At the Heart of the Community

Marta at her flower shop with San Marcos church in the background. RYAN DOLAN

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“GIVE ME TWO WHITE LILIES… I like the fuchsia, too.” A middle-aged woman’s voice emanates from inside the tiny flower shop on the corner of plaza de San Marcos. Her clipped sentences tumble out of her mouth quickly and loudly, lacking the occasional “s,” the way many Sevillans talk to each other on the street. “Give me two bouquets of whites and a bouquet of reds… No, because I already bought them the other day… Ok… Alright, thank you!”

Marta Quintana, the 48-year-old owner of this shop located in the historic center of Se – ville, finally emerges with a bemused smile from the small glass-enclosed space where the phone is located. Today, Marta’s flower shop is one of a number of small stores that surround the plaza— a fruit store, a drugstore, a pizzeria, and the bar Taverna León de San Marcos.

She can be found there most days, arranging and watering flowers while chatting with various visitors, especially an older woman named Isa – bel, who seems perpetually glued to her walker. Marta is also a catechist at the local parish, San Marcos, located in the center of the plaza.

Built in the 14th century, like quite a few oth – ers in the area, the church has perished and been reborn several times. It was burned to the ground in 1470 as a result of a century-long skirmish be tween two prominent families of Seville. It was burned down again in 1936, during the violent days leading up to the Spanish Civil War, and remained closed to the public until 1970. The building has a mixture of Islamic and Gothic ele – ments, including a sebka frieze and a pointed arch with arhivolts, typical of the Mudejar architectur – al style unique to Seville and a few other cities in Spain. Above the door stands the Eternal Father, flanked by Saint Gabriel and the Virgin Mary on either side. The tower, which looms over the plaza like an ancient patriarch, appears to be directly inspired by the Giralda, the famous 11th century minaret that presides over Seville’s Cathedral.

San Marcos church is a crown jewel for the small community of people active in it, like Marta, but for no one more so than Father Esteban Ramírez. Esteban, who previsouly worked in Cádiz at a boarding school for children at risk of social exclusion, has a shock of white hair atop his head and a rather austere face, with scrutinizing eyes behind thin-rimmed glasses — until it lights up with a smile.

In a small office inside the church, he explains that he has been with San Marcos for only six months, but has already contributed to the written records that the priests have con – tinually updated over the past fifty years, now handing them delicately to the visitor. Only two other priests live in the parish today alongside Esteban: Father Miguel del Castillo, who before joining the parish spent 44 years doing mission work in Africa, and Father Adolfo Sastre, who, like Esteban, worked at the boarding school in Cadiz.

They share a kitchen, a terrace and a small dining room. Esteban’s room is as small as if it were a college dorm room, displaying pictures of Esteban at all stages of his life on the four walls, along with pictures of friends and family. There is an undeniable air of humility about him. Presumably, nearly all of his possessions are contained in this small space.

Fátima with her grandson Guillermo. ANTONIO PÉREZ

Esteban, Miguel and Adolfo are members of the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary, an order most commonly known for Saint Damien de Veuster, who died from leprosy while doing missionary work in a leper colony in Hawaii. Photos of Saint Damien adorn a couple walls inside the San Marcos priests’ quarters, and printed cards with Damien on them rest on Esteban’s desk. Sitting behind this desk, Esteban reclines in his seat contently.

He is comfortably dressed in a red sweater, and wears a simple wooden cross necklace. “I am from the north of Spain,” he tells me. “I was ordained in Cadiz, and I’ve been a priest in Andalusia for 48 years.” For Esteban, the priesthood is a familial affair; two of his three brothers are priests as well, and two are also in the Sacred Hearts Congregation.

When he was young, God called him to join the priesthood, which, according to Esteban is something that is happening less and less throughout Spain and the rest of the western world. Esteban’s face becomes all the more solemn as he explains, “Nowadays, there are many more vocations in places like Africa and Asia than there are in Europe.” And what of San Marcos specifically? “In the past nine years, zero people have entered the priesthood here,” he says in a grave tone.

“That is something unprecedented. We are going through what you could call ‘a crisis of faith.’” He goes on to explain that there is a core of about ten percent of the San Marcos youth members who are very active in church affairs, but that for the rest, the words of the Bible don’t seem to resonate as much. Esteban finds that the same lack of faith is present in Seville as a whole: “It is one thing to pray before an image, or to watch the processions in the street during Holy Week; it is another thing to believe in Jesus.”

Marta returns from Saint Isabel, where she was delivering flowers. Each day three hundred sandwiches are also delivered to this convent, which sits directly to the side of San Marcos church, in order to feed the poorest members of the community. “There has always been a crisis of faith among people who don’t know suffering,” she says. “Young people who grow up in a consumer culture have everything provided for them and don’t think they need the Lord in their lives.” From her walker, Isabel chimes in: “Until the day that people find themselves in trouble, and then they say ‘ay dios mío!’ and begin to pray.”

68-year-old Fatima Cano is a catechist who prepares children for their first communion at San Marcos, and who also has her own grandchildren. Standing outside the doors of San Marcos with a kind face and a quietly firm disposition, it doesn’t take her more than a second to express her opinion about the crisis of faith in the Spanish church: “To believe is to compromise, and that is difficult. The crisis of faith is so big because no one wants to compromise.”

Yet San Marcos’s 15 catequists – who, like Fátima, devote their time to helping prepare the church’s 65 youth members for first communions and confirmations – are a testimony to the opposite. Much like the dedication seen in these mentors, there is also a strong commitment by active members of the church’s different pastoral groups, including the three prayer groups the Charitas group, which provides assistance to sick people, another group which assists the homeless community and another which provides support to the congregation’s mission workers.

The church bells of San Marcos interrupt, violently splitting the gentle background murmur of the city in a sort of religious call to arms. “One of the most important things we do is help the poor. We collect donations every mass,” Fátima says. “My favorite part is the affection between members. It is a nice community.”

The sound of San Marcos church on a Sunday at 12:30 in the afternoon is a mixture of twang – ing guitar accompanied by melodic singing voic – es. There is the muffled voice of Father Esteban emanating from the speakers mounted on the white plaster columns next to rows of wooden pews. Long periods of silence are punctuated by the occasional wheezing, sputtering cough of one of the parishioners. The sound of rain — a rar – ity in Seville — is barely audible from outside. It has surely reduced the amount of attendees to church this Sunday afternoon, but some have made the journey. They’re scattered throughout the pews; almost all of them are mature women accompanied by their husbands. There is also a couple with two small children.


Photo:  Father Esteban on the roof of his home, next to the San Marcos church. / Ryan Dolan

Father Esteban’s voice continues: “Not ev – eryone knows Christ, but you are all witnesses… Maybe you don’t see the actual face of the Lord, probably no one here has. But I know he exists because I see his actions everywhere.” Behind him, six bouquets of flowers — perhaps Marta’s — are arranged around the semicircular altar, at – tracting our attention with their vibrant whites, reds and yellows.

The congregation rises and files into a haphaz – ard line to receive communion. The two children, filled with energy, bounce around excitedly as they sense the end of the mass, their parents calm – ing them with hands on their shoulders and quiet whispers. “Go in the peace of Christ,” says the Fa – ther. “Thanks be to God,” they reply. And they all walk towards the door, disappearing into the wet mist outside the doors of San Marcos church. •