The Cathedral was originally a Mosque as elaborate as the one at Cordoba, in Spain.
The Cathedral of St. Mary the Crowned is built on the site of what used to be a very beautiful and richly decorated Mosque, as elaborate as the celebrated Mosque at Cordoba in Spain.
After the Christians drove the Moors from the Rock in 1462, the mosque was used as a church until the Catholic Kings, Ferdinand and Isabella, decreed that it be stripped of its Islamic past and extended. They donated bells and a clock for the 100ft tower, which remain to this day, and their Coat of Arms was placed in the courtyard where it can still be seen.
The courtyard was four times its present size and contained an orange grove surrounded by cloisters. The church itself extended to the opposite side of what is now Main Street. During the Great Siege of Gibraltar (1779-1783), it suffered tremendous damage and despite the attempts of returning exiles to rebuild gradually, scant progress was made.
In 1790, Governor Boyd offered his assistance in return for a third of the land on which the building stood, enabling him to re-route Main Street. So the grateful Gibraltarians were able once more to worship in their church, albeit one that was considerably smaller than before. An on-going after-effect of this loss of ground is that mortal remains are frequently uncovered during routine excavations of the road outside.
These days, only Bishops are honoured with internment in the Cathedral, in the crypt under the Statue of Our Lady. But up until the 1800s, any person who died in Gibraltar had the right to be buried under the floor of the Cathedral.
The sacristan enjoyed quite a little business ‘on the side’, it was later discovered. Such was the privilege of being buried in holy ground, people from outside the town willingly paid bribes in return for a guarantee of a reserved plot. The unscrupulous sexton would exhume recently buried corpses and burn them in quicklime in so-called ‘Room of the Goat’ at the back of the church, thus freeing spaces for ‘his clients!’.
Shrine of Our Lady of Lourdes Situated in the courtyard is the Shrine of Our Lady of Lourdes, her statue having been placed there in gratitude by Bishop Canilla in 1858. The Bishop’s brother had been miraculously cured of a tumor during a visit to Lourdes. The grateful Bishop also placed a large statue of Our Lady at the top of the tower for all to see, but this was removed at the turn of the century. This tranquil shrine is visited daily by a large number of people who come in from the bustling Main Street to pray the Rosary or sit in quiet contemplation.
Inside the Cathedral the High Altar is very grandiose and is in the style of that of St. Peter’s in Rome. The beautiful marble plinth and columns with the six ton bogatino top were originally bound for South America when the ship carrying this precious cargo sunk in the harbour. The Arengo family bought the salvage rights and installed the marble in the Cathedral as their family altar, it was later place in its present position. The silver was brought back from the New World 500 years ago.
The Cathedral is named after Our Lady of Europe and there is a statue in her honour at the altar. A duplicate of the original is in the shrine at Europa Point. People come from all over Europe to pay their respects.
Another statue has been given the rather unusual name of Our Lady of the Flannels, she was found floating in a box in the harbour some time in the 18th Century wrapped in flannels.
On one of the walls is a plaque commemorating the death in Gibraltar of General Sikorski, the wartime Polish Prime Minister. The liberator aircraft in which he was to have flown to England, crashed into the sea off the east side of the Rock after take-off. His body was brought to the Cathedral for blessing before being transported to England in a Naval Destroyer. After the war, the Poles presented a picture of Our Lady of Chestochowa which now hangs next to the plaque in memory of that great man.
The history of St. Mary the Crowned goes on and on! In 1951, the whole city was shaken when an ammunition ship the Bedenham, exploded in the harbour. Debris flew in all directions and a large piece of the ship hit the top of the Cathedral causing a serious crack. This was only discovered 5 years ago, initiating extensive renovations to the top of the facade. These are just a few of the historical facts about this lovely Cathedral so easily found in the centre of Gibraltar.
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