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The Basilica in the Retiro of Buenos Aires and the myths that surrounded it

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It was eight years of specialised construction, taking care of every detail to the extreme. Traveling to France to buy the best materials and even buying the largest organ in Argentina.

Luxury, good taste and its Gothic-Romanesque construction whose with its exterior had a status of “forbidden love” amongst the Buenos Aires aristocracy. This was the birthplace of the Basilica of the Blessed Sacrament, in the Retiro neighborhood of Buenos Aires.

“If I live in a palace, then my God also deserves to live in one equal or better”, was the phrase she repeated as Mercedes Castellanos de Anchorena, who commissioned the design of the temple to the French architects Alfred Coulomb and Louis Pierre Léopard Chauvet.

The construction, which began on March 25, 1908, was in charge of the Salesian architect Ernesto Vespignani. The inauguration of the temple, in the form of a Latin cross and three naves, would come days after the centenary of Independence, on July 16, 1916.

The Basilica of the Sacramento in the Retiro district seen from the Kavanagh Corina passage
The Basilica of the Sacrament in the neighborhood of Retiro seen from the Kavanagh Corina passage Source: The Nation-credit: Santiago Filipuzzi

Why is it considered a jewel of architecture and the place chosen by celebrities such as Diego Maradona and Valeria Massa to get married?

By just crossing the threshold of the main entrance, accessed through the small street called Corina Kavanagh, you can see the golden altar with its marbles and Onix from Morocco, that still retain the same shine after more than a century of life.

On the main Altar is the Great Monstrance, a masterpiece of the French house Poussielgue Rusand, which dates from 1900 and on which the entire Basilica was designed. The building consists of five towers, three of which can be seen from the central façade. In the center of this building stands a statue of Blessed Julian Pedro Eymard, who was the founder of the Congregation of the Blessed Sacrament.

The great custody that is a masterful work in gold and silver of the French house Poussielgue Rusand, which dates from 1900
The Altar Mayor Light la Gran Custodia that is a masterful work in gold and silver of the French house Poussielgue Rusand, which dates from 1900.  Source: The Nation-credit: Santiago Filipuzzi

For the construction of the Basilica, in neo-Gothic style, the noblest and important materials of the time were brought from different parts of the world. Imposing stained glass and marble ornaments that cross the entire Basilica and Crypt, located four meters underground, are added to the Great Altar. In addition, it has details in blue granite, bronze, and Venetian mosaic.

However, the full façade could be enjoyed for less than two decades.

The carpentry was made in Europe by the carvers of the house of  Wespelaere in Bruges, Belgium. As the closure of such majesty, whoever enters the main nave and stops behind the altar can see the front of the huge organ, bought by the Mercedes Castellanos de Anchorena directly from the house Mutin Cavaillé-Coll, Paris. It has five thousand tubes and is the largest one still operating in Argentina.

The organ of the basilica is the largest that exists and it works in the country today
The organ of the basilica is the largest that exists and works in the country at present Source: The Nation-credit: Santiago Filipuzzi

The crypt where Mercedes Castellanos de Anchorena lies

But if the main part of the Basilica generates astonishment by its ornamentation, the crypt below that is in the basement and has the same size as the main one above is not to be left behind. In both spaces, up to 800 people can be accommodated.

It was this crypt that was the first to be inaugurated in 1911, five years before the construction of the Basilica was completed. There, on the opposite side of the altar, is the vault that Mercedes had designed to be buried with her family. However, only her remains are there.

The crypt in the basement of the temple where the remains of his benefactor are found
The crypt in the basement of the temple where the remains of his benefactor Source: The Nation-credit: Santiago Filipuzzi

Before her death, Mercedes received the title of Countess Pontifical and the decoration of the Rose of gold on the part of the Vatican, one of the highest distinctions of Catholicism for the laity.

The floor of the basement is preserved as it was from the construction. It is granite brought from Germany. The size of the one-piece columns, which divide the three naves, is even greater than those on the first floor. The strength is needed because they serve as a support to the rest of the Basilica above.

One of the original keys, which still work, from the doors of the basilica
One of the original keys, that still work, of the doors of the Basilica Source: The Nation-credit: Santiago Filipuzzi

In this sector, there are also wooden benches built by the Wespelaere House. In addition, marbles and light fixtures are all of Italian origin.

On the altar, clad in Onyx stone, you will find one of the most refined pieces of the crypt. This is the baldachin or canopy, under which the Blessed Sacrament for worship is kept. The peculiarity is that it is built in one piece, something that is very difficult to achieve.

When building the crypt, Vespiniani removed from the initial project two rows of columns, with which Mercedes Castellanos de Anchorena built another church: Our Lady of the Mercedes, located in Echeverría at 1300, in Belgrano.

In this golden era, there was such a demand for people to marry in this basilica that they were betrothed two couples at a time, one on the first floor and the other in the basement.

One of the stained glass windows that decorate the first floor of the basilica
One of the stained glass windows that decorate the first floor of the Basilica Source: The Nation-credit: Santiago Filipuzzi

Three versions of a forbidden love story

One of the reasons why the outside of the basilica cannot be appreciated in its maximum splendor is the construction of the apartment building called The Kavanagh, the first skyscraper in Argentina, inaugurated in 1936.

Its origin and construction was in record time. It was built in only 14months it is said due to a bitter dispute between Mercedes Castellanos de Anchorena and Corina Kavanagh.

The first of the versions and the one with the most widespread popularly ensures that a love not authorized by the creator of the Basilica which culminated in the construction of The Kavanagh building that has 105 apartments and some say was designed to shade the Basilica in revenge.

The only portrait of Mercedes Castellanos de Anchorena that lies within the basilica
The only portrait of Mercedes Castellanos de Anchorena that lies within the Basilica Fuente: The Nation-credit: Santiago Filipuzzi

This version has that a daughter of Corina Kavanagh had fallen in love with a son of Mercedes Castellanos de Anchorena.

Upon learning of this romance, the family of Castellanos de Anchorena would have opposed the union because, although the Kavanagh’s were a wealthy Irish family, due to the fact at the end of the day they were still Irish and lacked the stately lineage that was demanded  at that time to belong to the Anchorena clan.

When the Kavanagh’s heard of this slight towards their daughter Consuegra, Corina was more than a little angry so they decided to build the skyscraper of 120 meters so that Mercedes Castellanos de Anchorena could no longer see the Majestic Basilica from her home (it sat where today the Foreign Ministry is built across San Martins Plaza on Esmeralda)

So you can see the Kavanagh from the basilica
The Kavanagh from the Basilica Source: The Nation-credit: Santiago Filipuzzi

However, there is another story, one not so romantic. In this case, it was also forbidden love.

“What really happened is that Corina Kavanagh’s daughter fell in love with the chauffeur of Mercedes Castellanos de Anchorena. Mercedes encouraged this love, despite the difference in class, and was the promoters for the relationship to grow. “When Corina discovers this forbidden relationship and who had helped the bond grow, she decided to build the Kavanagh High Rise as revenge.”

View from the first floor where the organ of almost 5000 tubes is located
View from the first floor where you will find the organ of almost 5000 pipes Source: The Nation-credit: Santiago Filipuzzi

But, once again, popular myths seem to have no relationship with reality. Adolfo Lucas Brodaric, who works in the National Commission of Monuments, Places and Historical Items researched the origin of the Basilica, gave a third version.

“The unrequited love story is not true. It’s a myth, “Broderic said and explained:” I looked for the records of that time and Corina Kavanagh was married three times but never had children. So how could a daughter of hers have fallen in love with an Anchorena? There is no record in the country that proves that Corina Kavanagh was a mother. ”

The sacristy retains the original furniture of the basilica
The sanctuary retains the original furniture of the Basilica Source: The Nation-credit: Santiago Filipuzzi

“Another fact that serves to discredit this myth is that it was more than a decade between the death of Mercedes Castellanos de Anchorena and the construction of the skyscraper. Mercedes who ordered the Basilica to be built died in July 1920. The Kavanagh began to be built in 1932, that is to say, 12 years later, “remarked the historian, who wrote a book about the Basilica.

In the face of the question of the different versions around the fight, he suggested: “None of the two stories were originally told are correct. In any case, if there was a forbidden love, or one not approved by Mercedes Castellanos de Anchorena, it could have been between one of her sons and Corina Kavanagh, although we cannot know that for sure. ”

From one of the balconies of the front of the basilica observe the passage Corina Kavanagh
From one of the balconies of the front of the Basilica observe the Pasaje Corina Kavanagh Source: The Nation-credit: Santiago Filipuzzi

In any event, it all makes for a great story.
Source: La Nacion

Photos: Santiago Filipuzzi

Photographic edition: Enrique Villegas

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