The Church has been an important influence on the development and growth of Puerto Rico since the era of the conquest and colonization. The conquest by the Spanish crown included converting the natives to Christianity, as well as converting them to the language and values of the dominant people. Therefore, religion and education were mixed from the beginning. When Ponce de León explored the island for the first time, he wrote a report to the Crown in which he requested, among other things, that clergy be sent to attend to the spiritual needs of the Spaniards and to the conversion of the indigenous people.

The Burgos Laws outlined the obligations of the colonists over the Indians, which included building a structure to serve as a church so the indigenous people could receive the sacraments. It was also ordered that the sons of the chiefs be taught to read and write, that Spanish-style marriage be imposed on them, and that their dress be changed little by little.

Because of frequent references to religious acts, it is believed that the island had a religious presence possibly as early as 1509. In 1511, King Ferdinand ordered the Franciscans to create a convent where they could house and indoctrinate the sons of the most important indigenous chiefs so that they could be put in charge of indoctrinating the rest. The Catholic Church put itself at the service of the Crown and began organizing parishes, building churches and educating the indigenous people. The Diocese of San Juan was created in 1512 and was responsible for spreading the gospel and education.

Beginning in 1520, several indigenous towns, which were little more than some huts built around a plot of land for planting, were created. The Spaniards taught the indigenous people about agriculture and raising livestock, in addition to religion. Later, in the 17th and 18th centuries, as in the initial period of conquest and colonization, religion continued to influence the development of Puerto Rico, through the founding of new towns. One of the first things that had to be done to found a town was to build a church, and land owners were also required to provide a chapel to give workers a place to pray and for their religious ceremonies.

The Dominicans, apart from their religious work, also played a role in education by establishing a house of study for art and grammar that the residents could attend. Meanwhile, the Franciscans founded a convent in 1642 and the Carmelites another in 1646. The Academy of Students was also formed to teach grammar. But the influence of religion was not limited to education. It also extended to the government. The relationship between the government and the church was obvious because of the right of royal patronage, which the Pope had conceded to the Catholic kings in 1508. This action conceded jurisdiction over certain administrative aspects of the church, including the presentation of bishops and parishes. Similarly, the governor could also intervene in some ecclesiastical procedures. The Catholic Church supervised various aspects of the lives of the island’s inhabitants through the Inquisition, which had been created in Spain in 1478 to safeguard the faith. In Puerto Rico, Bishop Alonso Manso was named Inquisitor and he established a court that oversaw the public conduct and morality of Christians. This court declined with the death of the bishop in 1539, but in 1591 the Holy Court was restored with more political intentions: to prevent the entrance of Lutherans to the island. The Inquisition officially closed its operations in Puerto Rico in 1610. Since then, the relationship between the Church and the Puerto Rican government and society has varied, but has been much less significant or influential than in earlier centuries.

Author: Zahira Cruz
Published: September 12, 2014.

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