A church where nature and religion intersect

Photos by Frank SkokoskiFather John Castro's Roman Catholic church in the Galapagos Islands

Sharing God's Kingdom
with sea lions and blue-footed boobies

Father John Castro leaned back in a flimsy green plastic chair in his office in his church in the Galapagos Islands, the Cathedral of Franciscan Santa Maria Nieta de Jesus on Santa Cruz Island. It was a stifling day and a boxy, portable fan sitting on the beige floor was riffling his white polo shirt. He was wearing navy cargo shorts and black flip-flops.

Father Castro, 46, is the pastor of the church of Santa Maria. It is a rotating job and he is half way through his one-year assignment. He says he and his congregation are beginning to know each other and that he is starting to make progress on his objectives.

The Galapagos are a World Heritage Site and Father Castro said he is working to encourage his congregation to more fully engage with the environment. He sees the Galapagos as a shared home of people and wildlife, giant tortoises, blue footed boobies, sea lions and others. “Diversity comes in many forms in the Galapagos,” he said in a conversation in his office just behind the main altar of the cathedral. “Whether it be unique animals or unusual tourists, we should remember to respect one another and to give each other privacy and respect.”

People from around the world turn up in the Galapagos. Some of them decide to stay and discover that, because of government regulations, they cannot take jobs. Father Castro said he wants to embrace them, too.

On Thursday afternoons he hosts a big dinner before the evening service. Everyone is invited and lots of people from all corners of Santa Cruz come. He wants the community atmosphere, he said, and he quietly hopes to draw in those people most in need.

“Many of my members have no way to make a living and feed their family because residency is difficult to obtain,” he said. “These dinners provide a steady meal to those who need it, without them feeling like they are receiving a handout.”

The church is a monument to faith and the environment. It is a prominent whitewashed concrete building on Charles Darwin Avenue, the main street of Santa Cruz. It’s soaring green tin roof creates a breezy, cool sanctuary. The altar is a simple slab of cedar on a stone pedestal. The crucifix hangs over a mural of the green and rocky Galapagos landscape. Stained glass windows high along the walls of the cathedral show sea lions and marine iguanas, whales and blue-footed boobies at play.

In his sermons, Father Castro weaves together all his themes from a religious perspective. “I teach messages of virtue and respect,” he said.

Leah Colucci

The church has its own radio station with studios in a corner of the cathedral. It is the voice of the church throughout the four inhabited islands of the Galapagos Islands, in the Pacific Ocean about 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador. About 30,000 people live in the islands. The radio station broadcasts services and religious programs and it is a vehicle for messages from Father Castro.

Ziv Torre, the director of the station, 96.7 FM, said the station has a strong religious mission but also broadcasts messages on the worldly aspects of the church. One regular source of material for the station is the Charles Darwin Research Center on Santa Cruz.

“We use the radio station to promote the welfare of the island,” the radio station director said. “ I am always posting messages about upcoming projects and events with the Charles Darwin Station.”

When a small cargo ship ran aground on the nearby island of San Cristobal, Father Castro organized a group of volunteers from his congregation to help unload the ship, and he took up a collection to cover their costs at Sunday service. “My members don’t have much to contribute,” he said, “ but we are doing everything we can.”

Sixty-five percent of the people in the Galapagos say they have a relationship with the Catholic Church, making it by far the biggest religious bloc in the islands.

“We have a great responsibility,” Father Castro said. “But my congregation is a group of strong people who want to help solve the problems around them.”#


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