Photo Credit: CHRIS TAYLOR
This Historic Church In Puerto Rico Once Welcomed Freed Slaves. Now It’s Helping Haitian Refugees
San Juan’s San Mateo de Cangrejos is a historic church in Puerto Rico known to once welcome freed slaves. It is now on a mission to help Haitian refugees.
It all started in 2013 when Father Olin Pierre-Louis got a call that changed the trajectory of his work when he learned that 20 Haitians were left by immigration authorities near San Juan’s airport.
Pierre-Louis’ friend couldn’t communicate with the migrants, but he assured them in Spanish that he would seek help by taking them to the church in San Juan’s Santurce neighborhood. The father offered them food and promptly sent those who needed medical attention to the hospital, as first reported in The Miami Herald.
It’s not a coincidence for Father Pierre-Louis, who is Haitian himself. He studied in Haiti, Dominican Republic, Mexico, France. He became the priest for San Mateo de los Cangrejos Church in 2009, a congregation that serves Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, and those from his homeland.
After the earthquake devastated Haiti in 2010, the church overflowed with donations and supplies. Traveling to Haiti became a weekly trip as Pierre-Louis would take doctors, volunteers, medicine, food, clothes, and more to Haitian communities.
Father Pierre-Louis is continuing in the footsteps of leaders before him by offering a safe space and physical shelter to Haitian refugees who have made their way to Puerto Rico.
Since the 17th century, Puerto Rico has been a haven for Black slaves from Caribbean countries, including Saint Thomas, Saint Croix, and other neighboring islands. They could reportedly pledge allegiance to the Spanish monarchy and convert to Catholicism in exchange for freedom.
Many of the libertos made their home in Congrejos.
Cangrejos became the 13th town to be founded in Puerto Rico and the only town officially founded by Black people Lester Nurse Allende, a psychologist and community historian told the Miami Herald.
“But there is absolutely nothing, like a statue, as in other towns, that bears witness to that,” he added.
San Mateo de Cangrejos was built in 1729 and at one point, was the epicenter of the first organized Black communities in Cangrejos.
Cangrejos became known as Saanturce and now includes multiple neighborhoods, including Condado and Miramar.
When the priest first came to lead the San Mateo de Cangrejos congregation, he did not know the community’s history. It was the congregants who told him that the church used to shelter runaway and freed slaves.
“A Black woman who died eight years ago, at 106 years old, and whose whole family lives here, told me that it is not a coincidence that I came here,” he told The Miami Herald.