SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — To a passerby, the Iglesia San Mateo de Cangrejos, a pastel-peach Catholic church in the middle of San Juan’s Santurce neighborhood, might look like any other house of prayer. A simple white cross crowns the building. It sits quietly most of the day on its residential corner, coming alive at Mass time, when congregants trickle in and out. Stained glass and potted palms frame its large wooden doors.
Like a sentinel, the church has witnessed the evolution of its community from atop a hill. Santurce, once a settlement in the wilderness founded in the 18th century by free Black people — many lured from nearby islands by Spanish edicts that granted them freedom — is now a densely populated, urban district at the heart of battles over gentrification and displacement.
Much of the community has become unrecognizable for native santurcinos, many who prefer to call themselves cangrejeros, after the community’s original name, San Mateo de Cangrejos. Yet the church, like Santurce did in its origins, continues to provide physical shelter and spiritual refuge for Afro-Caribbean people who come to Puerto Rico seeking freedom from their circumstances and better living conditions.
Since 2010, when a devastating magnitude 7.0 earthquake struck near Port-au-Prince and killed more than 300,000 Haitians, the church has served as a shelter for migrants fleeing crises in their home country. At its helm is Father Olin Pierre-Louis, a Haiti-born priest who helps them navigate life in a new country, from understanding the labyrinth of U.S. immigration policies to getting a change of clothes.
“The job I do is to help my brothers and sisters,” Pierre-Louis said. “Sometimes I have to buy underwear.”
Since the summertime, Pierre-Louis has seen an uptick in arrivals he hadn’t witnessed in years. Between May and October of this year, U.S. Customs and Border Protection in Puerto Rico detained 310 Haitian nationals, more than the total 22 apprehended in 2020. The murder of President Jovenel Moïse in July, a major earthquake in August, and a surge in gang-fueled violence have all contributed to the increase in Haitians coming to the U.S., which saw thousands of migrants, mostly Haitian, attempt entry at the U.S.-Mexico border in September.
Many Haitians who have arrived to Puerto Rico show up at the Santurce church without belongings, long-term plans, money or coronavirus vaccinations after days-long, life-threatening journeys by boat.
But Pierre-Louis welcomes all of them. A love for his homeland and a Christian faith rooted in service — along with a firsthand awareness of the historical treatment of Haitians — drives his community work.
“After a situation like the earthquakes, everyone comes to help Haiti. But a month or two later, they forget,” said Pierre-Louis.
A Black community since its origins
From the 17th century onward, Puerto Rico served as a beacon for Black slaves from across the Caribbean, where they could pledge allegiance to the Spanish monarchy and convert to Catholicism in exchange for freedom. They hailed from Saint Thomas, Saint Croix, and other neighboring islands that served as the hubs of the slave-driven industries that filled the coffers of European empires.
For the Spanish monarchy, it was a chance to debilitate its enemies because it diminished the risk of invasion, said Lester Nurse Allende, a psychologist and community historian from Santurce dedicated to reviving and celebrating the neighborhood’s Black history.
“Spain participated in selling runaways liberty under some conditions,” said Nurse Allende, who is Black. “But even thinking that they could come here and get liberty, it was appealing.”
Many of the libertos, who purchased their freedom made their home in Cangrejos, a region filled with beaches, channels and mangroves that spanned large swaths of San Juan and Puerto Rico’s metropolitan area. The abundant population of ochre-colored crabs that lived along its coasts gave the area its name, said Nurse Allende. It was also home to cimarrones, the name Spain gave to runaway slaves, as well as people who were born free.
The majority-Black settlement gained importance over time. It became a key part of Puerto Rico’s strategic defense against British invasion, staved off by local forces made up of Black fighters, including cangrejeros , who knew how to navigate the thick jungle territory. It was also an agricultural breadbasket, supplying yuca and other staples to the San Juan area, Nurse Allende said.
A group of 55 Cangrejos residents, led by Don Pedro Cortijo, the community militia head, asked Spain in 1773 to declare San Mateo de Cangrejos an official township. Little is known about the life of Cortijo, who was a freedman.
But the request, which included a church, according to a historical newspaper framed at the church office, was granted that same year.
Cangrejos became the 13th town to be founded in Puerto Rico and the only town officially founded by Black people, said Nurse Allende, “but there is absolutely nothing, like a statue, as in other towns, that bears witness to that.”
The modest temple of San Mateo de Cangrejos, which was first a chapel built about 1729, was at the epicenter of the first organized Black communities in Cangrejos. Over time, the church evolved into a building with two towers and a brick dome above the altar.
For about six decades, until 1971, it ceased to be a parish church, according to the office wall newspaper clipping, and became the spiritual home of the nuns who resided at the neighboring Carmelite convent. Despite Cangrejos’ Black roots, Nurse Allende suspects that the church has not always had a friendly relationship with its surrounding community.
“There could have been some friction between the church and the Black population,” he said. “Because you know what that area is known as? As La revuelta del diablo.” The Devil’s Revolt.
Santurce was demoted from its town status in the mid-to-late 1800s. Colonial authorities divided its remains among various places. The core of Cangrejos became known as Santurce, and includes multiple San Juan neighborhoods, including Condado and Miramar.
Nurse Allende was born in Santurce’s municipal hospital, now Puerto Rico’s National Museum. When he was a child Nurse Allende’s family spoke of the Black legacy and history of his neighborhood, a heritage that was reflected in his everyday life. He was educated and shaped at historic public schools in the area, including the Julián Blanco School, the Central High School, and the Rafael María de Labra School.
“It was a city with so much shine. You walked [around] at night and it was full of people. And the lights of the stores. The cinemas. The night schools,” said Nurse Allende. “But Santurce, from that flourishing city, became a ghost town. Its cinemas, its shops, its nightclubs disappeared. Everything disappeared.”
Family homes gave way to parking lots and condominiums. Mangroves were razed and coastal areas developed to the ocean’s edge. And displaced Black families who had lived in Santurce for generations moved into public housing, suburbs or other towns in Puerto Rico, said Nurse Allende.
But the historian emphasized that Black religious leadership, like Pierre-Louis, has been around for years at San Mateo de Cangrejos. Today, the church is one of few physical remnants of a Santurce of times past.
A church becomes a shelter
Rows and rows of simple wooden pews fill the nave of San Mateo de los Cangrejos. The walls are decorated with steel-colored plaques that depict the stations of the cross. A simple crucifix towers behind the marble altar, clothed in green and decorated with clear candles and two yellow bouquets.
At the entrance is a collage of photos of Haitian children, with a verse from the Gospel of Matthew in big, printed letters above their faces: “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”
Pierre-Louis, the church priest, grew up in Jéremie, a coastal city on the western tip of Haiti over two-and-a-half centuries old. The son of a butcher mother and a farmer father, he grew up among three brothers and three sisters. His grandfather donated the land to build the Catholic church they attended, where a Canadian priest celebrated Mass.
“I was an altar boy, and my mother was a sacristan. She got up at 4 in the morning every day to clean the church, help the priest, prepare food,“ he said. “Sometimes the best food, the biggest plantain, that my father grew we brought to the priest.”
Pierre-Louis studied in Haiti, and pursued his religious vocation in the Dominican Republic, Mexico and France. He joined the order of the Paules. After years of visiting Puerto Rico, he arrived in San Juan about 17 years ago.
In 2009, he became the priest for the San Mateo de los Cangrejos Church, a congregation that serves Puerto Ricans, Dominicans and Haitians. Less than a year later, the devastating quake near Port-au-Prince expanded the direction and nature of his clerical service.
“Before, it was only religious work. But when the earthquake struck, it became both religious and social work,” he said.
The church was flooded with donations and supplies to take to Haiti. Pierre-Louis began to travel to Haiti weekly for months at a time, taking doctors and volunteers, medicine, food, clothes and bedding and coordinating help with other religious leaders.
One day, in 2013, he received a phone call that changed the course of his pastoral work. Twenty Haitians had been left by immigration authorities near San Juan’s airport. A friend of the priest, who could not communicate with them, assured them in Spanish that he would find them help.
He brought them over to the church in a large rented cab in two trips. Pierre-Louis offered them food, and sent those who needed medical attention to a local hospital.
“And then more and more began to arrive,” the priest said.
Border authorities in Puerto Rico detained thousands of Haitians in the five years after the 2010 earthquake, according to agency data. Those numbers dwindled after 2015, with some years in the single digits.
Still, the church thrived as a community hub for Haitians on the island. Every Haitian Independence Day, which falls on the first of the year, Haitians meet at the temple to eat Soup Joumou, a pumpkin soup with a long, celebrated history. Pierre-Louis does Mass in Creole and organizes a special liturgy for Haiti’s Patron Saint, Our Mother of Perpetual Help, every June 27.
“There’s traditional food, and there is always dance,” he said. “Many of them live all over the island, and that day people meet each other for the first time and exchange numbers. People come from Mayagüez, from Ponce, from the islands.”
The church’s office space remained open to anyone who needed shelter in the years of the Trump administration—a time when many Haitians stayed put in their home country or set off to South America instead of the United States because of hard-line U.S. immigration policies — but few came to the old church in San Juan.
“I had about 50 mattresses, but since no one had come, I sent them to Haiti,” said Pierre-Louis.
Then, three months ago, Haitians started showing up again at the church steps.
“It is not a coincidence that I came here”
In the San Mateo de Cangrejos makeshift shelter, there are tables adorned with plastic red flowers in vases, where people can congregate and chat. The kitchen is filled with large pots and stocked with staples. Pots of Creole chicken and beans and rice sit on one of two stoves. Only 25 mattresses are kept in the dormitory to maintain social distancing when they are laid out at night. A television set that Pierre-Louis bought to help pass the time sits at the end of the makeshift communal bedroom. The space is filled with piles of boxes, cans of soup and mountains of shoes, donations to help Haitians still in Haiti weather the troubled times.
In recent months, Father Olin has housed people from all walks of life and socioeconomic backgrounds: single men, families, pregnant women and children. About 80% of those who seek shelter at San Mateo are from Port-au-Prince, he estimates, a result of the difficult living conditions and organized crime that dominate Haiti’s capital.
“The gangs are in Port-au-Prince,” Father Olin said. “They can’t walk outside. They don’t have food. Their parents spend five, seven years paying for their profession. And when they finish, they can’t find work.”
Border Patrol confirmed to the Miami Herald that many Haitian nationals they apprehend are coming through the beaches of Mona Island, an uninhabited nature reserve between Puerto Rico and Hispaniola that is a common smuggling point. Many migrants have drowned or been devoured by sharks making their way through the treacherous waters.
“Some [smugglers] throw them in the water,” Father Olin said, “because the one driving the boat doesn’t want the police to catch them. When they reach land, they leave them wherever. Many of them say they almost died.”
But migrants leave Haiti and risk it all to come to the United States, often without knowing where they will make a landfall.
“In Haiti, all you see before you is death,” one migrant who sheltered at the San Mateo church told the Herald in late October. “When I took the route, I made a choice between life and death. If I had stayed in Haiti, the chances for death would have been higher.”
The migrants come and go, showing up one day for food, vaccines and shelter and leaving the next for Boston, Miami, or wherever they plan to join loved ones and start their lives anew. But year after year, Pierre-Louis remains at the peach-colored, old church on a hill, waiting for the migrants to show up.
When the priest first came to serve the parish at San Mateo de Cangrejos, he did not know of the history of the community. It was the congregants, he said, who told him that the shelter at the back of the church office was part of Santurce’s long history as an ancestral Black refuge.
“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.”