Iglesia de Santo Tomas is located in Chichicastenango, Guatemala. I visited the church in 2010 while on a short-term mission trip with a team from the church that I was attending at the time. The goal of my team was to help build houses for widows and orphans and to work in feeding centers following an intense period of civil war in Guatemala. Our house was blocks from Santo Tomas.
I found the opportunity to explore the church late one afternoon with a few people from my team. I believe it was a Sunday after the market closed. Chichicastenango is also host to one of the largest, most colorful outdoor markets in Central America. It occurs on Thursdays and Sundays.
One of the girls on my team stopped me as I started to walk out the door. She frowned and asked if I really wanted to go to Santo Tomas. She said that someone else on our team had already visited the church and told her that it was “dark” and had kind of an eerie feel to it. I said that I would be mindful of that, but I really wanted to see the church. I remembered researching Chichi before I ever visited Guatemala and I had seen pictures of Santo Tomas. There was no way I was not going to seize the opportunity to explore the site.
People and flowers from the market lingered on the steps of Santo Tomas as we approached. My research had taught me that it was a Catholic church that doubled as a Mayan temple of sorts, as Mayan priests also used the church for their rituals, burning candles and incense and sometimes sacrificing chickens at the church. There was a time when human sacrifices were conducted there, too, but thank goodness, that is no more. There were 18 steps that led to the doors of the church, each one representing a year on the Mayan calendar. The church was enormous, impressive and rather surreal.
We entered the church and it was, in fact, dark that afternoon. Literally. The lighting was very dim. Candles were scattered throughout the building. Almost immediately, I noticed an older man sitting on the floor surrounded by candles. He was chanting in a language that I did not understand, probably K’iche’. I moved past him toward the sanctuary. A few people sat and prayed in church pews, just like you would see in any Catholic church. It was an interesting juxtaposition to see the two religions being practiced within feet of one another.
As I wandered about the sanctuary, I saw a mixture of sights. In some areas, there were large stains of soot from candles on the wall. It was as if the candles had been burning in the temple for the entire 400 years since it had been built, and nobody had ever offered to wipe down the walls. Of course, that’s an exaggeration and even if it wasn’t, in a country where people are starving, wiping the soot off the walls is the least of anyone’s concerns.
In the front of the church, there were ornate paintings and statues paying tribute to Christ and his followers. Some of them were strikingly beautiful, others not as much. One display, in particular, a gruesome bloody bust of a head, caught my eye. I assumed it was John the Baptist at the time, but it could have been a bust of Christ. We meandered out into a courtyard, which was filled with light and greenery, then proceeded to the front door where we were approached by men begging for money. I’m not sure if they were affiliated with the church or if they wandered in off of the street.
As we walked back to our house, I could see why someone from my church would have found Santo Tomas disconcerting. Our church near the beach was clean with huge windows and lots of light. People went to church in their flipflops, got a coffee from a cafe located inside the church then sat to chit chat with friends as they waited for the service. Services always began with Christian rock songs and sermons were delivered by a cute, good-natured, good-humored preacher. It was a church that delivered positivity. Many of the people who visited Santo Tomas were hungry, desperate and praying to any God that they knew of to ease their suffering. The suffering from the streets bled into the church. This was difficult to reconcile if you felt that churches were supposed to be safe havens to which people retreated to avoid suffering. It was a sharp contrast between two worlds.
I think it’s important to say that even though I saw a lot of suffering in Guatemala, I also saw a lot of resilience and beauty. I went there twice, once in 2010 then again in 2011, and I experienced moments there that were among the most profound and beautiful in my life. I still feel pangs of longing for Guatemala sometimes.
I’ll leave you with a few more pictures of one of my trips to Guatemala.
Corn-it’s very central to the Mayan religion.
Beautiful babies peeking at us through the trees.
A tourist day to see the volcano and Lake Atitlan.