El Salvador earthquakes smashed colonial treasures

SAN VICENTE, El Salvador, Reuters

Weeks after two strong earthquakes hit this Central American nation, statues of saints still lie in the rubble on the floor of the ruined “Our Lady of Pillar” Catholic church in the devastated city of St. Vincent.

Thick cracks in the 239-year-old walls and ceiling make the building too unstable and dangerous for people to clean it up.

The Jan. 13 and Feb. 13 tremors left 1,500 dead in El Salvador and destroyed pre-Columbian archaeological sites and Spanish colonial gems including 124 Catholic churches.

Damage to buildings has been estimated at US$1.6 billion, of which US$100 million is to heritage sites such as churches, pre-Columbian remains and government buildings. The official National Culture and Arts Council (Concultura) said 193 culturally significant structures were damaged or destroyed.

“El Pillar is beautiful. It’s unique. It’s original. It is one of the most important (architectural) pieces in Latin America,” said Parish Priest Jose Luis Escobar, who has been holding Mass outside the church since the earthquakes.

Pillar’s thick stone walls had withstood previous earthquakes and witnessed and survived historic upheavals such as when Indian leader Anastasio Aquino occupied the church during an 1833 rebellion, declaring himself “king of the Indians” with a crown borrowed from the statue of Saint Joseph.

The small church is near the historic downtown of the city 40 miles (65 km) east of capital San Salvador. The cathedral and city hall with a cherished watch tower and arched corridors also suffered in the quake, which also left 8,000 injured.

Escobar, who has run the El Pillar parish since 1991, spoke proudly of the church’s neocolonial style. “Its construction has been made of pure stone in its whole structure, from the ceiling to the walls,” he said.

Concultura declared the church a “national monument” and one of the most important structures affected in the quakes. The Jan. 13 quake measuring 7.6 on the open-ended Richter scale destroyed 108 churches. The 6.6 quake in February damaged 16 more. Of the total, some 90 are listed as colonial-era.

Concultura’s president, Gustavo Herodier, said all the churches are historically valuable and reconstruction “will require considerable funding.” The United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America (Cepal) and the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) are helping with the search for funds, he said.

“But there are also efforts at a national level. People are concerned about rebuilding the churches,” Herodier said.

“From the moment in which a church becomes national heritage, the idea is to try to maintain them in original condition.” But he said some of the damaged buildings will need major changes to keep them safe for visitors.

He said Concultura has a US$12 million fund, which will be directed to reconstructing churches and 69 cultural buildings.

The destruction, estimated at between 25 and 100 percent in some of churches, has left many in a state of ruin.

Among those that may be too badly damaged to save are the churches of Santa Maria Ostuma and Comasagua and the bell tower of the Panchimalco church, all in Indian villages in the center and west of the country.

Archbishop Fernando Saenz Lacalle of San Salvador said specialists are needed to study damages and determine what can be saved and what must be put off-limits because of danger to visitors, especially during upcoming Easter Week celebrations.