San Dionisio Catholic Church Ruins
View from the road

First completed in 1681

Construction of the first San Dionisio Catholic Church in Umatac began on November 12, 1680. On that same day a strong typhoon struck the island. The typhoon hit the southern part of the island producing a storm surge, which caused severe flooding to the islet where Don Joseph de Quiroga and the militia had been cutting wood to build the church of San Dionisio el Areopagita of Umatac.

The Jesuits reported that if (Quiroga and the militia) had remained in the area two hours longer they would all have been swept into the sea. The prolonged force of the wind and the furious beating of the waves washed away a portion of the islet and carried off all the logs the men had cut to build the church.

After the typhoon, residents built new houses in Umatac rather than repair their old homes, as the destruction was so great. Construction of the new church continued and was finished on February 15, 1681.

The early church buildings were of wood with a palm-thatch roof. In the year 1769 the wooden structure was replaced by a stone building using masonry techniques, but it still had a palm-thatch roof. This building crumbled in the earthquake of 1779, was then rebuilt and destroyed again by an earthquake in 1849, reconstructed and crumbled again by an earthquake in 1862. The last reconstruction lasted until the earthquake of 1902. After this the original church building was never rebuilt. Today only the ruins, partially covered with vegetation, remain as one of the legacies of the Spanish era on Guam.

The old San Dionisio is located on lot No. 163, which was formerly a property of the Roman Catholic Church, but it was acquired by the Naval Government of Guam on November 15, 1933. This transaction was recorded in Volume 2 of Certificate of Title No. 681 page 557, Department of Land Management. In 1950 this property was transferred to the Government of Guam, as mandated by the Organic Act of Guam.

The current San Dionisio Catholic Church building in Umatac was constructed by the Spanish Capuchins between 1937 and 1939, under Fr. Bernabe de Cáseda, who was also responsible for the building of San Jose Church in Inarajan.

The San Dionisio church structure was completed and dedicated in 1939. It is regarded as an example of pre-war church architecture, and is a registered landmark of historical sites. The latest restoration of San Dionisio Church was funded by the Guam Preservation Trust and dedicated on 11 February 2001.

Named for the first bishop of Athens

The first name that was given to the church in 1681 was in honor of San Dionisio el Aeropagita. St. Dionysius the Aeropagite was converted to Christianity by St. Paul in his speech at the Aeropagus in Athens (Acts 17:34). He became the first Bishop of Athens. A later legend has confused him with the holy martyr of Gaul (France), Dionysius who was the first bishop of Paris.

Ernest J. Burrus, S.J., an historian, says that “San Dionisio el Aeropagita” was the preferred saint of the Duchess of Aveyro y Maqueda who was a generous supporter of the Jesuit missions, especially the Mission of the Mariana Islands. Francisco Garcia, S.J. dedicated his book The Life and Martyrdom of the Venerable Father Diego Luis de San Vitores (Spanish edition 1683), to the Duchess of Aveyro. Garcia praised the Duchess’s spiritual and economic support for the Jesuit missions.

February 15, 2011 marked 330 years since the construction and dedication of this Catholic church in Umatac. Though the structure has been built and rebuilt many times, one thing remains certain – the devotion to San Dionisio that people of this parish have embraced. Every year residents of Umatac celebrate his feast on October 8.

By Omaira Brunal-Perry

For further reading

Burrus, S.J. Ernest, Kino Escribe a la Duquesa, (Ediciones Jose Porrua Turanzas: Madrid 1964).

Garcia, S.J. Francisco, The Life and Martyrdom of the Venerable Father diego Luis de San Vitores, S.J., RFT MARC Micronesian area research Center: Mangilao, Guam 2004.

Haynes, Douglas E. and William Wuerch, Historical Survey of the Spanish Mission Sites on Guam 1669-1800, MARC Educational Series No. 9: Mangilao, Guam 1993.

US Naval Station Guam, Memorandum from the Governor of Guam to the Judge Advocate General,  Navy Dept., Washigton DC. 25 January 1938.

Library of Thought: Voltaire – Diccionario Filosófico: Dionisio (San) El Areopagita. (Accessed 18 June 2012)