The People of Gibraltar
1582 - Building a Monastery - Los Mercedarios de Gibraltar


To write something as detailed as this article would require me to access quite a few thoroughly obscure 16th and 17th century documents most of them held by the Archivo Histórico Nacional de Madrid and the Biblioteca Nacional. These sources are digitally unavailable and hard to get to at the best of times. It means that I will need somebody else to do the hard lifting for me and that would be the well-known historian Francisco Javier Quintana Álvarez. 

His article - El Convento E Iglesia de Santa Ana de Mercedarios de Gibraltar: Aproximación Documental a su Evolución Arquitectónica (1582-1704) which appeared in April 2017 in the digital magazine - Almoraima. Revista de Estudios Campogibraltareños is a masterpiece of research It therefore goes without saying that what follows below is taken almost entirely from this work and is acknowledged accordingly.

However . . . before I launch into this let me admit the following. The new Iglesia de Santa Ana which formed part of the Monasterio de Mercedarios was built on the northern side of the Calle de Mercado (Market Lane), just across the lane from what were the older cloister and lodgings of Santa Ana. I am therefore taking it for granted throughout this essay that the old church which it replaced was also on the northern side of Calle Mercado.


Isabella la Católica

1503 - Shortly after Isabella la Católica put an end to private ownership of the Rock and Gibraltar became Crown property, a parochial church called Santa Ana appears on the records for the first time. Although tiny by any standards it must have been considered of some importance locally. For a start it was probably the only other parochial church in town at the time other than Santa Maria la Coronada. (See LINK) The entrance to the church was on a street that inherited its name - Calle Santa Ana (Irish Town)


The new Church of Santa Ana shown on this plan was constructed by the Mercedario Order during the 17th century - It was almost certainly much bigger than the original chapel    (1753 - James Montressor - detail - adapted)  (See LINK)


No mention of la Iglesia de Santa Clara in this mid 16th century plan of the Rock   (1567 - Anton an den Wyngaerde)    (See LINK)

1581 - I have no idea what happened to the church during the intervening seventy odd years  - but according to Alonso Hernández del Portillo writing during the early 17th century (see LINK) Santa Ana was the building used by the friars of la Merced when they first arrived in Gibraltar. 
There is another monastery in this city - Señora de la Merced Redención de Cautivos. In 1581 this religious order was allowed to settle here under certain conditions . . . as set out by the Bishop of Cadiz . . . who generously gave them licence to found their monastery in the hermitage of Nuestra Señora de Santa Ana. In this hermitage they founded their Order and bought other nearby properties close to it and made use of it . . . 
1582 - Nevertheless the following translation of a comment written by Diego de Salinas, Prior of the order in the mid 17th century suggests that the date of the official founding of the order of Mercedarios in Gibraltar was probably one year after that given by Portillo. 
In the old protocol of this convent there is a table at the end of it with all the provincial leaders and Priors of the Order ever since it was founded in the month of October 1582.
1583 - Rodrigo de Arce - one of the friars of the Order - bought a house near la Iglesia de Santa Ana along Calle Mercado located between Calle Real and Calle de las Carnicerias. Calle Mercado was named after a certain Antonio de Mercado who at that time owned considerable property in this street.  Mercado was the Prior of yet another religious establishment - the Hermita, Orfanato y Hospital de la Señora de la Misericordia (See LINK) in the nearby Plaza Mayor.

1586 - Juan de Cañas, the procurator of la Merced asked Alonso Valero Becerra, Mayor of Gibraltar to allow the Order itself to purchase property close to the hermitage of Santa Ana. His arguments as to why the authorities should grant them permission is revealing.
The convent and its church are so small that very few people are able to fit in it and it is therefore necessary to make it bigger. To do this we need a house that lies next to it.
1587 - It took a while but Becerra finally authorised the purchase and work on a new church probably started soon after.

1600 - Ready cash - not just to purchase property but to carry out construction work - must have been a constant problem. The Order were however given a helping hand by a local alderman Pedro Sánchez Bustos as confirmed by Portillo:
A gentleman by the name of Pedro Bustos has offered to pay for the cost of the construction of the principle chapel on the condition that he and his successors might be buried there.
1625 - Once again we have Portillo’s word for it that by the early 17th century and nearly 40 years after getting authorisation to do so the building was still under construction.
This monastery is unfinished as it is only recently that work has started on its construction. 

(1627 - Luis Bravo de Acuña - detail - adapted)     (See LINK)

Pre 1704 Spanish churches and monasteries such as San Juan de Dios (see LINK), San Juan de Letrán (see LINK), Santa María la Coronado (see Link) and others, can be identified with relative ease on Luis Bravo’s plan of the town as shown above. 

Conversely, the monasteries of Santa Ana and la Merced are represented as a jumble of difficult to make out houses within the two blocks of houses on either side of Calle Mercado. This is especially true of the northern section of Calle Mercado. In other words and as suggested by Portillo the buildings were as yet unfinished in 1627.

1641 - There was a period in which the Mercedario friars attempted to close off Calle de los Frailes to the general public. It meant that they often found themselves at loggerheads with the civil authorities who understandably disapproved. I am not entirely sure why they did this but it had probably something to do with the convent and its church not being on the same side of the street.

1655 - This year the Gibraltarian born Friar Juan Asencio was appointed head of the Mercedario Order in Andalucía.

1658 - 1684 - Three years later Acensio was promoted once again and conveniently became the supreme head of the Order in Spain. He was now in a position to donate large sums of money to the Gibraltarian Order which were used to purchase even more property. Serious work on the new church and cloister on the northern side of the street probably started in:

1663 - According to one of the friars - Diego de Santiago - it was:
A beautiful and expensive building made of brick and stone
Those “stones” were being imported from Algeciras and Carteia - some of them with Roman inscriptions. The eastern facade of the church stretched along Calle de Santa Ana almost right up to Calle Nueva (Tuckey’s Lane). The cloister was built to the north of the church and was designed as an irregular square. Within its open space there were four interconnecting pillars on each side. There was also a fountain in the middle of the cloister but according to John Spilsbury (see LINK) writing in 1779, the enemy threw:
 . . . several shells at the White Cloister, and have damaged . . . .  the cock of the fountain, so that a great deal of water was lost. 

Top - Drawing of “White Cloisters” -  The British named of the Monasterio de la Merced  (1753 - James Montressor)
Bottom - plan of the new church and cloister (1753 -James Montressor - Adapted from his plan of the town)

1664 - Diego de Santiago, however, was referring to an unfinished church. According to the testimony of the master carpenter Domingo Correa and his colleague a construction worker called Bernabé Martín - both of whom were involved in the building of the church - work was being hampered because the area of one of the nearby properties required for the completion of the church was as yet unavailable.

1666 - Several additional property deals were finalised and construction work on the church was resumed although by:

1683 - it was pretty obvious that there were financial problems that had still to be resolved. Anybody who bothered to visit the construction site would be confronted with a series of foundations which were converted into a swimming pool whenever it rained. 

1696 - This was the year in which the church could finally have been said to be fit for purpose. Architecturally the finished building was relatively plain. It’s most prominent feature was its squat, square tower made up of two distinct elements - the top bit decorated with four columns, and a plain but elegant cupola finished off with a cross. Its height - 26 metres from the street to the top of the cross - and its position along the widest section of Calle Santa Ana must have made it quite visible from the Plaza Mayor. The main door into the actual church itself was decorated with lines of bossaged stone topped by a niche with - possibly - stood a statue of Santa Ana.


1696 - On Easter Sunday of that year the bells of the church rang out for the first time  . . . . and Prior Pedro Berdugo Osoio and his friars immediately ran into trouble. The vicar of the main parish church of Santa Maria la Coronada was incensed that the bells of la Merced had been rung before those of his church. By:

1704 - Gibraltar was captured by Anglo-Dutch forces during the War of the Spanish Succession. (See LINK) by which time it would seem that the construction of the monastery’s new church, cloister and cells for the use of the friars had finally been completed - if only just as far as I can make out. The main altarpiece with its statue of the Immaculate Conception - a donation of Captain Antonio de Ontañon - was finished in 1704. 

With full acknowledgements and many, many thanks to Campo historian, Francisco Javier Quintana Álvarez. Most of the above is taken from his article El Convento E Iglesia de Santa Ana de Mercedarios de Gibraltar: Aproximación Documental a su Evolución Arquitectónica (1582-1704) which appeared in the digital magazine - Almoraima. Revista de Estudios Campogibraltareños, 46. Abril 2017

See also the following LINK which deals with the activities of the Order and the history of the buildings after 1704.

1570s - Los Mercedarios - White Cloisters (See LINK)