Grecia (Spanish for “Greece”) is located in the province of Alajuela, Costa Rica and is home to Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes (Our Lady of Mercy), a church made entirely of pre-fabricated metal steel plates that have been painted a deep red.
Urban legends abound about the church and how it came to be built in Grecia. One such legend recounts how the church was donated for a foreign county and was supposed to be sent to Greece as a gift, but was erroneously shipped to Grecia. Another legend infers that the final destination was supposed to be Punta Arenas, Chile, but was unloaded by mistake in Puntarenas, Costa Rica where it was later transported to the city of Grecia and assembled. However, the chances of it arriving in Puntarenas by mistake are quite slim, especially when you consider that when the materials arrived in Costa Rica between 1892-93, the Panama Canal hadn’t been built yet, which means that in order for it to have arrived in Puntarenas, it would have had to ship around Cape Horn, South America, an unneccesary and costly journey; the Port of Limón would have been a more logical choice for offloading. Also, the railway between Puntarenas and San Jose wasn’t completed until 1910.
The real history of the Our Lady of Mercy church is no less glamorous than the urban legends. Around 1840, the town of Grecia had a small adobe chapel with a thatched roof. As the town grew, so did the need for a larger church. Construction began on a new wooden church (at the site where the metal church sits today) in 1844 and was completed by the end of 1847. A brick floor was installed in 1835 and the thatched roof was replaced with tejas (Spanish barrel tiles made from clay). A few years later a tower was added. In 1872, the church was severely damaged by fire and plans were made to convert the church to a masonry structure as it was believed to be indestructible by fire. By 1888, the new structure was nearing completion when a devastating earthquake shook the town, damaging the towers and partially destroying the sanctuary.
In 1890 the locals sought the counsel of the second bishop of Costa Rica, Bishop Thiel, who suggested using “new technology” by building an earthquake proof church of metal. In 1891, a contract was signed with Dresse Aux Ateliers de la Societe de Couvillet, a Belgian firm that specialized in metal structures.
The first pieces of metal arrived at the Port of Limón in 1892 on two cargo ships – the Rock Hampton of England and the Turquoise of France. The materials were then transported via rail from the Port of Limón to Alajuela. Upon arriving in Alajuela, the materials and supplies were transferred to ox carts and wagons to make the final 21 kilometer journey to Grecia. Each trip took approximately one week and, at times, 7 yoke of oxen (14 oxen) were needed to pull the heavy loads across the rugged terrain.
With the exception of the windows and doors (these weren’t sent with the rest of the materials from Belgium), the church was completed in December of 1897. Doors and window frames were ordered in 1911 from Clement Casa Constructtore in Ferro Prada, Milan, Italy. Hand painted and blown glass windows were also acquired in Italy.
Until the next adventure….