The second oldest cathedral in the Americas is in Old San Juan in the United States territory of Puerto Rico. But the first and oldest cathedral in the Western Hemisphere is the Cathedral of Santa Maria La Menor in the Colonial City of Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic.

The many beaches of the Dominican Republic are just one of the many great reasons why everyone should visit the Caribbean nation. Another great reason to visit is that the country has the oldest European city in the Western Hemisphere. For the colonial Americas, this is where it all began.


The History Of The Cathedral of Santa Maria La Menor

Christopher Columbus first landed in the Americas in 1492 and the Cathedral was first commissioned by Pope Julius II in 1504. Construction began in 1512 but it was changed and it was decided to build the current church in 1521.

  • Built: Commissioned in 1504, Started in 1521, Finished In 1541

For the Western Hemisphere and its colonial history, this is about as old as anything gets. Construction began in 1514 and was completed in 1541. The city of Santo Domingo was the first European-style city in the Americas and for a while the de facto capital of the Spanish American colonies.

  • Designed: By Alonso Rodriguez of Seville, Spain
  • Pope Paul III: Grant The Status of Metropolitan Cathedral and Primate of The Indies in 1546

It was saved from destruction when Sir Francis Drake chose to use the cathedral as his headquarters after capturing the city. Francis Drake was a very famous English explorer, sea captain, slave trader, naval officer, politician, and privateer. He even managed to circumnavigate the world between 1577 and 1580.

  • California: Francis Drake Even Claimed What is Now California For England Under The Name of New Albion
  • Spanish Armada: Francis Drake Was Second In Command Of the English Fleet At The Battle Against The Spanish Armada in 1588

But more than Francis Drake, Santo Domingo was a battleground between the Spanish, French, English, pirates, and even the Haitians who had won their independence from France in the west of the island. Yet the cathedral has managed to remain intact. In its time it has suffered damage from fighting, hurricanes, and earthquakes but was restored every time.

In 1920 it was upgraded to the status of Minor Basilica and it remains a functioning church today.

Related: 15 Surprising Facts About Traveling To The Dominican Republic (Tourists Should Prepare For)

About The Cathedral of Santa Maria La Menor

Today it remains the Cathedral of the Archbishop of Santo Domingo (who also has the honorary title of Primate of the Indies because it was the first Catholic diocese established in the New World).

The facade of the building is made with golden-tinted coral limestone and is mostly Gothic in design. It also houses a treasure with a notable collection of furnishings, silver, woodcarvings, and jewelry. The cathedral has twelve side chapels, three aisles, and a nave.

  • Length: 54 Meters or 177 Feet
  • Ceiling: 16 Meters or 52 Feet

The Cathedral of Santa Maria La Menor is honored in the Western Hemisphere as the birthplace of Christianity in the Americas. For some time the city of Santo Domingo was the headquarters of the Catholic Church in the New World. It was the center of many Catholic missions and missionary activities in their new colonies.

  • UNESCO: The Cathedral With The Colonial City of Santo Domingo Is UNESCO Listed

Formerly the remains of Christoper Columbus were housed in the cathedral until they have transferred. The story is complicated but according to the Dominican Republic, they are now in the Faro a Colon (Columbus Lighthouse) in the Dominican Republic.

It should be noted that the Cathedral of Seville in Spain also claims to have the remains of Christopher Columbus and DNA analysis on those remains seem to confirm that he rests in Spain. No DNA tests have been carried out on the remains in the Dominican Republic.

The Cathedral of Seville is massive and when it was built, it became the largest cathedral in the world - the first cathedral to overtake the Hagia Sofia in the better part of a millennium.

Related: The Largest Cathedral In North America Is In New York City, And It's Only Two-Thirds Completed

Visiting The Cathedral of Santa Maria La Menor

It is well worth visiting the cathedral today and is a highlight of visiting the oldest colonial city in the Americas. It remains an impressive example of 16th-century Spanish-colonial architecture.

Many of the treasures and artifacts in the cathedral are displayed today in a museum within the cathedral.

One will find the cathedral in the heart of the old colonial center and is open daily. One can find out more current information and information on other historic sites to see on Santa Domingo Tourism.

  • Admission: Free


  • Monday to Friday: 4:30 am – 6:30 pm;
  • Saturday: 5 am – 7 pm
  • Sunday: 8 am – 8:30 pm

Next: St. Augustine: Visiting The First European Settlement In The U.S.