 8th century AD. From AD 711 until 1487, it was under Muslim rule. In 1487, the Catholic King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella (of Christopher Columbus fame) reconquered the Moors, and a Mosque was demolished with plans to build a new cathedral in its place. Construction began right away. In fact, in most places where you see a cathedral in southern Spain today, there once stood a mosque.


Investment in the American Revolution

Construction on the original cathedral expanded to the massive plan of today’s structure, with that work being done from 1582-1782. In the end, funds to complete the tower were invested in the American Revolution. Bruno, our tour guide, explained to us that across the Atlantic Ocean, Spain’s archenemy, the Protestant-led Britain, was at war for control of the 13 colonies in the Americas.

“Spain did not want the colonists to be treated like slaves,” Bruno said. “The Malaga-born military leader, Field Marshall Bernardo de Galvez, led an armada and soldiers to fight against the British. He brought with him the 400,000-gold realis, which would be $20 million today. That money was originally intended for the second steeple at the cathedral.”

Galvez conquered the British troops in Florida in 1781. Florida had been in Spanish hands since the Spanish establishment of St. Augustine in 1565, the same year that the first Catholic Mass was held in what would become the United States. Galvez became a hero in both Spain and the U.S. His portrait is displayed in the U.S. Capitol and a statue of him stands near the State Department. The city of Galveston, Texas, is named for him, and St. Bernard Parish in Louisiana honors him by recognizing his patron saint. Galvez later served as governor of Spanish Louisiana and Cuba and eventually became viceroy of all of New Spain until his death from typhus in 1786.

In 2014 Galvez became one of only eight people to be awarded honorary U.S. citizenship. And if you happen to be in Malaga, Spain, on the Fourth of July, you will see a large celebration for both Field Marshall Galvez and our American Independence Day.


The Cathedral of the Incarnation

The cathedral itself is breathtaking. When it opened for tours at 10am, there was already a very long line with visitors from around the world.

The one tower reaches nearly 300 feet, making it the second-highest cathedral in the Spanish state of Andalusia. It is considered to be one of the finest examples of Baroque-Renaissance architecture in all of Spain. Inside the cathedral are 15 side chapels, an impressive domed ceiling that rises 125 feet with colorful streams of light coming from numerous stained-glass windows. The sheer volume of paintings and sculptures is overwhelming. A painting by Alfonso Carlo in the Chapel of the Virgin of the Rosary is considered priceless.

We attended Mass just behind the front of the main church in a large inner nave with life-size wooden carvings done by the Baroque sculptor Pedro de Mena. The 18th-century organ with 4,000 pipes is still used today.

After Mass we toured the inside of the cathedral, climbing more than 200 narrow, winding stairs to the roof. I am glad my husband convinced me to overcome a fear of heights. (He promised to pray for courage as I put one foot after the other.) It was there on the rooftop that we took in a panoramic view of the city and where our tour guide Bruno shared the story of General Galvez with Mark and me.

With so many different nationalities on tour that day, it was actually difficult to find someone comfortable enough with the English language to share their impressions. Two young women, Su Yu from Korea and Xin Cheng from China, did their best. They had become friends while interning in Vienna and were on holiday.

“It’s quite nice and huge,” Su Yu said. “I cannot imagine how they constructed all this without cranes or any machinery. It was a mosque and then converted to a cathedral. It’s nothing like anything I’ve seen in other European cathedrals.”

“I really liked the colored glass with pictures,” Xin Cheng shared. “I’m not religious but I heard a lot of stories about those glass paintings because they are like scenes from the Bible. It was fantastic. It’s very different from anything I’ve ever seen. It’s very good.”

It has been touching to witness how these magnificent churches still inspire awe in people across nationalities. The faithful Catholics who built them to glorify God and to benefit future generations, accomplished their vision.

In addition to 231 Catholic churches inside the city limits, Malaga also has beautiful beaches, a warm Mediterranean climate year-round, lush green tropical city parks with fountains, marble tiled sidewalks in a variety of geometric patterns, a famous large bull fighting ring, and is home to nearly 600,000 people.

Besides the beauty of the city, Mark and I will hold Malaga and the Cathedral of the Incarnation in our hearts this Independence Day on July 4. We will recall how Spain came to our aid during the American Revolutionary War by stopping construction of their beautiful cathedral in Malaga to help us.