San Salvador has lost a historic treasure to a voracious and dramatic fire on Monday, January 7, 2013. The Church of San Esteban (St. Stephen’s), built 1880-1890 with building materials imported from Belgium, had been ravaged by numerous earthquakes and fallen into disrepair, due in large part to the lack of resources in its impoverished neighborhood in San Salvador, near the National Civil Police barracks known as “The Castle.” The Catholic temple had been boarded up since sustaining extensive damage in the 2001 earthquake.
For a moment, it looked as though the historic gem might get a second lease on life when a Spanish architectural firm proposed a dramatic restoration of the church. The project even won an architecture prize in Spain in 2008, and the City of Santiago de Compostela, provided funds to San Salvador to restore the Plaza outside the Church. But the restoration of the church buildings never took place.
The Church is known to capital dwellers for its prominent role in the annual Holy Week celebrations in the city. The street that links San Esteban to the Cavalry Basilica is known as the Road of Anguish (la Calle de la Amargura), and it is the street that somber Holy Week processions and penitents follow to recall Jesus’ final suffering. It is akin to the Via Dolorosa. The two churches form the vertical axis of a giant cross over San Salvador that includes at its head the Metropolitan Cathedral.
The late Archbishop Oscar Romero visited the Church in December 1977, and this correspondent had occasion to witness his pastoral visit, as a child. Romero was greeted with a rapturous acclamation and he mentioned the visit in his January 1, 1978 sermon: “I want to thank the people for the warm reception that I was given,” he said, “and I also want to extend my greetings to the pastors and their communities and thank them for the ecclesial activities that they are carrying out so magnificently.”
The Church’s location in the southern part of the city is in the outer periphery of Greater San Salvador and is abutted by marginal areas further south. This is the reason given for its falling into disrepair and the ability of parishioners to keep up maintenance of the building. Succeeding administrations in national and municipal government also neglected it.
The Church’s fiery destruction recalled the similarly dramatic end to the Old San Salvador Cathedral, which burned in 1951, and rebuilding was not completed until 1999. An older Iglesia San Esteban that stood on the same spot as the one that burned down was destroyed by a powerful earthquake in 1873.