Catholic Altars Replaced Pagan Pyramids

In time for the June 13 feast of St. Anthony, a visit to St. Anthony of Padua Convent in Yucatan, Mexico, which was built on the ruins of an ancient Mayan altar. By Mary Hansen.

Izamal, Yucatan, Mexico

Quick: What comes to mind when you hear the word Cancun? If you didn’t just picture bright sun, soft sand and blue Caribbean waters, you don’t know your resort destinations.

Cancun is so popular that the majority of tourists flying into Mexico are headed there. Millions of North Americans travel to this land of the Maya, but most miss out on the Yucatan peninsula’s greatest spiritual and historical treasure.

That would be the Convent of St. Anthony of Padua, which is really a friary. It draws more visitors than the region’s much-publicized Mayan ruins.

Expect an even greater turnout than usual on June 13, St. Anthony’s feast day.

Located in the exceptionally scenic town of Izamal, around 170 miles west of Cancun, the Franciscan convent is big and bold. It is considered the largest of its kind in all the Americas. Its atrium is surrounded by 75 elegant arches and is said to be second in size only to St. Peter’s in Rome. The entire complex is painted a radiant shade of yellow. In fact, the whole town is painted yellow, which is why tour guides refer to Izamal as “The Yellow City.”

What a story this place has to tell.

For more than 1,000 years the Maya lived here, worshiping a multitude of gods. Izamal, along with Chichen-Itza (whose famous ruins are a half an hour away), was a major pilgrimage site for the Mayan people. The profusion of pyramids in town is evidence of a long pagan past pre-dating the arrival of Christianity. Kinich-Kakmo, Pap-Hol-Chac, Itzamutal — all were ceremonial sites set apart for worshipping imaginary deities.

Gospel Growth

Mexico’s isolation from the rest of the world came to a rather abrupt end in the 16th century. In 1524, a group of 12 Spaniards set sail for the New World. They happened to be Franciscan friars. After settling in central Mexico, they sent for their brother Franciscans. Within a few years the Gospel was spreading throughout the land.

It was Fray Diego de Landa who founded the convent at Izamal in 1549, three years after the conquest of the Maya. Father De Landa would later become bishop of Yucatan.

The edifice was built on the platform of a pyramid devoted to Chaac, the god of rain. The very stones of the toppled pyramid were used for the construction of the new building. Faint traces of Mayan glyphs (picture-writing) can still be seen on some of the convent walls.

It was common practice in the New World to erect Catholic churches on the site of former pagan ceremonial sites, sanctifying sites on which humans had been sacrificed.

The monastery’s church, the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Izamal, was completed in 1554 and dedicated to the Immaculate Conception. It is the focus of Marian devotion in the Yucatan Peninsula.

Totally Mary’s

The nave of the church is simple, almost stark, consistent with the Franciscan architecture of the era. The ornate altarpiece stands in sharp contrast to the plain nave. Made of tooled wood, the altarpiece is lavishly covered with gold leaf. This is not the original, however; a fire destroyed the first and its replacement was designed in 1949.

The camarin (dressing-room or chamber) of the Virgin, built in 1650, is a riot of color — crimson walls, yellow trim, striped ceiling. A Lourdes-like grotto is situated adjacent to the church, near the picturesque, whitewashed cloister, which surrounds a scenic garden.

1993 was a momentous year for the citizens of Izamal, as Pope John Paul II visited the convent to meet with the indigenous peoples of Latin America and Mexico. A statue of him on the grounds commemorates the joyous occasion.

On display in the small museum attached to the church is a photo of the Holy Father crowning the statue with a special silver crown brought from the Vatican. The photo vividly calls to mind the Totus Tuus (Totally Yours) motto of his devotion to Mary.

The Mayan people took to the Blessed Mother with great devotion as soon as Hernando Cortez planted a statue of her at Cozumel in 1519. That love becomes obvious as soon as you enter the town. There to greet you is a statue of Our Lady of Izamal, right in front of the bus station.

This is not surprising. After all, it is reported that the first Spanish words spoken by the Maya were, “Maria, Maria! Cortez, Cortez!”

Surely St. Anthony prays for them still.

Mary Hansen writes from

Barrie, Ontario.

Planning Your Visit

The convent is open daily from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. Daily Mass is at 7 a.m. and 7 p.m.; the Rosary is prayed at 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. Each day 17 buses travel to Izamal from Cancun (via Vallalodid); 2 from Tulum.