One of the oldest Christian structures in the western hemisphere lies within the hilly, southwestern municipality of San Germán, the second city founded by the Spanish in Puerto Rico. Porta Coeli was first a convent built by Dominican friars at the dawn of the 17th century. Only ruins remain of the convent, where the iconic church now stands. Porta Coeli’s name translates to “Heaven’s Door,” and it does give this impression when viewed from the bottom of the steps, as it overlooks the Plazuela de Santo Domingo from its snug corner of the cobblestone Dr. Veve and Ramas Streets.
Since its restoration in 1960, the Porta Coeli Church has housed a religious art museum that constantly draws in visitors to the historic site. While the building’s location flaunts its nobility, its austere design gives the museum a solemn air. The artifacts and paintings on display range from the 16th to the 19th centuries, in other words, the colonial era in Latin America. The expressive, wood-carved saints on display were fixtures of New World Catholic worship.
As visitors walk back out of the church, there’s much to admire around the neighborhood. The streets of San Germán Pueblo are lined with ornately-designed buildings, many of which showcase late 19th and early 20th century architecture. One such example, across the street from Porta Coeli, is known to locals as the Waldemar Morales Residence. Easy to explore and much more relaxed than Old San Juan, the streets of San Germán reveal a town that not only values its historical heritage but also shows it off to all the visitors who come by to see Puerto Rico’s most famous church.