PURISCAL – The Saborio family has owned a jewelry and watch shop off the main square in Puriscal for 42 years. Every morning as he unlocks the store, Orlando Saborio glances up at the old Santiago ApostleChurch, which dominates the sky to the east of the square.
For years, the church has been empty, being slowly overtaken by vegetation and eroded by fierce rainstorms. After a series of earthquakes in the 1990s rendered the building structurally unsound, the Roman Catholic Church abandoned it, leaving it to crumble.
A recently issued health notice ordered the church dismantled and, although it hasn’t been used in nearly 20 years, many of the faithful are reluctant to see it go.
“It’s a symbol of Puriscal,” said Saborio, 49, who remembers attending the church as a child. “It’s part of the identity of the people here.”
The Santiago ApostleChurch – with its bold, stone facade and high-reaching towers is easily the most commanding presence in Puriscal’s modest skyline, and it is one of the first things visitors see as they climb the narrow roads up the mountain on which the town is perched.
Designed by architect and artist Teodórico Quirós, who also designed churches in San Isidro de Coronado and San Rafael de Escazú – and who was responsible for the preservation of colonial temples in Orosí and Ujarrás – the church has stood in the town’s center since 1936.
Yet Saborio isn’t sure he wants to keep it. “If it can be restored, let’s save it,” he said. “But if it can’t, take it down.”
Delio Quesada, who has lived on the square for 63 years, was more direct in his sentiments.
“Take it down,” he said, waving his hand as if to dismiss it. “It serves no purpose, and it’s a danger to people here.”
The 85-year-old Quesada, who remembers when the church was built, added, “Yes, there are people who protest. They say that’s where I was baptized and that’s where I was married. But every day, it’s a greater danger. And there are many nice things they can put in its place.”
Twenty-one-year-old María Barrantes, who works in a nearby fabric store wasn’t so sure. “It’s sacred ground. You can’t put any business there,” she said. “I don’t know what they would do with the space.”
Barrantes personally wants to keep it. “It’s an antique and, in a way, it defines Puriscal.”
Since the announcement that the structure will be destroyed, the Catholic Church has stalled, waiting for any last efforts to save it. There’s been talk about commissioning a study regarding its preservation.
In the church’s original announcement, the Rev. Guido Villalta, vicar of the San José Archdiocese, said, “We know that this church is a symbol of the community of Puriscal. But the church is the defender of life and, therefore, we have no other choice but to obey the demolition order and avoid a catastrophe.”
Despite regular demonstrations and near-constant programming on the local cable television station, it’s still unclear whether there is enough financial support to undergo an historical renovation or even if the church could be saved. The town of Puriscal sits directly on a fault line and, if there’s anything close to the magnitude of the earthquakes that rattled the area in 1990, some insist the church would stand little chance.
For nearly three months, the town suffered near-constant tremors. Saborio remembers it well.
“Many people left,” he said. “Others (like us) returned during the days in order to work and look after our businesses.”
The Santiago ApostleChurch was built by volunteers using “very weak material,” according to a bulletin from the congregation. The delicate foundation, combined with the church’s location on a fault line, has prompted many people to demand the church be brought down.
But Manuel Ramírez, who owns a bar and restaurant directly across the square from the church, has no doubt it can be saved.
“If you look at what went into building the church – that stone was brought in on horseback over miles of unpaved roads and then people proceeded to build it by hand – if you look at that struggle, then restoring it seems like a small task,” he said.
A Chance at a
The Federal Association of Engineers and Architects (CFIA) offered to do a study of the Santiago ApostleChurch to determine the feasibility of restoring it.
They sent a formal proposal to the Archdiocese of San José Tuesday, and are waiting for a response, according to Cristina Carmona, spokeswoman for the association.
A 1991 CFIA survey determined that the structure was unsafe for use, but it didn’t study the possibility of restoration.
If the archdiocese accepts the proposal, the survey could be completed as soon as February of next year, Carmona said.