A Tale of Two Churches and a Warrior Priest

St. Josephs Church, Puerto de Mazarron
St. Josephs Church, Puerto de Mazarron

The Catholic Churches of St Joseph’s in El Saladillo and St Joseph’s in Puerto de Mazarrón share many similarities. For a start, both Churches have the same Patron Saint in common. The two Churches are also quite close to each other and immaculate, polished masses in English have been conducted at both venues – for some years at El Saladillo and on a temporary basis (initially at least) between June and November 2022, at St Joseph’s in Calle Mayor in the heart of Puerto de Mazarrón.

San Jose Church, El Saladillo
San Jose Church, El Saladillo

The two Churches differ noticeably in terms of size, with El Saladillo being a tiny rural church, situated on the periphery of the rural settlement of El Saladillo, just off exit 17 of the RM3 and St Joseph’s in Puerto de Mazarrón being a much larger venue for worship. The architecture of the two St Joseph’s is also quite different: 

El Saladillo is of an 18th Century design, whereas Puerto de Mazarrón’s St Joseph’s is a late 20th Century creation, designed as part of a collaboration between the architects Javiar Ruescas Redondo and Maria Elena del Hoyo de Blas. In addition, the talents of the Valencian artist Juan Ros Mari were utilised to create the visually imposing circular stained glass mural on the Church’s main façade. The design for the Church won many design plaudits, receiving the 1988 First Prize in the Restricted Competition by Invitation Award and it was eventually completed in 1998.

The new Puerto de Mazarrón Church replaced a much older edifice which had fallen into a state of considerable disrepair. A Church had in fact stood on the spot occupied by the modern St Joseph’s for hundreds of years.

To begin with, Puerto de Mazarrón’s Church was looked upon as being an offshoot of the Church of St Andres in Mazarrón – similar in many ways to English chapels of ease which were linked to more significant Parish Churches located in areas of greater population. However, in 1848, St Joseph’s in Puerto de Mazarrón was raised to the status of being a Parish Church in its own right. Events of a religious significance had taken place on the ground occupied by the Parish Church created in 1848 since at least the latter half of the 5th Century CE. In 1991, on ground now occupied by St Joseph’s, archaeologists uncovered the remains of a Roman burial necropolis, known as the Necropolis of San Vincente. This necropolis was similar to the larger necropolis uncovered at the top of Calle Antonio Cuello Leon, in the centre of Puerto de Mazarrón, where 51 late period Roman graves – buried individually and in groups – were identified. Both the San Vincente and the larger necropolis (known as the Necropolis Tardorromana de La Molineta) housed similar types of tombs, burials and funerary offerings. Indeed, there are probably more ancient burial grounds, from the Phoenician era, still to be uncovered on La Isla in Puerto de Mazarrón.

The tiny Church of El Saladillo was definitely designed and built in the early 18th Century and looks very similar to the country Church located at La Majada, some 9km to the west of Mazarrón. The construction of La Majada, between 1715 and 1735, was definitely sponsored by Luis Antonio de Belluga y Moncada, who became one of the greatest Murcian and Spanish clergymen of the 18th Century. St Joseph’s at El Saladillo was very likely – but not certainly – also part of Belluga’s programme of rural Church construction. Belluga was born in Granada in 1662 and became an ordained priest at the young age of 14. Thereafter, he had a rapid rise through the clerical hierarchy, becoming a lector (reader) at Cordoba, a canon at Zamora cathedral and then a theological professor at Santiago College in Granada.

Cardinal Belluga y Moncado c. 1719 - 1743 Unknown Artist
Cardinal Belluga y Moncado c. 1719 – 1743 Unknown Artist

During the War of the Spanish Succession, in the early 18th Century, Belluga supported the winning side of Philip V and the Bourbons, which provided another timely career boost for the priest from Granada. In 1705, Philip V appointed Belluga, Bishop of Cartagena. Later on, the King also made Belluga, Viceroy of both Murcia and Valencia. Cardinal Belluga responded to this royal patronage in a very traditional manner, by becoming a warrior priest who led his men in battle. At the 1707 battle of Almansa, (located near Albacete), Belluga fought at the head of 4,000 men in support of Philip V, against the Habsburg Archduke Charles of Austria. The battle ended in a complete victory for Philip and after this, Cardinal Belluga became an increasingly powerful figure in the Catholic Church in Rome, as well as in Spain. In 1728, he was appointed as Camerlengo (treasurer) of the Sacred College of Cardinals in the Vatican and in 1732 he became a Crown-Cardinal, theoretically able to veto the selection of a future Pope.

Cardinal Belluga statue, Murcia City
Cardinal Belluga statue, Murcia City

Cardinal Belluga used his enormous power and influence to do much that was good and of lasting value in Murcia:

He sponsored swamp drainage schemes, hospital building programmes and the cultivation of uncultivated land, as well as the construction of small rural Churches.

Not surprisingly, his name is remembered to this day in Murcia City, where the Plaza outside St Mary’s Cathedral bears his name and an imposing statue of the eminent cardinal, created in 1963, looks out over nearby gardens.

Adrian & Dawn L. Bridge, December 2022