Narrative of an Official Visit to Guatemala from Mexico/Chapter 10

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Interview with the President.—Members of Congress.—The Archbishop.—State of the Church.

The next morning, the 18th May, I called on Don Marcial Zebadua, who, I understood, was minister for foreign affairs: he has been nearly two years in this country, as minister from the republic. On calling upon him there, I found that he had shortly before resigned in favour of Don Jose de Sosa, to whom he introduced me. We, afterwards, all went together to the president. Whatever I might have anticipated in regard to the attention and favourable consideration of his Excellency, the manner in which he received me was far beyond my most sanguine expectations. My official character was not strictly defineable; I had no credentials; and, although a Commissioner of inquiry, I had not about me, like the other commissioners to Mexico, the ministerial appointment which they were, individually, to assume when the case required, to support me in my official pretensions: I had no other introduction to the president than that, which I had been able to obtain by my conduct at Mexico. I explained to his Excellency the object and motives of my journey, and the interest I had taken in the affairs of the Central Republic; the information respecting it, which I had, from time to time, transmitted to his Majesty's Government, and the gratification I should feel in being able to report favourably on the present state of its political regeneration. This candour was fully requited on the part of his Excellency. He told me that my zeal in the cause of their independence was as well known at Guatemala as at Mexico; that he had anticipated the probability of my commission for many months before it was made public in that capital; and, after many other observations of a kind and complimentary nature, observed that, in my future intercourses with him at Guatemala, I should consider him in a double capacity; as president of the republic, and, to use his own expression, "as Juan d'Arze, your friend." I was introduced, the same day, by Mr. Bayley, the agent of the house of Messrs. Barclay and Co., to the Marquess of Ayzenena and some other families of influence and distinction; and, on the following day, went down to the congress, which was sitting. The greater part of the members, were in succession, introduced to me, and Mr. Bayley, who had been a long resident here, had the goodness to point out those who were considered as the most enlightened and competent to afford me assistance in collecting the various points of information to which my official inquiries were directed. I could not help remarking the Englishman-like, well dressed, appearance which many of the members exhibited. One of them, a young man with a broad cloth pelisse particularly well furred and frogged, seemed much engaged in contemplating my habiliments: they were far from correct. I had on a blue frock dress coat, with canary silk linings, which, I need not add, is, by no means, a morning dress; but I happened to have no other, as all my baggage was swamped and spoilt in landing at Sonsonate. I was glad to escape from the scrutinizing gaze of this comptroller of Guatemalian costume.

In returning, I looked in at the Aduana, or Custom-house, to inquire about my baggage, when Don Nicholas Rivera, the administrator, informed me that a free permit had been already sent down to the office from the minister of Relations. The house itself is a large square building with cellars abutting from the inner sides, for the deposit of goods and merchandize. The courtyard was occupied with bales of cochineal, indigo, hides, and other articles of traffic: there was an apparent health and activity in the trade of this little republic, which filled the mind with pleasing anticipations of its increase, or, as the French would say, its future destiny. The long room, if I may so call it, was occupied only by six clerks, but they were "all actively employed", (as the British Boards of Commissioners in their returns to the Treasury would say,) and there might have been as many more engaged in other parts of the establishment.

In the course of the day, the Padre Castillo, one of the most influential members of the Congress, called upon me in the name of the Archbishop, the Padre Casaus, and delivered to me a polite message inviting me to take up my abode in his palace. I had with me two letters of introduction to His Grace; but, taking the proffer in the usual acceptation of the term, politely declined it. I, however, called the next day, and delivered the letters in person: I discovered that we were, mutually, acquainted with many persons at Mexico, and these were chiefly, I found, amongst the most respectable of the old Spanish families, some of whom I used to think rather dubiously of with respect to their attachment to the new systems of these governments. Not being at present acquainted with the political feelings of the Archbishop, and concluding that, under any circumstances, it would be better for me to live free and independent during my stay in the capital, I again refused the pressing offer he made me of the use of his house. This, however, I had some difficulty in effecting, as he assured me, with a good-natured expression of features, (he is a particularly handsome man about fifty,) that he was not asking me in the Spanish meaning, but in truth and sincerity, or words to this effect; and, "come", said he, opening some folding doors, which led into another suite of rooms, "I will shew you your apartments." I walked through them with him; they were handsome and commodious; but I still felt it proper to decline his kindness: though, to say the truth, I had much difficulty in doing so; for never did any one who offers a civility which, at the same time, he dreads will be accepted, experience greater feelings of embarrassment than I did in rejecting the sincere overtures of this kind and liberal man.

I very soon got acquainted with the history and character of Don Ramon Casaus: he is a person of engaging manners, and vigorous with respect to years and intellect. He informed me that he had thought it his duty, in the first instance, to oppose the measures of the independent party, as being subversive of the principles of the government which he was bound to uphold, and by which his authority was protected; but that, as the march of public opinion gained ground, and when he found it was absolutely the wish of the people at large to have an independent government, he was induced to relax his opposition, and, afterwards, to prevent the bloodshed which must, naturally, have taken place, pending a conflict of such a domestic nature, to give his firm and decided support to the newly established government. He was originally a friar, but is now the representative of the secular clergy, and carries, with his opinions, the influence of all the most able ecclesiastics of that denomination. It is not equally certain that all the religious corporations, as such, are so much in favour of the new order of things. I am, indeed, inclined much to doubt it; although they appear contented, speak fairly, and do not venture, by word or act, to exhibit any overt marks of opposition. With respect to the permission for Protestant worship, His Grace gave me to understand that, as far as regarded private worship, there could be no objection;—that the Guatemalian constitution was formed as liberally as it could possibly be, under existing circumstances: that the article relating to religion was much more general than that regarding the same subject, as enacted in the constitution of Mexico; for that, in the latter, the words are "Tit. 1. Art. 3. The religion of the Mexican nation is, and shall perpetually be, the Catholic, Apostolic and Roman: the nation protects it by wise and just laws, and prohibits the exercise of any other whatsoever"; whereas, in the Guatemalian constitution, the words are "Tit. 2. Art. 11. Its religion is Catholic, Apostolic and Roman, to the exclusion of the public exercise of any other whatsoever."

Although such are the sentiments of the first authority and, perhaps, of most of the consequential members of the hierarchy, it is to be apprehended that any thing like an alarm on the score of divine worship being carried on in a manner dissimilar from that to which the community at large have hitherto been accustomed, might produce very disagreeable effects. It must not be concealed that the people, especially the lower orders of it, are most fastidiously wedded to their forms of worship, and keep up their ceremonies with stricter observance and greater ostentation than, perhaps, the natives of any other countries in the whole of the late Spanish dominions; but they are, at the same time, of so kind and peaceable a disposition, that nothing but a direct violence to their religious feelings would be likely to excite their opposition; and, hence, amongst the numerous foreigners who had visited the capital, within the last twelve months of my arrival, (more it is supposed than had visited it within the last three centuries,) no one, as I could find, had been questioned or in any way slighted upon the grounds of having professed a faith, the tenets of which might differ from those of the established religion.

I subjoin a few remarks on the state of the church, translated from a short report furnished me by the Canon Castillo; I have every reason to believe it, from collateral evidence, to be worthy of credit.

There are in the republic of Central America 300 parishes, most of which contain from two, three, to four settlements; each parish having its curate, and these one with the other, may be reckoned to receive an annual stipend of 1,500 dollars, or £300 sterling each. There is at the present time in Guatemala a cathedral, with bishops and canons.


In Leon de Nicaragua, a cathedral, bishop, and canons.

In Comayagua, a cathedral, bishop, and canons.

In Ciudad Real, a cathedral, bishop, and canons.

And it is in agitation to erect two others; one in San Salvador, and the other in Costa Rica.

The religious communities are of the orders of Saint Francis, Saint Dominic, (very rich,) Saint Austin, Philip of Neri, Belen, (with an hospital,) Our Lady of Mercy and of the Reform, and of Saint Peter of Alcantara.

These large convents of the capital have smaller ones in the other cities and towns throughout the republic; and the whole of them may contain together about 300 religious persons. Each convent has a gratuitous school for the instruction of the poor, in reading and writing, arithmetic, and the principles of religion and morality. In some districts, the religious are curates, and are much beloved by the natives, whom they civilize and teach many useful arts besides those of industry and agriculture: they have sufficient influence in affairs relating to the government, and are very orderly citizens. In the capital, there are, at the most, eight convents of nuns; maintaining themselves on their own funds, and having schools for the instruction of girls: they lead a very regular life. The churches in the capital amount to thirty. They are ornamented in a most costly manner; are magnificent in their construction and munificent in maintaining great pomp and splendour in their respective religious functions: it is certain that, in the republic, the cost of religious worship is equal to twice the expenses of the government. It will be seen by the above account that the clergy are no unimportant branch of the political establishment of Guatemala. There seems to be a very friendly understanding between them and the government, and the same exists amongst themselves, if we except, however, some difficulties that have arisen in the appointment of a bishop of San Salvador. The people of that state, conceiving it necessary to establish a bishoprick, appointed, without the consent of the Archbishop, the father Delgado to that function.

The Archbishop, having denied his sanction, and, in fact, having refused to ordain him, the matter was referred to the ecclesiastical Cabildo, who reported that the appointment was not lawful. The matter having then been discussed by the congress, it was agreed that it should await the decision of the Papal See, through the medium of the legation sent to that country from Mexico.

The sentiments of the Pope, as they affected the general important question of the independence of these New States, had been very favourable, until the issuing of the Encyclic of the 24th September 1824. We gather from the Bull of 7th September 1822, that Pius VII., addressing the Bishop of Colombia, says—"We are, certainly, very far from wishing to meddle with those subjects appertaining to the political state of the public interest; but regarding only the cause of religion, the things that belong to our ministry, whilst we bitterly deplore the cruel wounds that have been inflicted upon the church in Spain, we are, at the same time, exceedingly anxious to provide for the necessities of the faithful in those regions of America; and we, therefore, pant with the desire of being intimately acquainted with them."—It appears, by a subsequent letter, from Pope Leo XII., to the same bishop of Colombia, that he had the same views as his predecessor Pius VII.; and, that, as far as regarded their spiritual affairs, he was ready to treat with the clergy of that republic on the same footing as if they had been still dependent upon Spain. And here the matter rests.