Semana Santa or Easter Week is one of the most significant holidays in the Dominican Republic, in some ways even more so than Christmastime. Many Dominicans see it as chance for a prolonged vacation, when they’re able to escape and return to one’s hometown, or go to the beach and on roadtrips with family. But it’s also a spiritual time for the country’s practicing Christian population who observe the Roman Catholic tradition of Semana Santa or Holy Week, commemorating the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Semana Santa kicks off with a procession on Palm Sunday or Domingo de Ramos in the Colonial City, starting at 5pm from Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes. Following Palm Sunday are traditional Easter week ceremonies, masses, and processions all weeklong at the various churches in the Colonial City—the heart of Holy Week celebrations.
This past weekend I went on an fascinating walking tour of the Colonial Zone’s three most significant churches for Eastertime, along with a discussion on “Processions and Rites of Semana Santa”—an activity sponsored by the Centro Cultural de España (and in Spanish, of course). I learned of new details about the churches, the meaning behind the processions, and heard of personal stories from a handful of the Zona’s long-time residents. It was well worth getting up at 9am on a Saturday.
Here are three churches you should visit during Holy Week, as well as a day-by-day calendar of Easter processions you can witness in the Colonial Zone of Santo Domingo if you’re visiting the capital during this spiritual time.
I. Three Significant Churches of the Colonial Zone
Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de Las Mercedes
One of the most emblematic buildings in the Colonial City, Iglesia de Las Mercedes is also the most historically significant church of all, aside from the Catedral Primada de America. It was among the first to be built by the Spaniards as they began to spread Catholicism on the island. Named after the Dominican Republic’s patron saint Las Mercedes or the Virgin Mary, it took at least 30 years to complete its construction, which started in 1527. This impressive building has survived many disasters, natural and human–including devastation caused by Sir Francis Drake, and a number of earthquakes.
Las Mercedes Church is where Palm Sunday and Holy Week kick off. It is worth stopping here for a look at its Gothic vaults and baroque decorative pieces at the altar.
Location: Calle Las Mercedes, corner of Calle Jose Reyes.
Iglesia de Nuestra Señora del Carmen
The smallest of all the churches in the Colonial Zone, built by private parties in the 17th century, Iglesia de Nuestra Señora Carmen is also one of the most significant. Directly opposite the church building, on the same street, is the house where La Trinitaria was founded in 1837 — the underground movement made up of the DR’s independent leaders. The independence fathers would meet at the church and then furtively cross the street and slipping into the house for their clandestine meetings, plotting on getting independence for the Dominican Republic.
Inside the church is a statue of Christ used in the processions during Holy Week.
Today it is rarely open, once a day if you’re lucky to pass by around 5pm. I have never been able to see the inside, but it is said to be as impressive as its outdoor colonial design.
Location: Calle Arzobispo Nouel, corner of Calle Sanchez. 5pm Mon-Fri (if you’re lucky, it will be open).
Iglesia del Convento Regina Angelorum
This is one of my favorite churches in the area, with one of the most beautiful interiors. Located next to the Billini Hotel and courtyard, it’s also a popular choice for intimate-sized weddings.
This Gothic-designed church was completed in the 16th century, and was the first convent housing nuns of the Dominican order from Spain, including Leonor de Ovando, a feminist, who arrived to the DR in 1561. In the 18th century, the nuns eventually left for Cuba. In later years, it was turned into a public school in honor of Salome Urena who founded the first female center of higher education.
Inside the ornate church are various installations of Jesus and Mary, as well as an altar frontispiece made of silver, embossed with decorative grids; and on the marble floor, an encased figure of Padre Billini. Part of the church was made of precious wood, including the original door which remains today, and the choir balcony.
Location: Calle Padre Billini, adjacent to the Billini Hotel and courtyard. Sundays at 6pm.
II. Holy Week Easter Rites and Processions
Here’s a handy calendar of the most significant processions and rites during Semana Santa in the Colonial Zone of Santo Domingo. If you’re going to be here for Easter, you’ll have plenty of opportunities to witness at least one procession as they take place nearly every day except Holy Thursday. The largest ones take place on Palm Sunday and Good Friday.
1. Palm Sunday: Domingo de Ramos or Palm Sunday Procession — 5pm on March 25th from Iglesia de las Mercedes
This important procession launches Holy Week and commemorates the arrival of Jesus into Jerusalem as he rode into town on a donkey, rather than a dominating war horse, as a sign of humility. He knew full well that he was on his way to being crucified for the sin for humanity. He took the back and most populated entrance of town to gather the people with him who worshipped him, and they walked alongside with palms in hand.
The procession takes place in the Colonial Zone, departing from Las Mercedes Church around 5pm and making its way around the Colonial City’s main streets. You’ll get a chance to see the Roman guards — a group in existence since 1958 — marching solemnly in their costumes while beating drums. See this video below from Palm Sunday 2015.
2. Holy Monday: Procesion en Honor de Jesus Atado a la Columna (Procession in honor of Jesus tied on the cross) —7pm on March 26th from Iglesia Nuestra Señora del Carmen
A procession leaves from Iglesia Nuestra Senora del Carmen, of Jesus carrying the cross through the streets of the Colonial City.
3. Holy Tuesday: Procesion de Jesus Pacientisimo — 6pm on March 27th from Iglesia de Santa Barbara
A procession departing the church of Santa Barbara and marching through the Colonial Zone onto Parque Colon, and all the way back again to Santa Barbara Church.
4. Holy Wednesday: Procession of Jesus the Nazarene —7pm on March 28th from Iglesia Nuestra Señora del Carmen
A solemn procession showing Jesus carrying the cross, going through the streets of the Colonial Zone.
5. Holy Thursday: Chrism Mass (followed by evening Last Supper Commemoration, 8pm) and Monument viewings — 9am on March 29th at Iglesia de Las Mercedes and other churches
On Holy Thursday, all the churches in the Colonial Zone that are listed in this post, including the Cathedral, decorate the altar to recreate a Biblical scene. This is a time when people and groups from the various churches make their rounds to observe each creative installation at the churches in the area. This used to be called the “Visit to the Seven Churches;” it’s a great time to enter and see the churches. You can also attend the Chrism Mass and Last Supper commemoration at Las Mercedes Church.
6. Holy Friday: Sermon de las Siete Palabras (Sermon of the Seven Sentences) — (TIME TBA) on March 30th at Catedral Primada de America
A tradition in the DR that is highly anticipated by Catholics, whereby Jesus’ seven last sentences are pronounced, and each sentence is applied to a reality/situation that the country and its people are currently facing.
There are no masses held on Good Friday, only rites.
7. Holy Friday: Procesion del Santo Entierro and Concierto Sacro (Good Friday Burial Procession and Concert) — 6pm on March 30th at Catedral Primada de America
The Good Friday procession begins at dusk at Iglesia de las Mercedes and runs through the Colonial City’s main streets, ending at the Catedral Primada de America in Parque Colón with an impressive official concert at 8pm (or Concierto Sacro). The concert is one of the most popular events — and one of only two concerts held in the Cathedral during the year, the other being at Christmastime. Get there early if you want seats.
Before the beginning of the Good Friday procession in the streets, you can witness a celebration of the blessing of the cross at around 3pm inside the Iglesia de las Mercedes—when everyone in the congregation stands up and kisses the cross.
A monument of Christ is brought forth, communion is given, and then the figure of Christ is taken down—a figure with mobile hands (I’ve never seen that, but it is said to be worth witness)—and the Roman guards appear as they beat the drums. The beat rises as they take down Jesus from the cross, and experience said to be transportive.
And of course, you can attend Saturday Easter vigil mass at the Catedral Primada de America at 11pm, where there is also service at noon on Easter Sunday.
Along the way, be sure to enjoy some traditional habichuelas con dulce (sweet beans dessert) at any of the bakeries or local restaurants around the Colonial City— it’s an Easter-time treat unique to the DR.
I hope you enjoy Semana Santa in the Colonial Zone, along with your other experiences exploring Santo Domingo and the Dominican Republic. There’s of course more to do during Easter in the city. But that’s for a future post!
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