The People of Gibraltar
1550s -  San Juan de Letrán – Indulgencias y Jubileos

The Catholic Basilica di San Giovanni in Laterano is somewhat confusingly known in English as St John in Lateran and San Juan de Letrán in Spanish. It was built in Rome in the IV century AD and is the oldest church in the Italy - possibly the world. 

Basilica di San Giovanni in Laterano

What must have been essentially a branch of this church existed in Gibraltar at the very least from the mid 16th century and right up to the early 18th - although it has proved hard to pin point exactly where the church was situated. But to start at the beginning:

Perhaps the oldest available reference to the Church in Gibraltar is by Anton Van Den Wyngaerde. (See LINK) It appears in his 1567 plan of the Rock. The Spanish historian Rosa López Torrijos in her 2009 article Episodios de Guerra Commercial gives an analysis of this annotated drawing in which she suggests:
Wyngaerde señala para Gibraltar cinco iglesias con San Juan de Letrán (C) al norte y la mayor (Santa María) (A) en el centro.

Gibraltar   ( 1567 Anton Van Den Wyngaerde ) 

My feeling is that Ms Torrijos is correct – "Sto Jnan de Lezan" (C) and "Sta maria eglesia major" (A) must refer to the churches of San Juan de Letrán and Santa Maria respectively. Wyngaerde also labelled the convent of San Francisco – which is nowadays used as the Governor’s residence - as (D) placing it more or less where we know it ought to be. More to the point it is well to the south of San Juan de Letrán.

Half a century or so later, the 17th century Gibraltarian Alonso Hernández del Portillo (see LINK) in his Historia de Gibraltar had this to say about the church.
Hay en esta Ciudad una Iglesia de San Juan de Letrán de razonable edificio y grandeza. Tiene Prior y Clérigos Capellanes; aunque no Parroquial está subordinada a la Iglesia y Colegio de San Juan de Letrán en Roma.  Tiene un Capilla donde se ganan las mismas indulgencias y jubileos que en la de Roma. 
An “Indulgencia” was in effect a remission of any punishment due in purgatory for one’s sins – a sort of wiping the slate clean so to speak. There were several ways of getting one of these much sought after indulgences. In Rome it was possible to do so simply by entering the basilica of St. John in Lateran through a special gate on a specific church appointed day and then going through the usual rituals of confession, communion and so forth.  

I don’t know whether the Gibraltar church followed this procedure or not but there is little doubt that the ability of a church to grant these indulgences would have made it extremely popular with the local population - practically all of them Roman Catholics – and most of them - as we all are - undoubtedly sinners in the eyes of the church.

It was, however, a system that lent itself to abuse. During the later Middle Ages the unrestricted sale of indulgences by various churches was a commonplace and much as I would like to believe otherwise such a practice was probably as unexceptional in the  local church of San Juan de Letrán as anywhere else. 

Street sales of Indulgences – it was the kind of thing that drove Luther up the wall during the early 15th century.  ( Unknown )

In 1690, R.P.F Gerónimo de la Concepción in his Emporio de el Orbe Cádiz Ilustrada more or less confirmed Portillo’s descriptions.
Hay en esta ciudad muchas Hermitas . . . dentro de la ciudad la Iglesia de S. Juan de Letrán, exempta con los Privilegios de S Juan de Letrán en Roma, con sacramento, y está consagrada la Iglesia.
De la Concepcion is the only source I have been able to find that mentions the fact that San Juan de Letrán was a consecrated church - although I must say that I have always taken it for granted that the main Spanish churches of Gibraltar were all consecrated buildings. 

The 18th century Spanish historian Ignacio López de Ayala (see LINK) in his Historia de Gibraltar, quotes Portillo verbatim while James Bell’s 1845 translation (see LINK) of Ayala’s History translates his Spanish “Letrán” as “Lateran”. It is the first example of the use of the English name I have found in the literature. 

In 1911 E.R. Kenyon’s Gibraltar under Moor, Spaniard and Briton, gives us a first clue as to where exactly one might find the church.
The Church of San Juan de Letran (or Lateran) - Bishop Scandella states that this was “probably on the site of the present grand stores” (i.e. the south-west end of Southport Street) (see LINK) and current tradition is in accordance with this. 

Kenyon suggests “current tradition” is supported by this sketch drawn on the 21st July 1704 “which shows a building called “St John’s Church” at about the site of the Convent, It is the only church shown on the drawing “

Kenyon continues: 
There is, however, also a tradition recorded in the Gibraltar Directory that the site of the Grand Stores was formally part of the grounds of the Franciscan Convent and that the Armoury (converted in December 1883 into the Garrison Recreation Rooms and opened as such in April 1885) which was built in 1790 and erected on an old graveyard of that convent. Many skeletons some of them with rosaries, are said to have been dug when the foundations were excavated. 
Probably the explanation is that San Juan de Lateran stood there and after it had disappeared tradition merged the site of the church in that of the adjoining more important one of the Franciscan Convent 
The plans of 1736 and 1753 seem to countenance such an explanation, for they show a lane (as at the present time) between the south wall of the convent gardens and the other side which is marked on the 1753 map as “Inhabitants Garden” – a use to which the grounds of an independent church might very likely have been devoted.

The lane mentioned by Kenyon is now known as Convent Ramp – The area  identified on the map as “Inhabitants Gardens” is today mostly occupied by the John Mackintosh Hall    ( 1753 - James Gabriel Montressor  ) (See LINK)

John Baptist Scandella was the Roman Catholic Vicar Apostolic of the Diocese of Gibraltar during the mid to the late 19th century. As such one would have imagined he knew what he was talking about in so far as Gibraltar churches were concerned. Unfortunately I have serious doubts whether he did. But then he did use the word “probably”.

As regards Kenyon’s “traditions” I am not too enamoured with the evidence offered on the 1704 sketch by the “Officer on Board the Fleet”. It is simply not accurate enough to get us any further forward. In his plan C is Puerta de Africa or Puerta Nueba (See LINK) and not the Land Gate (see LINK) which was actually way to the north and not far from what he called the Sea Gate. (See LINK)  Nor is F the Old Round Tower which was also further north. According to the map F actually occupies what is probably the Moorish Castle (see LINK) – perhaps the most distinctive building on the Rock and which he does not identify. 

Next on our researcher list is the Gibraltarian historian George Palao. In his Our Forgotten Past he adopted the “Lateran” name, followed Ayala’s and Bell’s descriptions and agreed with Kenyon’s version as regards location.
A 16th century church of reasonable size and architecture. It had a priory, a clergy and chaplain and stood on the site of the Grand Stores where the present John Mackintosh Hall was eventually constructed. During the excavations for the foundations of the Hall a number of skeletons were dug up holding rosaries. 
Local historian Tito Vallejo prehaps following Palao’s lead identified the church as Iglesia of San Juan de Lateran and placed it on Luis Bravo de Acuña's map just south of the Convent grounds - or more or less where Kenyon and Palao suggested

17th century map annotated by Tito Vallejo  ( 1627 - Luis Bravo de Acuña - detail - annotated  )  (See LINK)

In the 1970s, local historian Dorothy Ellicott wrote – but gave no references – that before 1704 Cornwall’s Parade – or at least part of it - was known as la Plazuela de San Juan  - and that the church of San Juan de Letrán once stood on the southern end of the parade.

Dorothy Ellicott’s suggested location of the church in Cornwall’s Parade – 1627 – Luis Bravo de Acuña – detail – annotated )

1996, yet another local historian Tito Benady also wrote about the church in his Streets of Gibraltar:
Plazuela de San Juan de Letrán. The small but sumptuously appointed church of San Juan de Letrán had an altar which granted the same indulgence as the church in Rome, and was situated on the south side of an L-shaped square which is now Cornwall's Parade.
Finally  in 2008 the Campo de Gibraltar historian Juan Manuel Ballesta Gómez quotes Portillo in his article - Gibraltar, Siglo XVII: Hábitat, Hábitos Y Habitantes and agrees with the location given by Ellicott and Benady.
San Juan de Letrán. Parroquial, “de razonable edificio y grandeza”, al lado sur de la plazuela de igual denominación, que en forma de L se unía a la calle del Gobernador.
The “Plazuela” in question is – as mentioned by Benady - known today as Cornwall’s Parade, the south east end of which leads on to Governor’s Street. Curiously and as is usually the case in Gibraltar, the square has also often been referred to as both the Green Market and la Plaza de la Verdura – both rather  descriptive names as the square was at one time the site of the main vegetable market. 

There are incidentally two theories as to how it eventually became known as Cornwall’s Parade. The first is that it was used as a parade ground by the 32nd foot or Cornwall's light Infantry in the late 19th century after the Great Siege. The second theory is that it is a corruption of the name of one of Gibraltar's 18th century Governors - General Edward Cornwallis. Not surprisingly the square was rarely referred to as la Plazuela de San Juan by the British.

Cornwall’s Parade looking south identified here by a British officer who also happened to be an artist, as Plaza de las Verduras – San Juan de Letrán would have occupied the buildings at the far end with aa large opening and an awning to the right. To the left of the building is Governor’s Street.       ( 1820 - Henry Sandham  )  (See LINK

After all that it would appear we are left with very little. We have Portillo’s description of the church and its association with the Roman Basilica of the same name. As regards its location I would say that Ellicott’s is the better choice in that it corresponds at least in theory with that shown on Wyngaerde’s map. 

Cornwall’s Parade in the early 18th century - Accepting that San Juan de Letrán is the building to the south – to the right on the map – and that it occupied the entire area marked in bold, then one can add something else about the church - it was rather small - Using the map’s scale provided elsewhere I make it roughly 50 ft x 50 ft in size     ( 1753 - James Gabriel Montressor – detail )