The People of Gibraltar
1703 - Spanish Churches of Gibraltar - Introduction

A million years ago when I was a very young man I attended church every Sunday and every holy day of obligation. Nevertheless I have never been a religious person and no doubt I will be bypassing purgatory and going straight to hell when I die. Not so most other Gibraltarians, a large proportion of them Catholics many of them staunchly religious. 

Yet the great majority of them will invariably celebrate their faith - and avoid committing any concomitant mortal sins - by visiting one particular place of worship - the Cathedral of St Mary the Crowned (see LINK) - which incidentally is also where I went to on such occasions - albeit very reluctantly.

Main Street (see LINK) and the Cathedral of St Mary the Crowned as I remember it

But it was, as they say, not always thus. Before 1704 and after the eventual British takeover of the Rock I would suggest that the odds against the Spanish population living there being very much less than 100% Catholic must have been very low. In those days, however, there was a far greater choice of churches, chapels, hermitages, convents, monasteries and so forth competing for custom all over the place

Although I find it hard to be precise my most recent estimate suggests that there must have been at least 35 places of worship where the locals could go to on Sundays or whenever they wished. That’s a very large number of churches by any standards particularly when one considers that the population was probably in the region of less than a couple of thousand adult souls at the time.

16th century plan of the Rock in which several churches are identified - some of them possibly in the wrong place (1567 - Anton Wyngaerde) (See LINK)

I have no idea how many Catholic churches there are in Gibraltar as I write but I am sure that the number is nothing like 35 - Nor is our population comparable. I think that in the last census it stood at over 30 000 people of which more than 70% identified themselves as Catholics. So why were there so many churches on the Rock, where were they built and what happened to them?

Detail of an early 17th century plan of the town showing quite a few church like buildings of which perhaps only one - “elrrosario” or Nuestra Señora del Rosario - is identified   (1608 - Cristóbal de Rojas ) (See LINK)

I can hazard an answer to the first two. For a start during the 16th and 17th century religion was much more a part of the day to day affairs of ordinary people than it is today. Following a particular religion was mostly accepted as a way of life. I am of course generalising but on the whole in southern Europe people were mostly Roman Catholics and in the north mainly Protestants of one sort or the other.  Gibraltar as part of Spain with its long standing ultra-conservative Catholic traditions was no exception. In fact if one is to believe our very own Alonso Hernández del Portillo (see LINK) writing in the middle of the 17th century it was perhaps more Catholic than most:
Y así recibimos del Señor por intercesión de su Bendita Madre grandes favores y mercedes en esta Ciudad; y una de las mayores es confirmarnos en su Santa Fe y obediencia a la Santa Iglesia Romana, pues de tiempo inmemorial se puede decir nunca se ha castigado ni llamado por el Santo oficio de la Inquisición a ningún natural de ella . . . 
And thank God for that. El Santo Oficio - more commonly known in English as the Holy Inquisition - was not an institution to be trifled with.  With lots of faith but very little hope or charity it was a wise person who avoided being interviewed by them.

The Inquisition at work and play   (17th century - Alessandro Magnasco)

When the mainly Protestant British took over the place their ingrained contempt for papists - foreign papists to boot - came with them. It didn’t take them long to get rid of all those idolatrous houses of worship. According to a horrified Ignacio Lopez de Ayala (see LINK) in his Historia de Gibraltar:
Las. . . Iglesias y capillas se han destinado a usos profanos, porque el convento de las monjas sirve de barracas, de almacén el de San Juan de Dios, i la casa del almirantazgo está en el convento que fue de religiosos Mercenarios. 
My guess is - although I could be wrong - that the only churches that have survived as Catholic places of worship from the Spanish era are St Mary the Crowned and the Chapel of Our Lady of Europa. (See LINK)

Chapel of Our Lady of Europa.

So what happened to all those other churches?  A number of 20th and 21st century local historians - Tito Benady, George Palao and Tito Vallejo come readily to mind - have tried to answer this question, the last two being responsible for the most comprehensive overviews available. It is to them I have to thank for my own attempt to identify, place and historically discuss as many of these old Spanish religious houses as possibly. 

As the topic is far too big to tackle in a single article I have chopped it up into several sections. Links to these are shown below. May God be with you.

1463 - La Capilla de Medina Sidonia - Gibraltar
1309 - La Virgen de Europa - The Mosque
1470 - La Misericordia - The First Hospital in Gibraltar      
1501 - St Mary the Crowned - Stripped of an Islamic Past
1530 - Cabeza, Santiago y Brígida - Gibraltar
1530 - Nuestra Señora del Rosario - Gibraltar
1530 - San Sebastian y Angustias - Gibraltar
1530 - San Juan el Verde - Gibraltar
1531 - The Convent - And King’s Chapel - Gibraltar
1550 - San Juan de Letrán - Gibraltar 
1550 - La Iglesia de la Vera Cruz - Gibraltar
1550 - Nuestra Señora de los Remedios - Gibraltar
1550 - Capilla del Auxilio - Gibraltar
1550 - Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe - Gibraltar
1550 - Other Spanish Churches - Gibraltar
1567 - Juan Mateos - Vivió y murió en Gibraltar               
1570 - Los Mercedarios - Gibraltar 
1582 - Building a Monastery - Los Mercedarios de Gibraltar
1587 - Monasterio de Santa Clara - Gibraltar