Some scholars maintain that it is the oldest church in Gran Canaria, erected by the Franciscan monks who, between the 14th and 15th centuries, arrived on the island on evangelizing missions before the Conquest. A reform in the XIX century, however, prevents a study to know the exact date of its construction, which has not prevented many historians from highlighting the historical value of the place: Gregorio Chil y Naranjo, Tomás Arias Marín de Cubas and , more recently, Carmelo Pérez.
At first it was a hole in the rock, a cave dug to carry out prayers, where Franciscans, and also Majorcan merchants along their numerous business trips, came to worship Santa Águeda. Thus, of the latter we still find a wooden board with the Virgin painted inside the church, a clear indication of the antiquity of the place, although it is also considered that it could have been an anonymous imitation of the Balearic style, made in the 17th century.
But beyond its historical value, the hermitage has also been a place of reference for the residents of El Pajar (San Bartolomé de Tirajana). “I used to sit here with my family, on this bench,” remembers Antonia Lucía, a neighbor of the town raised in the area. “The benches were numbered and each family had its own.” On Sundays, say the Dominican sisters who still take care of the church today, those pews continue to fill up, and people can even be seen standing by the door, as there are no free spaces. Weddings, tourist visits (many Italians come to greet the patron saint of Catania and Sicily), official visits at town festivals… no one seems to have forgotten the importance of the place.
A very damaged historical treasure
And despite all this, the historical value and social relevance of the temple, when asking the people who spend the most time with it (the sisters, the neighbors or also the parish priest Juan Antonio) the answer is unanimous: the hermitage is in bad state, and from the institutions nobody takes care of her. “Last weekend a piece of cement fell from the ceiling,” said Juan Antonio; “It’s not that it’s sad that the Church is like this, it’s that it falls on someone’s head and it can hurt them.” The cause of these detachments is the humidity, also visible on the walls. Every day there are bits of paint that the sisters have to sweep up.
On the other hand, the heat also accelerates the deterioration of the enclosure, for which a donation was made from the townspeople and an air conditioning unit was installed, located on the entrance wall. “But it doesn’t work either,” explains Carmen, one of the Dominican sisters, “it also broke down several years ago because of the humidity.” The result: a large mechanical device on the wall of a church several centuries old, and the outdoor unit, already rusty, placed just a few meters from the façade, on land where several archaeological finds have been made, finding remains of an ancient aboriginal village.
But there is even more: the panel of Santa Águeda, that historic painting in such a characteristic Majorcan style, and which, according to popular tradition, miraculously appeared on one of the rocks on the beach, has not come out of the situation unscathed either. After a restoration process, they covered it with varnish and altered its original appearance, as well as piercing it with a nail in the upper part of the wood.
No one is responsible for maintenance
No one can explain how all these attacks against historical heritage have been possible, in the same way that the surroundings of the cave-hermitage are getting worse and worse. When it comes to taking responsibility for the cave-hermitage, its management and maintenance, there are several entities that could have acted accordingly. On the one hand, Santa Águeda is located on the lands of the Count of la Vega Grande, so any hypothetical repair inside it could only be carried out if his authorization was previously received. This does not imply that the Casa Condal endows or has endowed the hermitage with economic resources to undertake said reforms.
In fact, the reconstruction of the 19th century, after a collapse, was financed with alms collected during religious services, acts that are still carried out today, without preventing the diocese (after obtaining the count’s permission to carry out liturgical cults in the hermitage), has not taken charge of the economy of the place. An example of this is that even the Dominican sisters who, even at their age (all over 80 years old) continue to open the doors of the hermitage every day, currently live on their pension as former teachers and on the gifts that some neighbors give them. periodically.
At present, the latest reforms in the hermitage have been carried out by the public administration, as the main entity responsible for maintaining and protecting the historical heritage of the islands. This justifies, thus, the fact that in 1990 the procedures for the file that declared the cave-hermitage of Santa Águeda as an Asset of Cultural Interest (BIC), by resolution of the Government of the Canary Islands, were initiated. As the file closed, the hermitage already enjoyed that institutional protection since the process began, as it was already initiated, but not approved.
Humidity, at that time, was already a problem pointed out by several experts in charge of monitoring the state of the hermitage, so in 1998 and 2003 two reforms were carried out, installing fluorescent light tubes inside the hermitage and covering the original volcanic tuff walls with cement. In both cases, the original appearance of the hermitage was, again, altered, and the problem of this humidity was not solved effectively, as can be seen with the naked eye.
The file as an Asset of Cultural Interest expired in 2020
However, one last event would leave the hermitage completely unprotected. In 2020, a ruling by the Constitutional Court following a complaint by a construction company caused the expiration not only of the Santa Águeda cave-hermitage file, but also of 155 other places in the Canary Islands (Gran Canaria was the most affected island, with 57 expired records). All of them had been initiated, they were never officially approved.
In the case of this church in El Pajar, thirty years were not enough for the Government of the Canary Islands to issue a ruling in favor of its BIC status. From the regional administration they point to the Cabildo, since this matter was within its competence: “The files were announced, but then they were processed forever in the Cabildo; they never reached the Government, so we could not officially declare them”, they are justified from the General Directorate of Historical Heritage of the Government of the Canary Islands.
On the contrary, when asking the Cabildo Heritage inspectors about it, they specify that, initially, the responsibility did fall on the regional administration: “It was not until 1992 that these powers came to us. When the Santa Águeda file was opened, the Government was the one that had to finish it.” A crossroads of reproaches from which it can only be deduced that at some point in the transfer of functions, the papers in the Santa Águeda file were lost and never saw the light of day again, at least until the Constitutional Court ruling declared them unusable.
This sentence established a waiting period of two years (concluded this year) to reopen the files and a maximum time to complete the procedures, something that both administrations assure they will do. In addition, the new Historical Heritage Law offers island catalogs as an alternative guarantee to protect cultural assets.
However, none of these measures has yet arrived, and the people of the hermitage doubt that, at some point, someone will truly take charge of this historical and social treasure. In the meantime, the air conditioning will still be there, just as the paint will continue to crack, the hole in the board will not disappear, nor will the holes left by the fallen cement on the ceiling of the place. Santa Águeda will continue to fall, and the only thing that matters to the residents of El Pajar is how long she will hold out.