Catholic Chapel in Playa del Carmen – Mexico

Playa del Carmen, Quintana Roo

I was missing the sun as Spring in Berlin was taking her sweet time to arrive. So I began thinking about Mexico, the Caribbean sun and the beaches, and the lovely time I had there in 2017. I didn’t have much time to see everything that the amazing Yucatan Peninsula has to offer, but I started flying into Cancún and going down the coast via Puerto Morales, to Playa del Carmen, Tulum, and then across the peninsula to Mérida, Valladolid and seeing some pyramids along the way. Well, to be precise: seeing one of the new seven wonders of the modern world! Yes, Chichén Itzá really is pretty awesome. Despite it being a gazillion degrees, and there being a gazillion other tourists competing for selfie space, yes, it is truly amazing and worth the visit. 

Safety in Mexico

Don’t be too alarmed by the bad news that often makes its way out of Mexico, aimed especially at US tourists. There is certainly plenty of shady dealings happening in Mexico, but my experience as a white female traveler there was one of being very privileged, safe and secure. I can highly recommend travel in Mexico, while taking the usual precautions mentioned in many great travel blog guides. There were a lot of tourist and municipal police patrolling the tourist areas, although someone told me that they are often not very well-armed and are there more often than not to deal with drunken tourists, rather than locals being any type of threat to said tourists.

I didn’t rent a car while there either, which—as in every country—increases your chances of having encounters with law enforcement and corruption. I took the ubiquitous taxis around the city, and hired a driver to take me to visit some nice cenotes, and then hired the same driver to take me to my next city. He was lovely and friendly, and brought his wife and child along for the last leg, as they were going shopping afterwards. There seemed to be way more drivers than customers, so everyone and their brother was giving their card and trying to hustle for the next gig, so keep that in mind, and as usual, always ask about the fare beforehand. 

Playa del Carmen

I stayed in Playa del Carmen (Playa for short) for five nights, at a humble little Airbnb in the northern end of the city, in the high 80s street number-wise. I was able to walk to the beach and head northwards, finding a beautiful fresh-water cenote that flowed into the sea. Walking ‘to town’ for dinner didn’t take long, and although I found the main drag la Quinta (5th Avenue) to be a rather dreaded mix of drunken-tourist-trap cum hipster-hippie-commercialism, I kept finding myself drawn there, walking the length of the Quinta several times.

standard tourist trap store on La Quinta (5th) Avenue in Playa Del Carment
Standard tourist store on La Quinta (5th) Avenue in Playa
Religious figurines for sale on la Quinta

La QuintaYou can buy anything, and I mean anything, with no prescription in the pharmacies that line La Quinta—they seem to specialise in the viagra—and all the stores, bars, restaurants compete for your attention with different types of music blasting out onto the street, competing with the wandering mariachi troubadours. At some point I had had enough, and looked at the map in search of a church, and its promised quiet and respite from the La Quinta scene.

Capilla de Nuestra Señora del Carmen

the side view of the chapel

I found a little chapel listed on the far southern side of town where I had not yet been, and hailed a cab. My limited Spanish allowed a conversation with the driver who knew where the chapel was, I found out that he was a Mormon himself, and had converted from catholicism after meeting Mormon missionaries. 

The chapel was well-maintained and freshly painted, and upon entering….full of music pumped in by loudspeaker! I guess they also had to compete for ambience. The altar area was backed by a window looking out onto Los Fundadores Park and the iconic Portal Maya, a 50 ft. high, arched beachside sculpture depicting men and women in a swirl of water and wind right on the beach.

The Portal Maya next to the beach, next to the chapel
Entry to chapel
program, English for ya’lls!
tourist police keeping everyone safe, including limbless beggar

Sign on chapel saying:

“Currently considered as a symbol of identity and foundation of Playa del Carmen, Nuestra Señora del Carmen Chapel was built around 1960s by founding families of Playa del Carmen stones of Maya ruins, sand and sea water were used for its construction.” Sign dated 14 November 2015

the chapel interior

The setting is striking and beautiful, and the chapel does represent the best of the area. The chapel walls inside had very interesting shell-lamps too, which I thought might look good on my dream-villa that I will build someday. Right next to the chapel is a park which leads to the beach and pier. There was an art fair happening, and I found some lovely local products for gifts, and came across some nuns, selling handmade cosmetics. Totally my thing! I’m all about nuns having fun.

beautiful shell lamps
Nuns selling their goods at the art fair next door in the park

In fact, I can’t wait to return to Mexico. I could eat tacos every day. In fact, I did while I was there! My record was eating three meals in one day that involved corn tortillas. There is so much more to explore in Mexico, and I am working on some posts about the rest of my trip, especially the highlight – La Ruta Conventa!

Notre Dame Paris

I was shocked and horrified to see the images of Notre Dame burning yesterday. Some things we assume will always be there, for when we are ready, able, or willing to go and see them. But as the Greek masters said: Everything changes, and nothing stands still. Sometimes the change is gradual like the slow erosion of sandstone, other times change is violent and sudden, like when a fire engulfs a building and it is gone.  

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/apr/16/world-leaders-react-to-devastating-notre-dame-fire-in-paris

I grew up like many American girls having Paris associated with romantic getaways and ultimate displays of adventure and romance. Paris is for lovers! Etc. Yada yada. When Prince Charming failed to materialise and to whisk me away on his private jet to Paris, I decided to take matters into my own hands and give myself a short visit Paris for my 36th Birthday in August 2014. Seeing the images of the ancient building going up in flames made me think, as everyone in the world is now, of my own encounter there. I am grateful that I made the effort to go see this iconic, historic and important cathedral. 

I walked past in the afternoon and decided my sunlight hours were too precious to stand in line to get in, so I resolved to return in the morning for mass. I was moved by the priest celebrating quite confidently with hordes of tourists/parishioners/believers of varying levels of piety and interest filling the space. As I saw a lot of people taking pictures and videos, I decided to make an exception to my usual custom not to bust out the cameras during a service (which is how I was raised in my church with no photography during sacraments) and I took a few pictures myself.

Visitors lining up to enter cathedral in the afternoon
Notre Dame in the morning
Model of cathedral inside
Celebrating as a form of tourist attraction

As for Paris overall, this photos sums up my experience: Tourists everywhere, obscuring and dwarfing the actual attraction—and the realization that I am one of them.

Trying to visit Mona

When I heard the news of the fire yesterday, I immediately thought of one of my favorite songs by Leonard Cohen: Joan of Arc. Joan of Arc was beatified in 1909 by Pope Pius X in the Cathedral of Notre Dame. In the song, Joan eventually surrenders to the fire, becomes its bride. 

Well then, who are you?” she sternly spoke
To the one beneath the smoke
“Why, I’m, I’m fire,” he replied
“And I love your solitude, how I love your sense of pride”

      Read more: Leonard Cohen – Joan Of Arc Lyrics

The destructive power of fire to consume human accomplishments is again—through the magnifier of social media—brought to the consciousness of everyone on the planet in this tragedy. But hopefully, this event can ultimately remind us of why we cherish historic buildings, art, and the achievements and events of the past. And what we hope for the future. It is not just about preserving old buildings for the sake of it, but for us as a culture, and as a society to contemplate what role religion and art shall continue to play in our lives. Here we can be comforted by the story of the Devil in Goethe’s drama of Faust, who never quite manages to ruin things afterall.

“Who are you then?”
“I am part of that power which eternally wills evil and eternally works good.”

The fire isn’t the end, but the beginning of the next phase of development.

 

St. Joseph’s in Dushanbe, Tajikistan

St. Joseph’s Church

While studying Persian in Central Asia years ago, I found myself missing me some Christ-talk. Jesus is revered in Islam as a prophet, but not the Son of God, so Tajikistan being a Muslim country, I had to look hard for some Easter action. Thus I found the Roman Catholic church in Dushanbe, St. Joseph’s. I did not happen upon it, I Googled “church in Dushanbe.” The first time I visited, I took a taxi and the driver found the place by asking people on the street. It was the first he’d heard of it too!  Although it did not look much like a church initially, when I looked up and saw crosses, I was in the clear. I looked around a bit, then went into the chapel and sat down towards the back, my usual spot where I attempt to be inconspicuous. First, several Mother Theresa nuns in their white uniforms with blue trim (Missionaries of Charity turns out, interesting infos on their work in Tajikistan here) came and introduced themselves (mostly they were from India) and immediately asked if I would do the reading. I had no idea what this reading was, what that entailed, or even what I would be reading! I demurred. Not being Catholic, or particularly familiar with the mass at that point, I felt like I was trespassing. I had that feeling I’ve had at other religious events where my only desire was to melt into the background and observe – the last thing I would want was to participate in an unknown ritual. The priest introduced himself, an Argentinian, he said all three priests assigned to Tajikistan are from Argentina—seems an odd place to send them—but what do I know about the inner workings of the Vatican and its priestly assignments. Father Lopez was charming and welcoming, and I was immediately reassured. I felt the strange urge to confess my lack of Catholicism, which I blurted out as soon as possible. He invited me to come up for a blessing instead of communion. The second time I went back to mass (for those still living in Dushanbe and interested, it’s in English on Saturdays at 6 pm, at least it was in 2011 when I lived there!) I was asked by the same nuns to carry up the wine and bread. Again I demurred, how was I to know when that appointed time is? Would I mess it up? Maybe I’m not supposed to because I’m not Catholic… I felt the same horror, being asked to participate in a ritual on my first visit to as an outsider to this group. Or was I denying the calling of service to the Lord? I decided it was probably ok, but I wasn’t ready yet to play an active role. I recognized half the hymns we sang, and as the words rang out to the accompanying organ, I felt shivers. Perhaps others were there also mostly for the music. The small community consists of a wide variety of expats, who come depending on their schedules and varies constantly. The service is in Russian on Sundays, so perhaps the crowd is bigger then. The second time I attended mass, it was held by a more junior priest whose eerie similarity in speech, tone, and posture to Pedro from Napoleon Dynamite distracted me from his message about the raising of Lazarus. It took me at least 15 minutes to stop my mind from making this hilarious connection, which was about as long as his sermon. I felt some serious sympathy for the 5-year-old who kept shifting in his chair, looking around the chapel and generally struggling to focus, though in my case the pollution of the sacred by pop culture was to blame.

There’s something fitting about the church being named after St. Joseph. It simply wouldn’t fly in the misogynistic and patriarchal culture of Tajikistan that I experienced, to name a church there after a woman, despite the many options of females played important roles in the Bible. Christians in Central Asia have it hard enough as it is, and I would imagine they don’t want to cause any extra trouble. Of course, Joseph was also muy importante, after all the father (legal, biological, or otherwise—it’s complicated) of Jesus, and husband to Mary, the last patriarch you might say. He surely played a big role in the most important story of human history, but his role is not as clear cut as I had expected. I thought it was settled that he was the father of Jesus, and thus also the father of several of the disciples, who were also Jesus’s brothers. But again, it’s complicated. The Catholics and Orthodox don’t agree on any of the details (what did ‘betrothed’ actually mean, who fathered whom when, ya know, the Virgin Birth issue) and when examined closely, the two synoptic Gospels which do relate anything about Joseph, Matthew and Luke, relay two different genealogies from David on down! The Gospel of Matthew relates that Jesus was descended from David’s son Solomon. Luke relates that Jesus descended from David’s son Nathan. There are many other important Joseph’s in the history of religion. The second most important I’d say, is the Joseph of the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Oops, I mean, Joseph from the book of Genesis who was sold by his jealous brothers into slavery in Egypt, only to get the best revenge ever by becoming viceroy, the most important man second only to Pharaoh himself. The third most important Joseph is Joseph of Arimathea, the man who buried Jesus Christ. More perhaps in a later post on the many Joseph’s and their interconnectivity.

For a short article from 2003 with a brief history of the church in Tajikistan see here. For the fascinating history of the Soviet deportations which made this church in Dushanbe possible, see here. For the Spanish-speakers, here’s an update about the first Tajik priest, ordained June 2016.

(this is an adaptation of a post to my now-offline travel blog in Tajikistan 2010-2011)

St. Joseph’s Dushanbe
Moonrise over Orthodox graveyard in northern Tajikistan

St. Elisabeth’s Church in Vienna – Wieden

The Church of St. Elisabeth sits in a lovely little square in the 4th District of Vienna, Austria. It’s three blocks from the gorgeous Belvedere Palace and Museum, and right around the corner from a good friend’s apartment. On a cold and dank February Sunday morning, I decided to venture out and see what was happenin’ at St. Elisabeth’s, she being my patron Saint after all. My name is Bettina, a derivation of Elisabeth, and although in Europe, especially in the German-speaking areas, this is a well-known and common name (the most famous Bettina for me is the poet and contemporary of Goethe, Bettina von Arnim. I also mention her, because her uncle was Franz Brentano, priest, and professor of Philosophy in Vienna, and the connections come full circle…), in America, this name has garnered me much attention, even ridicule throughout my life. Ah, the cruelty of children. There was an entire summer in grade school, where a classmate called me “Butt” for months. But thankfully, working menial retail jobs where I had to wear a name tag, I experienced more than enough compliments and oohs and ahhs to make up for that summer. When saying my name to people over the years in America, I have gotten, “Oh, Petunia, that’s interesting,” to “Latina! Nice.” Or, the best, from my drill Sergeant in Basic Training: “Bettina!! Isn’t that a black name?!” So now I like to explain how Bettina in the German-speaking world (and I was named after an actual German woman named  Bettina), does mean little Elisabeth. Now we all know a bit about me, and why I shall begin my blog with a post about St. Elisabeth’s Church.

Though not raised Catholic, I find myself drawn more to Catholic Churches than other denominations, and have learned a lot about Christianity through the names of all the churches I encounter, all named after Saints. And there are so many Saints! Over 10,000, depending on who’s counting. Starting with St. Elisabeth is easy because she was the mother of John the Baptist, cousin of Mary and thus Auntie to JC Himself. Oh, and she is amongst other things most famous for becoming pregnant at an advanced age (meaning there’s still hope for me at age 38, ahem). She is also revered in Islam as a pious woman, to top it off.

From the booklet I purchased in the church I discover that this church is dedicated to an Elisabeth—obviously— but not the first one that I had in mind. The patron saint meant here is St. Elisabeth of Thüringen (1207-1231). She was the Princess of Hungary and known for a miracle of roses and immense charity. As to the architecture, the book tells me “the neo-gothic brick-built church…can be glimpsed from Karlsplatz. The 74-meter high bell tower, set above the main facade, is one of the highest church steeples in Vienna and rises above a three-aisle nave with a slightly protruding transept and a south-pointing polygon-shaped choir. The red brick construction is accentuated with highlights of ashlar (such as buttresses, door and window frames).” This spot had been recommended for the building of a Roman Catholic church twice before but it wasn’t until a decree from the Ministry of Education in 1857 that the church was ordered to be built and funded by the Religious Fund Trust, and the Wieden District petitioned to dedicate the new church to St. Elisabeth, in memory of the recovery from a lung infection of the immensely popular Empress Elisabeth, popularly known as Sisi. The pamphlet explains further that the front portal, reached via seven steps, is divided by a middle pillar—a typical characteristic of cathedrals in the Middle Ages. Above is the statue of St. Elisabeth of Thüringen (1207-1231), the church’s patron, and featured on the altar painting of the High altar. How many Elisabeth’s can we associate with this place now?

The congregation and Parish seemed quite busy and full, despite the cold pews and lack of heating, there were at least 35 people attending, and I had seen a group of children being taken to a children’s activity in the community building (called a presbytery) in the square nearby before mass. The community flier presents a wide variety of activities, from men’s groups to children’s Fasching (Carnival) celebrations. My favorite was finding a little mini pamphlet called “Kirche im Kleinen: So feiern wir gemeinsam die Heilige Messe” or “Miniature Church: This is how we celebrate the Holy Mass” published by the St. Boniface Association in the back literature table, which tells you how mass is celebrated, and what is happening at each step. A very helpful guide for us outsiders.

The priest spoke German with a slight Eastern European accent, and his sermon was about loving your neighbor, and how much more difficult it is than we think because Jesus didn’t mean just your nice neighbor, the one you like, who is just like you, but strangers too—even the refugees, oh my—and that’s what it means to be Christian, to walk the talk. I left Mass feeling uplifted and interested in expanding my miniature understanding of the church. The stained glass windows I found quite beautiful, but the only thing it says about them in the booklet is that the oldest ones are from 1908, and the newest were replaced in 1950 by generous donations from congregants.

Left side altar of Maria, by Josef Kessler
Main High Altar image of Elisabeth of Thuringia
Right side altar, Christ, by Josef Kessler
St. Elisabeth’s Wieden