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You know Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia, but do you know his teacher’s Church of Saint Francis de Sales?


José Manuel Romero | CC BY 2.0

Daniel Esparza - published on 01/31/18

Montells' greatest work is also an example of sacred architecture.

This 19th-century neo-Gothic church in Barcelona with a single bell tower in its façade doesn’t go unnoticed. Despite the Gothic inspiration, it seems modernist, with Arab influences; heavily decorated, and yet stylized and elegant. Special, inside and out.

Joan Martorell i Montells was the teacher and mentor of Servant of God Antoni Gaudí, the architect who designed the unusual and iconic Basilica of the Holy Family (“Sagrada Familia”) in Barcelona, one of Spain’s most visited landmarks. Perhaps, then, it should be no surprise that Montells’ greatest work is also an example of sacred architecture: the Church of St. Francis de Sales (patron saint of journalists, whose feast day is January 24).

The church is part of the “Way of the Holy Family,” a suggested route for people interested in Gaudí’s monumental basilica and its context, because the church designed by his mentor is both a precedent and an inspiration for the basilica, according to the rector and historian of the church, Ramon Corts i Blay.

Because of its physical location, the church of St. Francis de Sales is in sight of the Basilica of the Holy Family, for which Gaudí was chosen as the architect thanks to a recommendation from Montells. The buildings are only a few hundred yards apart, located in the same part of the city, called Ensanche.

The church was originally part of a monastery of the Order of the Visitation of Holy Mary, a community of sisters founded by St. Francis de Sales and St. Jane Frances de Chantal. They are commonly known as the Salesian Sisters. The cornerstone was laid in 1878, and the building was finished in 1885.

During the Spanish Civil War, the monastery was sacked and burned. There are accounts of how, on July 21, 1936, people shouted at the Salesian Sisters in hate as they watched their church being devastated. After the war, the Marist brothers acquired the property and restored it. Another fire seriously damaged the building in the 1980s; the most recent restoration took place in 2001.

St. Francis de Sales has been the official patron saint of journalists and writers since 1923. Every January 24, all the professional communicators of the diocese meet at the church of St. Francis de Sales in Barcelona to celebrate the Eucharist together, following the example of their patron saint, who according to historians “knew how to communicate without seeking polemics, seeking not to harm anyone with his words.”

According to the church rector, historian Ramon Corts i Blay, “it’s one of the most beautiful churches in Barcelona.”  This evaluation reflects his paternal love, as he is also an expert on Barcelona landmarks including the Basilica of the Holy Family, the church of Saint Mary of the Sea, the church of the Sacred Heart on Mount Tibidabo, and the city’s cathedral, all masterpieces in their own right. The style of the church of St. Francis is eclectic, mixing characteristics of modernism with aspects of Arabic aesthetics in a unique fusion: pinacles and crockets, typical of Gothic architecture, are side by side with enamel and ceramic tiles, characteristic of constructions built by the Muslims who controlled Spain for centuries. The result is an attractive decorative environment.

There are churches dedicated to St. Francis de Sales (1567-1622) all around the world. He was the bishop of Geneva, in a society shaped by Protestant Calvinism. His influence extended throughout the world, and his feast day in the Church is a special day for those who work in the area of communication. His feast has also been chosen by the Vatican as World Communications Day, which was celebrated for the 52nd time this year. The pope issued a message for the occasion, as usual—this time, focusing on the topic of post-truth and “fake news,” with the title, “The truth will set you free (Jn 8:32). Fake news and journalism for peace.”

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