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¡Si Podemos! Yes, we can!

November 29, 2023
Aguadilla Fellowship House, Christmas 1942. [Pearl ID: 141976]

The Presbyterian Church in Puerto Rico “Feels very much isolated from the rest of the Church,” said a Puerto Rican ecclesiastical leader during an organizational meeting regarding the unification commission. I recently completed a master's in public history. During that time and through the research of my thesis, I realized I felt the same, but in the context of History. I felt that minority voices were somehow muted among most historical narratives. Seeing this phrase quoted in a Presbyterian News Service report, made me recognize the importance of promoting narratives and histories from those shared within our culture. To work towards breaking down the walls that make minorities feel like we are not an important part of church history. We must be willing to discuss our histories.  

As I dug into the resources available at PHS related to the Presbyterian Church of the United States and Puerto Rican History, I found an interesting book by Jose Aracelio Cardona: Breve Historia de la Iglesia Presbiteriana en Puerto Rico translated as The Brief History of the Presbyterian Church in Puerto Rico. What drew my interest about Breve Historia is how the author connects social themes such as colonization, religion, economy, and health to the development of Presbyterianism on the island. These were themes I explored in my thesis, specifically connecting them to the development of religion on the island of Puerto Rico.  

When Europeans colonized the country and the Taino natives in the early 1500s, they forced Catholicism upon the inhabitants and used religion to influence their beliefs and even their form of living. Originally, the Taino Natives were people who formed a relationship between the land and its resources. People who were connected to the earth and what the Puerto Rican lands provided. They were native groups that believed there was a higher being beyond Earth that made them, and that He sought to connect with them. Colonization on the island was brutal and beyond violent, and Taino Natives were forced to assimilate. Like the Taino, other native groups were murdered and battles and wars on the island affected the livelihood. As many of our ancestors died, a handful lived and adapted to the times in order to survive. At the same time Natives were being killed, African slaves were forced onto ships and into the Caribbean to work the lands.   

Presbyterian missionaries followed the United States military when it invaded Puerto Rico in 1898. According to Cardono, Puerto Rico was a Catholic country.  However, a group of underground protestant evangelicals existed in Aguadilla and elsewhere in Puerto Rico’s northwest. Given Bibles by Dutch reformed merchants in the 1860s, and gathering in house churches ever since, these protestants were known as “Los Biblicos” . When American denominations divided up their sphere of influence on the island, Presbyterians took the west, from Aguadilla to Mayaguez, to Cabo Rojo. (DS) 

In 1899, Reverend Milton E. Caldwell began work as a missionary in Mayaguez. Caldwell was one of the first missionaries to work among Puerto Ricans. Even though Spain had not allowed other protestant groups to evangelize on the Island, when Caldwell arrived the land became one of the most vital for the spread of the PCUSA.  (Mount, Graeme S. “Presbyterianism in Puerto Rico: Formative Years, 1899-1914.” Journal of Presbyterian History (1962-1985) 55, no. 3 (1977): 241–54)  

Mirroring the past effects of Spanish rule on the Taino groups and African slaves, the present health of the people and their lands were also affected, and access to medical doctors was scarce. The death rate during the early 1900s was double that of the United States with children being the majority of who suffered from the conditions on the island. Protestant missionaries such as Caldwell, noticed the poverty and disease on the island upon their arrival. They were witnesses to the conditions Puerto Ricans were living in and felt a call to help the island and its people.  

Presbyterianism found a tactical foothold on the island as it found Puerto Rico in these unfavorable conditions. On April 1st 1900, Mayagüez became the first city in which a Presbyterian Church was established in Puerto Rico; Rev. Milton Caldwell organized the Mayagüez Central First Presbyterian Church .

Mayaguez Central Church, Mayaguez, Puerto Rico, 1910. [ Pearl ID: 140312]

As the Presbyterian footprint in Puerto Rico grew, the PCUSA began providing medical services. A well-known Reverend J. Milton Greene worked in the suburbs of San Juan to bring medical care and resources to areas that were suffering from the effects of poverty (Northern) 1868, pp. 196f; Odell, pp.). Since 1901 the Presbyterian Hospital in Santurce , the hospital established by Greene, served tens of thousands of patients in need. At the same time, the PCUSA sponsored the Rye Hospital in Mayaguez, which was supported by the Presbyterian Church in Rye, New York, from which it got its name. Serving Puerto Rico didn’t stop there, the PCUSA worked on providing further resources such as educational schools and trainings to equip the communities (Mount, Graeme S. “Presbyterianism in Puerto Rico: Formative Years, 1899-1914.” Journal of Presbyterian History (1962-1985) 55, no. 3 (1977): 241–54. ) 

By 1906, most theological students in Puerto Rico were attending seminary in Mayaguez. The Mayaguez Seminary provided a way for the Puerto Ricans to become the local personnel by which the church’s efforts could spread on the Island. By 1908 the PCUSA became the largest Protestant denomination on the island (PCUSA, “Minutes” of the Board of Home missions, 1899-1914). The church was not afraid to pour its resources into Puerto Rico. Because of this, medical doctors, nurses, and schoolteachers were able to serve in Mayaguez, Santurce, and Aguadilla.  

Polyethnic Institute, San Germán, Puerto Rico, 1940. [Pearl ID: 142131]

Presbyterianism continued to grow on the island as Puerto Ricans converted and joined the church. The PCUSA’s efforts in assisting and equipping the island continued. In March 1912, John William Harris, a Presbyterian leader organized the Polyethnic Institute in San German. This school started as an abandoned farmhouse where eight boys and four girls would meet for class. Not too long after Harris bought the house, it became a secondary school and then eventually a university that was supported by Puerto Rican and American business professionals. From 1914-1920 it was under the guidance and care of the Board of Home Missions of the PCUSA. As the years went by the school became popular and even more supported. This humble school eventually became the Inter-American University- La Inter Americana.

Inter American University, San Germán, Puerto Rico, 1957. [Pearl ID: 142181]

Near the shore of Mayaguez, the PCUSA Board of National Missions owned and operated a settlement house from the Marina Presbyterian Church. It served as a clinic, nursery, and primary school while also establishing safe clubs for boys and girls to be a part of. (RG 303 items-La Marina Neighborhood House items/images). During the October 1950 uprisings, the family and friends of Victor Colón Bonet, pastor of La Marina, witnessed a police crackdown on revolutionary violence. 

Marina Neighborhood House, Mayagüez, Puerto Rico, 1957. [Pearl ID: 142225]

When the Presbyterian church took root in Puerto Rico, they noticed the religious, educational, and social voids on the island. However, the Church didn’t just provide services for Puerto Ricans, they formed the bridge to religion that was absent on the island. Instead of dictating the island's culture, it helped equip Puerto Ricans to become leaders in their communities, leaders of influence and change. The church believed in the potential of Puerto Rico and its people.   

Today the Hispanic/Latino-a community,  play a key role in the Presbyterian Church and are the third largest Presbyterian group in the PC(USA).  The first Puerto Rican moderator of the General Assembly, Vilmarie Cintrón-Olivieri was elected in 2018. We are great leaders within the church all while staying true to our culture and people. We are known for putting our flare and spice into everything we do. Our liturgy and services all reflect our culture and la pasión /passion we have for serving God and serving others.  

Puerto Ricans; we are vital to the history of the Church as our island proved to be one of the most vital breeding grounds Presbyterianism. When we feel that we are not vital, or when we are told to believe we cannot and will not amount to anything, may this piece remind us that we have overcome many challenges and conflicts from the time of our ancestors, the Taino natives, to today.  Let us remember that along with our island, we have risen from the ashes. May this history be the proof and driving force for why we believe that ¡Si Podemos! Yes, we can! 

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