The Cathedral de San Ildefonso is a favorite sight of mine in Mérida, Yucatán, Mexico. I have visited it multiple times, including twice in 2012 and most recently in February, 2013.
The cathedral stands on one edge of the Plaza Grande, in the downtown of Mérida. It’s a massive structure, with a sheer face that is very austere.
Depending on who you ask, this is the oldest cathedral in the Americas. It most certainly is not the oldest church in the Americas. The distinction between a church and a cathedral is important. A cathedral is more significant in the Catholic faith, a place which would house a bishop and be a central site for smaller churches. Construction on San Ildefonso began in 1561, and was finished by 1598. Other cathedrals in Mexico, like the cathedral in Puebla, were started earlier (in that case, 1535), but were not finished until after the Catedral de San Ildefonso.
Work on the cathedral proceeded with various stops and starts. In 1586, architect Juan Miguel de Aguero came from Havana and took charge of the construction. By 1598, the cathedral was considered completed, though the towers and some parts were not yet finished. Some 150 years later, on December 12, 1763, the cathedral was finally consecrated.
An examination of the materials used to build the cathedral show that stones were use from ancient Mayan temples. In fact, the Spanish conquistadors would often tear down the local Mayan pyramids, then use the same stone and site to build a church. Although Hernán Cortés conquered the Aztecs in central Mexico from 1519–21, the conquest of the Mayan areas of the Yucatán took much longer, from 1526-1546. Francisco de Montejo attempted to subjugate the Mayans from 1531-1535, but failed. Montejo the Elder, who was now in his late 60s, turned the job over to his son, Francisco Montejo the Younger. The younger Montejo invaded Yucatán with a large force in 1540. In 1542, he set up his capital in the Maya city of T’ho, which he renamed Mérida. Built in 1549, Montejo’s House, The Casa de Montejo still stands in Mérida, along the Plaza Grande.
The cathedral was damaged during the Mexican revolution of 1910-17. In 1915, an anticlerical mob burst into the cathedral and destroyed its interior contents. The gilded 18th century main altarpiece was ripped from out, stripped of its gold leaf, then carried out into the street and burned.
The Plaza Grande on which the cathedral sits is the home of many festivals. On Sundays, the street in front of the cathedral is closed off and many food vendors are lined up, waiting to serve various Mexican and Yucatecan dishes.
The cathedral is often open for visits. The inside is relatively simple. Wooden pews face a massive crucifix. The crucifix is Cristo de la Unidad (Christ of Unity), a symbol of reconciliation between those of Spanish and Maya heritage.
At night, the cathedral towers are lit and are very beautiful.