Old Town churches, Santo Domingo
There is no lack of ecclesiastical architecture in Santo Domingo. This is a typical Spanish colonial city and as such it relies heavily on God and Armaments so respectively one gets churches and forts. In general, the condition of the buildings and the overall architectural plan is not that great in comparison to Havana for example, as a town of similar location and history. Nevertheless, the modern-day authorities have realised the potential of the historical part of the city as a tourist attraction (what a pity it is not a vibrant living space) and make their best to spruce it up. This takes time to appreciate but for veterans from visits to Nicaragua’s Granada exercise of this sort would not be a problem; it takes just a couple of hours or so and the bloody place is under your skin. The churches are in different condition – some are full of life and others are ruins. Very much like in Antigua Guatemala, this contrast is intriguing even though the reason for the destruction and the following neglect is not so obvious. What transpires from the church services is the unexpected strong involvement of women in spiritual life. The men must have given up on Christ (except for a “Christo Viene” slogan on their trucks every now and then) but the women are still staunch supporters and sermon leaders. This phenomenon is not exactly Dominican since similar impressions are provided by another Spanish Caribbean fortress of bygone era, Cartagena.
Address: Zona Colonial
The Convento de los Dominicos was the first university in the Spanish New World, but this institution was later moved to the Catholic University and the building here returned to its earlier use as a church. It contains Mudejar portals and blue tiles (azulejos, like in Spain), as well as Isabelline (a later form of Gothic architecture) vine decorations. Inside, there are zodiac wheel decorations - they escaped the counter-Reformation's censorship here in Santo Domingo - in the Chapel of the Rosary. We didn't go into the Convento, but it does provide some excellent opportunities for picture taking.
Address: Padre Billini and Hostos
Directions: South of the Catedral
The Iglesia Santa Bárbara is not exactly on the tourist path for those who visit Santo Domingo. We stumbled on it while (stupidly) attempting to walk from the Zona Colonial to the Faro a Colón, and even then we didn't know what it was until afterward. The Church is actually tacked onto the ruins of the Fort Santa Bárbara, which was established in the 16th century when this area of Santo Domingo was a slum for Taíno and African slaves who worked in the limestone quarry nearby. Santa Bárbara is the patron saint of the military defenses of the city (a statue of her is also over the entrance to the armoury in the Fortaleza Ozama) and, although the Fort was supposed to protect the northern end of the city, it was also meant to keep the workers in check. The church is quite pretty and is today amidst a shopping district. You can enter an inspect the interior, but the most notable part of the structure is its pretty whitewashed façade and belfry.
Address: Puello and Isabel la Católica
Directions: North end of the city, towards the end of the Zona Colonial
The Regina Angelorum (Queen of the Angels) was once a nunnery, but its true draw is the massive exterior to required over a century of work to be completed. The odd thing is that, unless you come specifically to find this impressive Baroque structure and its enormous butresses, you're unlikely to find it, as it is sort of tucked away on Billini, amidst residential housing and shops. The nunnery and church were begun the 1560s and were turned into a College by Padre Billini in 1868 after the government of the Dominican Republic turned it over to his care. The buttresses and gargoyles on the outside may be decaying, but the interior of the church (you have to ask the caretaker to let you in) is still in fine Baroque form and contains the earthly remains of Padre Billini, an Italian priest who was revered for his charitable works on Hispaniola during the 19th century, as well as those of San Luis Gonzaga, who, among other acts, discovered the remains of Christopher Columbus during the last century.
Address: Billini and José Reyes
Directions: Just west of the Convento de los Dominicanos
The Iglesia de la Altigracia is a Victorian-style church that has a bit of a reputation among local Dominicans as being a place of healing. It is actually an enlargement of the 19th century chapel of the now abandoned Hospital San Nicolas and contains a statue to Dr. José Gregorio Hernández. Dr. Hernández was Venezualan, but many here and in other Latin American countries believe that his spirit (he practiced in the 1930s) performs operations on the sick while they sleep. The church is pretty and photogenic, but it wasn't special enough for us to actually wander inside - there are lots of churches in Santo Domingo, this one was noticeable more for its exterior than its interior.
Address: C/ Hostos
Directions: south of the Monasterio San Francisco