A Tour of the Guadalajara Metropolitan Cathedral
The Guadalajara Metropolitan Cathedral is one of the most representative and easily identifiable buildings in the State of Jalisco. The gothic bell towers have been incorporated into the logos of many local businesses like Farmacía Guadalajara and the public taxi service. The church has a long history dating back to the 16th century but subsequent remodels have blended a number of different architectural styles. Downtown Guadalajara is the number one tourist attraction in the Metropolitan Region and the Guadalajara Cathedral is the crown jewel of that tour. You can not visit Guadalajara without strolling the plazas that encompass this spectacular piece of colonial architecture.
The building is known as the Catedral Basílica de la Asunción de María Santísima (Cathedral of the Assumption of Holy Mary) because of the image chiseled in stone on the crown of the facade. It is locally known as the Guadalajara Cathedral or just the Cathedral. The word cathedral comes from the Greek word for ‘seat’ and references the bishop’s throne. A cathedral is the seat of the archdiocese or the regional church government.
The relocation of the Spanish government Audience and Catholic Church archdiocese in the 16th century was an agreement between the Pope in Rome and the King of Spain. It would go on to be an important factor in the development of the City of Guadalajara.
A Brief History of the Guadalajara Cathedral
Guadalajara was founded at this location in 1542 in the Spanish Viceroyalty of New Galicia. There were three unsuccessful attempts to settle at other locations in the previous decade. Originally, the archdiocese was seated in Tepic and then Compostela. In 1560 both the Royal Spanish Audience (The crown’s administrative body in the provinces) and the Catholic archdiocese moved to Guadalajara and one year later the King of Spain mandated the new cathedral. The original church was made of adobe with a straw-thatched roof which would not dignify the new Spanish administrative territory.
The mines in Zacatecas had already been producing for two decades and the Manila-Acapulco trade route would be launched in just a few years from the port of Barra de Navidad in New Galicia (today the border between Colima and Jaisco). It is safe to say that the Spanish crown was watching this corner of the empire very closely when they authorized the cathedral.
The first round of construction was completed in 1618 when the building was dedicated. Interior design and decoration would take another while to complete because of scarce resources. The cathedral was not consecrated for another hundred years in 1716. I can only imagine what it is like to negotiate with the Vatican in Rome for sacred relics for a Cathedral on another continent. Just for context, the Spanish crown passed from Habsburg Monarchy to the Bourbon Monarchy in 1700. Charles II, the last Habsburg monarch was physically disabled and suffered many health problems before dying young with no children. This set into motion the War of the Spanish Succession in 1701, not a stabilizing event for the empire.
In 1818 an earthquake shook Guadalajara and brought down the original bell towers and a dome. Considering the Mexican war of Independence ran from 1810 until 1821, it was not likely that the Spanish crown was interested in investing in the repair of the bell towers. Guadalajara felt another strong earthquake in 1849 which further damaged the cathedral. In 1850, architect Manuel Gómez Ibarra began the reconstruction of the bell towers. The popular style of the day was neo-gothic and the towers have become an iconic part of Guadalajara’s identity. The yellow tiles were made in the town of Sayula, Jalisco just 100 km south of Guadalajara on the way to the port of Manzanillo.
There are lots of stories about underground tunnels that connect the cathedral to nearby buildings. Most of these stories reference the early 20th-century Cristero War between the government of Plutarco Elias Calles and the Catholic Church. However, the tunnels date back well before the 20th century.
In the 1950s several buildings next to the cathedral were torn down to make room for pedestrian plazas. Today, there are four large plazas on either side of the cathedral but if you look at the picture from the early 1900s you can see how crowded the area originally was. Tearing down historic buildings was very controversial but where the Rotonda de Los Jaliciences Ilustres stands today once housed a small church that many builders declined to demolish. As controversial as it was, the result is a marvelous pedestrian area that is one of the top tourist destinations in the state.
Pope John Paul II visited the Cathedral in 1992 when he beatified the Cristero martyrs who fought for the church to defend the right to religious freedom during the early 20th-century conflict.
Today the Cathedral and surrounding plazas form a cross of plazas. This is my favorite place to spend a Sunday with the family and the first place I bring friends visiting from out of town.
The plaza south of the Guadalajara Metropolitan Cathedral is called the Plaza de Armas. It stands between the Palacio del Gobierno del Estado de Jalisco and the Double Tree Hotel. The restaurant in the DoubleTree Hotel has a lovely view of the Plaza and Cathedral. The kiosk in the center of the plaza was a gift from infamous president Porfirio Díaz.
The large plaza on the rear side (eastside) of the Guadalajara Metropolitan Cathedral running all the way to the Degollado Theater is the Plaza de la Liberación. During the War of Mexican Independence, Father Miguel Hidalgo declared the end of Slavery while staying in Guadalajara and worshipping in the Cathedral. The city holds some great events in the Liberation Plaza such as the annual light festival and Jalisco state artisan festivals.
On the Northside of the Cathedral is the Rotonda de Los Jaliences Ilustres monument to important people from the state. There are a number of good tour operators set up between the Cathedral and the Rotonda. The carriage rides are a particular favorite.
The plaza in front of the Guadalajara Metropolitan Cathedral is called the Plaza Guadalajara. There is a large fountain illustrating Guadalajara’s nickname, the ‘Perla Tapatía’ with a pearl plus shell. Tapatíos are the people from Guadalajara and sometimes Jalisco too.
2021 saw the completion of Line 3 of the Guadalajara Metro light rail. The new line of the train runs underneath Avenida Alcalde and the newspapers are claiming that the construction damaged the foundation of the Cathedral. Line 3 of the Metro connects Downtown Guadalajara with Downtown Zapopan and Downtown Tlaquepaque and goes all the way out to Tonalá and the long-distance bus terminal.
Architecture of the Guadalajara Cathedral
Martín Casillas was the Spanish architect who finished the original construction of the Guadalajara Metropolitan Cathedral. He worked on the project for some 30 years and achieved the title of ‘Alarife’ or master builder on this project. He had worked on the Mexico City Metropolitan Cathedral as a stone mason before coming to Guadalajara.
The Guadalajara Metropolitan Cathedral has three naves, Doric columns, and gothic vaulted ceilings. Casillas is credited with the completion of the vaulted ceilings in the Cathedral which are in a gothic style. The gothic ribbed vaults were unique in New Spain and look a lot like the ceiling of the Expiatoria Temple which was built 300 years later, long after independence.
The most iconic characteristic of the Cathedral is the style in which the belltowers were rebuilt in the 19th century. The original bell towers were done in a style similar to the ones on the San Francisco de Asis Temple and the San Felipe Neri Temple both of which are located just a few hundred meters away.
Looking at the picture of the San Francisco de Asís tower you can see how similar they are up to the bells with square walls and arched windows. After looking at the pictures for a minute is easy to see where the Guadalajara Metropolitan Cathedral’s new gothic style bell towers begin and the original construction ends. The ovals contrast with the semicircular arches right below. The shape of the new towers is said to resemble an upside-down Mexican lily flower or ‘alcatraz’.
The facade of the Cathedral is considered to be renaissance and neo-classical style with semicircle arches, colums, and triangles. All of the stone was sourced in the Barranca de Huentitan on the northern side of the city.
Many of the stained glass murals were imported from France and assembled piece by piece in Guadalajara. The company that assembled the stained glass windows continued to work in Guadalajara long after the Cathedral construction concluded, helping to establish Guadalajara as an artesan’s village.
Below the main altar are crypts where the remains of bishops, cardinals, and the martyrs of the Cristero War rest. On display are the mummified remains of a young girl called Santa Innocencia. Lore has it that she was killed by her father for converting to Catholicism.
La Romería de la Virgen de Zapopan Pilgramage
On October 12 there is a large pilgrimage from the Guadalajara Metropolitan Cathedral to the Basilica de Zapopan on the other side of town. The event recently received UNESCO recognition for the cultural value it represents to world heritage. Nearly 2 million people travel with the image of the virgin from one municipality to the next.
Most of the faithful will walk the route and some of the hard-core followers will finish the path on their knees. Others come in from the surrounding ranches on horseback. There is a diverse crowd including indigenous dancers and the Catholic faithful. How cool would it be to get access to the bell towers to watch the Plaza Guadalajara fill with people and follow the virgin?
Location and Hours of the Guadalajara Metropolitan Cathedral
Avenida Fray Antonio Alcalde 10, Zona Centro Guadalajara, Jalisco. Avenida Alcalde is the same street as Avenida 16 de Septiembre but it changes names at Avenida Juarez.
Open to the public from 8 am to 8 pm everyday
Mass is celebrated on:
Sunday at 8 am, 9:30 am, 11 am, 12 noon, 2 pm, 6 pm, 7 pm, and 8 pm
Monday-Saturday 8 am, 9:30 am, and 6 pm
Without doubt the Guadalajara Metropolitan Cathedral is one of the most easily recognizable symbols of the City of Guadalajara. For those of us who grew up in young cities it can be hard to fathom buildings that date back to the 16th century and the people who made them. I really enjoyed reading Ken Follet’s Pillars of the Earth about building the great temples of Europe in the 12th century. That book really makes you think about the people who sculpted each piece of stone and the small battles to acquire the resources needed to build a grand temple of worship. If you happen to be in the area you need to visit the Cathedral. You won’t be disappointed.