Its 1752 founding date makes Santa Ana Basilica the oldest church in the Netherlands Antilles.
The church celebrated it's 250th anniversary in 2002.
The church, a defining feature of the Caribbean island of Curacao, was named after an older church dedicated to the mother of the Blessed Mother, the Cathedral of Santa Ana in Coro, Venezuela (about 35 miles away). Curacao was at one time part of the Coro diocese. (July 26 is the feast of St. Ann and her husband, St. Joachim.)
Curacao had been discovered by the Spanish in 1499. Because they were in search of gold and there was none to be had here, most of the Spaniards moved on. Then, in 1634, the Dutch came and conquered the land. The new arrivals were Protestants, and they used the island as a slave colony. Nevertheless, they allowed their slaves to be Christians, and Catholic priests — mostly Franciscans and Dominicans — were allowed entry.
Eventually, in 1842, the Vicariate of Curacao was formed with a Dutch Bishop as apostolic vicar. In 1870, the Vatican ordered the Dutch province of the Dominicans to accept the responsibility of what would later become the Willemstad Diocese as a whole. The Dutch Dominicans then took over all six islands; the Willemstad diocese was established on April 28, 1958.
From 1820 to 1824, there was an influx of 50 missionary priests who, as victims of the struggle for independence in Venezuela, came, evangelized and left. Though today there are only nine Dominicans in the diocese, between 1870 and 1966, there were, at one time, as many as 66 Dominicans, and they were considered the clergy of the diocese.
Three of the six islands, Aruba, Curacao, and Bonaire, are predominantly Catholic. There are three other small islands where the population is only 10% Catholic. These include St. Martin (or St. Maarten), Saba and Statia (named after St. Eustatius)
Because Aruba has become independent, five of the six islands form the Netherland Antilles — what used to be called the “Dutch West Indies.”
Today, six Dominican priests are active on Curacao. One is responsible for one of two churches which have been combined into one parish. These are the Basilica of Santa Ana and Holy Family Church.
The original Church of Santa Ana, which was built by missionaries from Austria, was relatively small. Through the years it was enlarged to its present size. Because it was the oldest church on Curacao, and also to ensure that it would not be torn down, the church was raised to a basilica in 1977. July 26 is the feast of its patrons, Sts. Ann and Joachim, parents of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Santa Ana, which holds 400 people, is situated between the main street of Curacao and a side street. The side street is called Conscience Street because people go there for Confession — to have their conscience cleansed. At the Santa Ana Basilica, confessions are heard in church both before and after the Masses. In addition, confessions are also heard in the rectory by request.
The lovely Stations of the Cross in Santa Ana are mosaics. They came from a convent on the island that was abandoned. The stained-glass windows, tabernacle and other artwork all came from Holland.
In Curacao, unlike Catholic churches in the United States, rather than there be one choir for a church, there are number of choirs that on the weekends walk from church to church, singing during the Masses in each church they come to. However, there are special choirs for Christmas and Easter.
On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, there is a Mass at 9 a.m. in the morning. The Mass on Monday morning is very crowded because large numbers of people who live on the outskirts of town come to the city. Before they go to the market, they attend Mass.
Catholics who come to Curacao on cruise ships, in particular those cruise ships that stop during a Panama Canal cruise, often stop to pray at Santa Ana Basilica, which is the closest church to the port.
However, the cruise ships usually don't usually come early enough for the Catholic cruise passengers to make it to the 9 a.m. Mass. Unfortunately, most recently, the basilica has also been closing early in the day to avoid the possibility of vandalism.
On Sundays, Mass is at 8 a.m. in the morning and again at 7 p.m. in the evening. The Mass of anticipation is said at 7 p.m. at Holy Family Church (Santa Familia), which is the other church in the parish. Visitors are also welcome to attend an 11 a.m. Mass Sunday mornings at Holy Family Church.
A Charismatic group is active in the Basilica of Santa Ana. Each Monday, following the Monday morning 9 a.m. Mass, the Charismatics hold a prayer meeting from 10 a.m. to 11:59 a.m.
Annually at the Santa Ana Basilica, there is a special nine-day novena to St. Anthony, patron saint of the poor, beginning on June 5 and culminating on June 13, the feast day of St. Anthony.
In all of the Catholic churches of Curacao, all of the Masses are said in Papimentu, the native language of the island of Curacao. Since 1840, efforts have been made to write out what was traditionally only a spoken language.
During the past 20 years, greater efforts have been made officially to write out the Papimentu language. For example, currently the Bible has been translated into Papimentu, as have been many religious booklets.
I certainly found it a most moving experience to pray at a basilica that has seen more than 250 years of history, with missionary and diocesan priests celebrating Masses and other liturgies and multitudes of Catholic faithful of all nationalities praying, worshiping and receiving the sacraments.
I found myself thinking: Imagine what stories would be told if only these walls could talk — even if only on the feast of this basilica's patron.
Joseph Albino writes from Syracuse, New York.
- July 20-26, 2003