Adventures

Legends of Old Convents and Tunnels
In Colonial Veracruz

Photos and Text by John Todd, Jr.

A Modern Film and Some Old Maps
The Nicolas Cage movie, "National Treasure" reminded me about what Veracruz must have been like back in 1776. By that time, Veracruz, when compared to New York City, was already a well established bustling port city.

Veracruz is a very old city, and much of it's history has been lost, or converted to legends. Legends many times become history, and the history of Mexico is military, political, and religious. Many of these legends have been adorned over the years, and some of them are not entirely true.

But, some are partially true, and it´s interesting to try to document these legends.

The Old City
Veracruz is a Very Old City
Established in 1519, Veracruz is the oldest city in America. Well, at least, on the American Continent.

When you walk the streets in the old downtown area, you feel something special. It is like walking through a vast outdoor museum.

On days when there is nothing to do, it's good to visit one of the museums here, and learn more about the past.

The old photographs of Veracruz in the City Museum are especially fascinating.
Main Street
Little Windows to the Past
These photos are like little windows where you can see what the buildings you walk by today, looked like so very long ago.

Maybe these are the street scenes my grandfather would have seen when he was a little boy if he had come to Veracruz.

When you look at the little details captured in the background, you realize many of them are still there today.
The Malecon When It Was New
At the Museum
Once inside the museum, time seems to fade away.

Most days there are no other visitors, so you can have the museum to yourself.

As you walk alone through the museum, you look around inside the old building and realize that it feels like it must have been an old Spanish convent.

You wonder what it must have been like in this same room in the days before photography was invented. In those days Veracruz was part of a province in Spain, one of the major powers of the day.
The City Museum
The City Museum

Old Fort Santiago from 1683
Coffee at Midmorning
Much of the charm of Veracruz is to have morning coffee in front of a landmark that was started in 1683.

It´s where I go each morning to be with friends and talk.

Sometimes we talk about life in old Veracruz and what it must have looked like a long time ago.

The other morning we were talking about the Nicolas Cage movie "National Treasure."
Midmorning Coffee
"National Treasure"
The film is about King Solomon´s treasure sacked by the Knights Templar during the Crusades of the 11th Century.

Over the centuries, the treasure had been hidden by a select group.

Some say, eventually became one of the secret orders of the Masons.

According to the film, the treasure was smuggled to New York and hidden from the English.
Fort Santiago
Clues were left as to where it was located, and the film is about Nicolas Cage´s search for the treasure. It´s a good film.

The Old Map
The next day over coffee, we continued talking about the Nicolas Cage film.

One of the guys, said, "Take a look at what I found among some old papers at home."

He had an old map of the streetcar system in Veracruz dated 1875 when the protective wall still surrounded the city.
Bridge over the Moat
We passed a copy of the map around the table fascinated by how the names of the streets had changed.

The Tunnels of Old Veracruz
Someone remarked that there were also some very old tunnels in Veracruz that connected all the early churches and convents.

However, the city had covered them up because they were considered dangerous and might cave in.

Nowdays most people don´t think much about these old tunnels.

Many towns in Mexico have tunnels, like the famous ones of Guanajuato where they have real mummies on display.
Fort Santiago
Old Rumors
For years, I had heard legends that Veracruz also had tunnels.

Even in the small towns and ranchos around Veracruz, you still hear the same stories of mysterious tunnels.

In the old days, Veracruz was still a walled city, and Fort Santiago was the only fort left in the downtown area.

In fact, the area where we were sitting having our morning coffee used to be the beach in front of the old fort.
The Old Map
(Click to Enlarge)
Too Many Churches
Yet something about the map was strange.

It was the large number of churches and convents for a city of about 6,000 people.

The people of the tropical coasts of the Gulf of Mexico were never typically overly religious.

I asked the owner of the copy of the map for permission to mark the churches and Convents.

There seemed to be too many churches sprinkled all over the little town.

El Archivo del Estado de Veracruz
To the Archives
It was another rainy day, and a good day to spend at the library.

So I went around the corner to the State Archives to talk to some old friends.

The reason for my trip was to find the names of each of the churches and convents, and look for information about how they might be connected.

By 1776, Veracruz was a bustling city and the richest treasure in the history of mankind had passed through the port on its way to Spain, the richest empire in the world at that time.

Friends at the Archivo pointed me in the right direction and invited me to sit down at one of the tables a gave me several of the many books about the history of Veracruz.
El Archivo de Veracruz
A State of Mind
I knew what I was looking for.

First of all, I needed to find out more about the churches and convents in Veracruz.

Although I didn´t tell anybody, it felt rather like Indiana Jones doing research for a big project.

Later the rain stopped, and I went up the street to the City Museum to look for more information about the old days when Veracruz was a Spanish colony.

1. Two Local Parishes

La Parroquía and La Pastora
(Click to Enlarge)
Two Local Parishes
On the old map, as I filled in the names, the old city of Veracruz came to life.

There were only two local churches: the Iglesia de la Parroquía (now the Cathedral of Veracruz), and La Pastora, which served the north side of town.

This sounded about right for the size of the population of those days.

Curiously La Pastora was located at the Gate to the Camino Real to Mexico City.
La Iglesia de Cristo de Buen Viaje
Final Prayers for the Trip
It was for people who wanted to say some final prayers for safety on the long gruelling trip on horseback, or on foot.

If you were wealthy, you could go in a sedan chair. Still, it must have been a rough trip in those days.

Just outside the South Gate to the Wall, is the small Iglesia del Santo Cristo del Buen Viaje.

It dates from the 16th Century, and is the second oldest church on the American Continent. (It´s not on the map.)
Moorish Arches
The Rest of the Churches
The rest of the church buildings and convents for these religious orders in Veracruz in those days are now used for other activities, such as local businesses, government offices or museums. One is even a covered parking lot!

This is because all church property was taken over by the Mexican government in 1857, by presidential decree of Benito Juarez.

Later in 1867, these properties were given to people as payment of debts to the government.

These were mostly generals in in the Juarez army who had helped him defeat the French armies under Maxmiliano the Hapsburg Archduke.

Next was the mystery of the rest of the churches and convents.

The Map with Names
(Click to Enlarge)

2. The Bethlemites

Bethlemite Convent
(Click to Enlarge)
The First Hospital Orders
Each religious order was distinguished by the service it provided.

The Bethlemite Orderwas founded as a hospital order for the poor in New Spain in the 1600´s in present day Guatemala City by the brother don Pedro de San José Betancur, affectionately called, "Hermano Pedro".

Eventually, there were 22 Bethemite hospitals in different parts of the world and in 2002, Betancur was proclaimed a saint by Pope John Paul II.

In Veracruz, construction was begun on the Bethlemite Hospital in 1748.
When the Convent was a Hospital
The Cofradía de Lacayos y Esclavos
On January 1, 1738, in Veracruz the religious order called "the Cofradía de Lacayos y Esclavos Españoles del Santísimo Sacramento" (or the Brotherhood of Spanish Lackies and Slaves of the Holy Sacrament" was founded by Don Gaspar Saénz Rico, a wealthy local merchant and businessman who was designated as its "protector".

The order consisted of 31 of the main citizens of Veracruz who owned coaches with horses.
The Bethlemite Convent in Veracruz
Don Gaspar Saénz Rico
One day each month members of the group would personally serve as coachmen to take the Holy Sacrament to the ill or homebound.

Don Gaspar served on each 6th day of the month.

In his last will and testament, Don Gaspar generously donated the proceeds from his three haciendas just south of Veracruz, Joluca, Novillero, and Paso de Toro to the Bethlemite hospital in Veracruz.
The Bethlemite Convent in Veracruz
For many years, Don Gaspar and his family were also benfactors of the Colegio de San Francisco Xavier, the Jesuit School, until their banishment from Spain and all its colonies in 1767.

Don Gaspar was buried in a special crypt at the Iglesia de la Asunción, now the Cathedral of Veracruz.

With time, the tomb of Don Gaspar has been neglected and forgotten, and maybe even destroyed during renovations of the Cathedral.
The Bethlemite Convent in Veracruz
Later in 1844, the Bethlemite Hospital became the "Hospital de San Sebastian", and in 1915 the name changed to the Hospital Aquiles Serdan.

It was also a maternity hospital for some time.

Today it is occupied by the Instituto Veracruzano de Educación y Cultura (IVEC) for cultural studies and art exhibits.

It´s one of my favorite places to go in downtown Veracruz to relax and enjoy some peace and quiet from the noise of the city.

3. The Mercedarios

Mercedarios and Jesuits
(Click to Enlarge)
Convento de la Merced
This large church and convent was built in 1608 near the South Gate.

Many of the "mercedarios" operated schools and orphanages.

The convent no longer exists and about all that is left in the middle of the block is the Café de la Merced.

I was told that by the 19th century the old church has been abandoned for a long time, and was in bad condition.

An office supply store now occupies the spot where the Convento de la Merced used to be.

4. La Compañía de Jesús, "The Best Kept Secret in Veracruz since 1767..."

The Jesuits Complex
(Click to Enlarge)
La Compañía de Jesús
These are the Jesuits. Their service was teaching and schools throughout the world.

In Veracruz, their work was financed by donations and their efficient management of the haciendas and properties also donated by their devotees to education.

The last owner was a brewery, and was used as their downtown warehouse. Today it is owned by the government and is practically abandoned.

"The Best Kept Secret of Veracruz...."
Almost unnoticed by those who live in the port of Veracruz, it is now called the "Convento de San Agustin Nuevo".
The Jesuit Complex in 1875
Built by the Jesuits in 1639, the First School In Veracruz
It was in fact, the great architectural complex built by the Society of Jesus to which was used as a college, a residence and temple annex dedicated to St. Francis Xavier.

It was the first granted in New Spain in the advocation of the co-founder of the Society of Jesus, and the first "Apostle to the Indies."

Its surviving walls have endured more than three centuries of earthquakes, cyclones and gale force winds, the encroachment by the extension of the street Serdán.
Same Building Today
A Building that has Survived Demolition
Along with the mutilation of its altar and presbytery, the demolition of its magnificent dome, tower and south wing of the College in 1915-16, and the structural alterations of hotels and buildings that continue to affect its stability.

In all of these contingencies suffered by this monument, we must add the lack of interest and abuse of its occupants in the past, and lack of maintenance after the expulsion of the Jesuits in 1767; the looting of the pirate Lorencillo (1683), the Spanish bombing (1821-1823), the bombardment during with "Pastry War" with France (1838), and the United States (1847 and 1914).
A Warehouse Owned by a Brewery
Perhaps One Day Recogntion Will Come
Its strategic position facing the sea, in the front line of fire, maybe one day the ex-Jesuit city block will be recognized by honorable mention and other decorations in the defense of Veracruz, one of the first city councils in America, and first and only port on the Gulf of Mexico for over 300 years.

The temple model of San Francisco Xavier in Veracruz was taken from the Church of the Gesu in Rome, designed by Giacomo Barozzi Vignola, and was used as the master model in 1568. This is unique in what was once New Spain.

This is not a ruin, but an architectural gem that is unique in America.

Perhaps one day this building will be recognized for its importance.

Below are some additional stories about this fabulous old building. It has seen a lot!

Stories about an Old Downtown Building during Pre-Independence in Veracruz:
An Unknown Church in Veracruz and a Lost Treasure : Brought to Life by Documents found in Spain and Mexico.

Other Lost Treasures: The Liquidation of Jesuit Buildings in Downtown Veracruz after 1767 : Brought to Life by Documents found in Spain.

Forgotten Drama in Veracruz: La Escuela Patriótica de Veracruz: Brought to Life by Documents found in Spain and Mexico.

The British are Coming! To Veracruz! (We need to fix the Cannons...): Brought to Life by Documents found in Spain and Mexico.

5. The Dominicans

The Dominican Convent
Dominican Convent now a Parking Lot
Most people never pay attention to it but, nestled among the parked cars downtown is the Convento de Santo Domingo.

I guess it´s because it´s always been there.

They were also known as the Dominicanos. Santo Domingo is credited as having written the Rosary.

The building was expropriated by the government of Benito Juarez to pay bills, and after many generations in private hands, there's a for sale sign on the building being used as a parking lot.
Convento de Santo Domingo
(Click to Enlarge)
The Eighth Wonder of the World
The Eighth Wonder of the World is the church of Santo Domingo in Puebla, and the Chapel of the Rosary.

The interior of the church is elaborately covered with gold leaf, and the chapel of the Rosary is covered with silver.

To attend mass on Sunday nights at this church in Puebla and listen to the rosary is a magnificent experience even if you aren´t too religious.

The Dominican Order was very wealthy and were the patrons of the Holy Inquisition.
The Dominican Convent
The Dominican Convent
El Callejón de la Campana
La Plazuela de la Campana
Behind the Dominican Convent is a small plaza called La Plazuela de la Campana.

It is said that the bell ordered for the church was too heavy to be lifted with the technology of the day, so it was placed in a small plaza behind the church.

The present bell is dated 1895, and the original bell is no longer there.

On Thursdays, people come here to dance El Danzón.

6. The Order of Loreto/Hospital de San Carlos

Hospital Militar de San Carlos
El Hospital Militar de San Carlos
On my map, dated 1875, the Hospital de Loreto is listed as the Military Hospital of San Carlos, but it's not exactly right.

Today it has been restored, and Army guards still watch over the place. On other maps of Veracruz, I found that nearby there was a hospital founded by the Order of Loreto.

I wondered about the Order of Loreto which was better known for their missions in early California, and wrote to my friend Carmen Boone who knows a lot about Jesuit history in colonial Mexico.
Hospital de San Carlos
(Click to Enlarge)
Carmen Boone´s Reply
As such, there never was an "Order of Loreto", and the capital of Jesuit California was called (in full extent), Misión de Nuestra Señora de Loreto-Conchó; the Presidio de Loreto (in short), was the garrison of Las Californias, commanded by a Captain who answered directly to the Father Superior of the Missions (1697-1767).

He and his troops were paid by the Jesuit Procurator at Loreto, from proceeds of the Pious Fund, the Fondo Piadoso de las Californias.
The Women´s Jail around 1890
After the Expulsion
Naturally, things changed after the expulsion (of the Jesuits from Mexico in 1767), when the Crown confiscated the haciendas of the Pious Fund, took full control of the military in the peninsula and ordered the march to Alta California (1769).

Our Lady of Loreto, whose main sanctuary, magnificent basilica enclosing the "Santa Casa de Nazareth", is in the Marches of Ancona, central Italy, overlooking the Adriatic Sea.
Hospital de San Carlos
The Jesuits and Loreto
Jesuits, an order in its beginnings, were given charge of the sanctuary in 1554, to establish a College for Croatian students, and thus Jesuits held Virgin of Loreto as one of their special Marian devotions.

To to this date, it is the destination of thousands of pilgrims, round the world, seeking restoration of their health.

The Hospital in Veracruz was founded in 1616
In view of this, it is not surprising that surgeon Pedro Ronsón, a Croatian surgeon living in Veracruz, in his will, 1616, left a good part of his fortune for the founding of Hospital de Loreto.

In the photos where you wrote "Convento de Loreto", you should change to "Hospital de Loreto" (for needy women), as it was not a convent but hospital funded by a private donor, was administered by a civilian board, and medically attended by friars of San Hipólito, who also gave religious service at the annex church of Loreto.

Obviously, the Brothers had a separate section of the building complex for their private living quarters. Yet, we must think of it as an active hospital, not as conventual seclusion.

7. The Franciscans

Convento de San Francisco
(Click to Enlarge)
Convento de los Franciscanos
One of the first orders in Mexico were the Franciscans. It was founded by the Brotherhood of the Holy Cross.

They began their work when they arrived in Antigua in 1522, when this was the location of Veracruz.

This order worked with converting the Indians of Mexico to Christianity. Eventually they became a very large order.

Around 1600, the official port of Veracruz was changed from Antigua to its present day location.
The Franciscan Convent
Later the Benito Juarez Lighthouse
Good Location
It covered the whole block from Zaragoza to Independencia.

It is said, the first buildings were made of wood, and burned to the ground 3 different times between 1606 and 1618.

The Chapel of the Third Order
The convent was located about one block from the location the only wharf in town until 1902 when the new port area was innaguarated by Don Porfirio Díaz.

Up the street from the lighthouse on the corner is a beautiful chapel that is the present day location the first Masonic Lodge in Mexico.

It was originally founded by the Universidad de Mareantes de Sevilla, which means the University of Seafarers.

In 1871, a lighthouse was built, and during the first part of the 20th century, it became the public library.
The Franciscan Convent
The Old Franciscan Convent
The Old Franciscan Convent
The Old Franciscan Convent
Each time on the way downtown to check the mail in the old post office, I drive by the "Old Franciscan Convent".

Today, it's the Holiday Inn, but in my mind, it is still the old Franciscan convent.

One day, I am going to have to stop and take a look inside to see if the old fountain is still there.

The Masonic Lodge
The Masons in Mexico
Over the centuries, the Masons have been a source of controversy.

Perhaps it was because at one time they were a secret society because of the politics of those days.

Many times I had passed the Masonic Lodge in Veracruz and didn´t think much about it.

It was just another old building.

In September, the patriotic month in Mexico, it is festooned with the national colors.

The Masonic Lodge in Veracruz is the first Masonic Lodge in Mexico, organized by Don Benito Juarez himself.
The Masonic Lodge
The Different Rites
In reading a lot of the old history, it seemed like everyone was a Mason in those days.

In the early years, there were many different rites. The Lancasterian, Yorkian, Londonian, and Scottish Rites are among the names you see in the history books.

Over time, the Scottish Rite prevailed.
Next Door to the Masonic Lodge
Benito Juarez Lighthouse
Next Door to the Masonic Lodge
An Interesting Possibility
Although in the early years, the Masons were secret societies, and the first formal Masonic Lodge in Mexico was organized was founded by Don Benito Juarez in Veracruz in 1857.

Later, this side chapel of the old Franciscan convent was purchased by the Masons when it was private property after the nationalization of church properties in the times of Benito Juarez.

It was then that I was reminded of the Nicolas Cage movie, and how in the film the treasure of the Knights Templar was stored in the basement of an old church.

None of this is probably true, but sometimes I still wonder.

The Tunnels of Veracruz

The Tunnels of Veracruz
How They Were Connected
Once again, you look at the old map, you might get out a blue pencil and try to find a link to all the convents and churches in early Veracruz.

It was like connecting the dots, with some odd sized blocks where it looked like a fountain might have been.

What they had in common was the religious nature of their organizations.

They also looked for security and safety in an unstable province of Spain that was plagued with fear of bandits and pirates.
An Old Monastery Wall
The Franciscan Convent was closest to the only wharf in town where it would have been easy to unload merchandise for their needs. And maybe there was contraband.

During 300 years of existence, anything is possible.

The Truth about the Tunnels
Next, I went back to the Archivo Historico to talk to my friend about the evidence I had compiled.

"Your theories sound quite possible, and the truth is yes, there are probably some old tunnels under the city of Veracruz, but I think they were part of an old aqueduct system built in 1723 to bring safe water to the town."

He brought out an old book about the water supply system in Veracruz.
Courtyard Fountain
An Old Aqueduct System
It said that by the 1720´s, the water supply in Veracruz had become unsafe.

At that time, the Viceroy brought in Friar Pedro de Buzeta to build an aqueduct system to bring fresh water from the Laguna Vergara to convenient places within the city.

Fr. Buzeta proposed and built a system of 12 fountains connected by a buried aqueduct.

To finance the project, the article said he collected contributions of 2 pesos for each person living at the convents and monasteries in Veracruz.

At that point, I redrew my map with the blue pencil.

The need for a good water system where people could come from their homes with jugs to fill with water was only logical.

Perhaps this is another legend that over the years has been adorned with mystery.
An Anonymous Plaque
An Anonymous Plaque
Many times you can walk past a place, and never notice something. That was the case with a certain plaque that I´d never paid much attention to.

One day while talking to a friend about the tunnels of Veracruz she said,

"You know there is a plaque near the Zocalo that mentions a Fr. Buzeta and the fountain system he designed and built."

"I think it´s near the corner of la Calle Mario Molina and the Callejón del Portal de Miranda. The next time you are down that way, you might take a look."

A couple of days later, down on the Zócalo and I decided to find it and take a closer look.

This is what I found. The plaque confirms Fr. Buzeta´s design and construction of the aqueduct system in Veracruz in 1723-25.
A Closer Look
"Esta fuente y cañería

la hizo Fray Pedro Buzeta del Or-

den de N(uestro) P(adre) S(an) Francisco llevando por

Maestro Patrón y Protector

al glorioso S(an) Antonio de Padua

a expensas Solicitud y Cuidado

de esta Mui Noble y Leal Ciu-

dad Vecinadario y de sus

Governadores Coronel Don

Antonio de Peralta y

Córdoba. Se empesó año

de 1723 y se acavó el de 1725."

The Charm of Veracruz is its Colonial History

Downtown Veracruz
From the Gran Hotel Diligencias
Awhile back I was doing research for a magazine article about the Hotel Diligencias and was taken on a tour.

From the 4th floor on a clear day, the view of the skyline of the downtown area and the port of Veracruz in the distance is spectacular.

As I gazed out across the Zócalo towards the Fort of San Juan de Ulua, I tried to imagine what the view must have been like 400 years ago.

The Blazing Red Cross
The sailing ships at anchor at the fort, and some with the blazing red cross of the Knights Templar came back into my mind.

The first convents and monasteries in Veracruz began around 1600 and independence was in 1810.
San Juan de Ulua
Ulua Gate
The Anchoring Rings
Many Ships
200 years is a long time, and many ships have been anchored at the anchor rings of Ulua.

Then I reasoned, that the ships that came to Veracruz, weren´t empty.

They carried products such as wine, olive oil, and cattle from Spain to trade.

They also carried stones and other heavy things to use as ballast for the stability of the galleon.
Downtown Veracruz
Lenient Security
Over the years, probably security wasn´t very tight. It was reasonable that contraband could have been carried in small amounts as ballast

Later it could have been taken bit by bit in a small rowboat the short distance across the bay to the small wharf at the village of Veracruz to be hidden away in one of the convents.

At the same time, religious articles packed in boxes were probably duty free and weren´t inspected too closely.

Plus the Santa Inquisición was powerful in those days. A customs inspector would want to risk excommunication, or worse.

There will still too many clues left to unravel about the final destination of the treasure of the Knights Templar.

Then maybe again, the tunnels of Veracruz were part of an old aqueduct built by Friar Pedro de Buzeta in the 1720´s.
La Isla de los Sacrificios
But, maybe that came later after the original tunnels were built.

La Isla de los Sacrificios
The Island of Sacrifices was discovered on the first Grijalva expedition in 1518 or 1519.

Although it was uninhabited at the time, the name was given because of the human bones found there. It was thought to be an ancient Indian ceremonial place.

Several new 5 star hotels have been built along the beach in front of the island.
A Hotel Fountain
Back to Work
The fountain at the Hotel Fiesta Americana is beautiful on a sunny day.

The other day, while waiting for some business associates to arrive, I looked at the fountain in front of the hotel and remembered Friar Pedro de Buzeta and his water system project. For a moment, I realized he didn´t have electric pumps to help him.

At this point, I realized all this was a day dream, I need to go back to work, and leave this project for another day.

There are so many unproductive projects to do when you live in Veracruz.
Legends Told to our Grandchildren
The Real Treasure
Now when I walk the streets of downtown Veracruz, and see one of the old convents, I remember the treasure of the Knights Templar and the Nicolas Cage film.

Then I realize the real treasures of Veracruz are in the legends and stories of the old people told to their children.

The Nicolas Cage´s story is not true, but it´s still fun to talk about and dream about a centuries old lost treasure story.

These are some of the stories we talk about each morning over coffee in front of the Baluarte Santiago.

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