The cathedral was built by mistake.
A huge, gorgeous, Baroque mistake. The cathedral was intended for Panama, but somehow a mix-up in two sets of plans happened and construction began in León, Nicaragua. Panama had the smaller building instead.
The hulking building has always fascinated me on the trips to Nicaragua. For eight years, I have photographed the worn walls, the lions that guard the front, the thick red wooden doors. Such massive walls and arches.
It is the largest cathedral in Central America.
I’ve sketched the cathedral more times than I can remember. Each of my trip journals have a drawing or two of the cathedral gracing the pages. It’s just down the street from Italian Pizza (now also a hostel) which is owned by a Lebanese man whom our group stays with. We eat there every night, when we’re in Nicaragua. He is a masterful chef, and he knows I like chicken.
The great lions guard the front of the cathedral.
The square out front is full of activity, and people selling something. Beggars are there, too. One mid-summer trip, our small group was in the plaza with hundreds of other people. A Catholic celebration of some sort was going on, and a man dressed in a strange costume spun and danced in the dark, fireworks spraying off of him and shooting about and above the crowd. He was a blur that glowed in the rich dark noise of the square, vendors calling out and people shouting.
I couldn’t help but think how unsafe it was, and how much fun I was having. A firework exploded above our head.
Down the street from the cathedral, on the other side of Italian Pizza, we witnessed a small but violent demonstration one year. Students pelted the home of a university president with rocks and small explosives — perhaps fireworks — and we were unnerved. It is difficult not to be, when the mural across the street from where we stood in the doorway of the restaurant made it clear being American might not be a good idea.
The cathedral is like a place marker, so huge that it is a landmark used as a reference point for directions. “The ice cream shop is two blocks from the Great Cathedral,” you might be told. It is a geographic anchor.
The top of the cathedral is open for limited touring, and it takes a spry person to clamber through the narrow stairways to get to the top. Don’t step on the domes when you’re up there; they can’t take the weight. And don’t take the basement tour; you won’t see catacombs and all the things you might imagine to be lurking beneath such a building. Instead, you’ll have the shortest tour down a hallway with a low-ceiling that ends with a plaque dedicated to the poet Rubén Darío, which will make less sense to you if you don’t understand the mostly-Spanish tour guide.
The tour of the roof, however, is magic. The view of the city spread out below gives order to the sometimes crazy cobblestone streets.
Up high on the roof, there was a window that made me think Microsoft, like Kilroy, had been there. It appears that Microsoft wants a piece of the action. Sponsorship is everywhere.
I didn’t go to Nicaragua last year, and I wonder if I will ever go back again. Life has changed for me. For eight years, I went, but no more.
In August, I will attend my 20-year class reunion. I had plans for my life back when I was graduating from high school. I thought that I would have achieved and become a lot of things. I was sure that by the time this 20 years went by, certain things would have happened.
They did not.
“I know that you have plans,” God seems to have said, “but I’m going to build your life on the plans that I have instead. Mine are much better.”
My plans went to Panama, I guess, and in their place, a huge cathedral of dwarfing proportions is being built. It seems to be all scaffolding and sculptor’s stone offal right now, and it certainly is taking a long time. It’s become a point of reference in my life, this change of plans.
“That was when I was changed,” I might think. “When the ground was broken and the foundation was started, that is when it all started.”
You have no idea how close Panama is to where you are right now, but don’t worry. The cathedral is not a mistake.