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Where Did the Other 80% Go?

The Altar of La Merced Church in Lima

The Altar of La Merced Church in Lima

According to John Hemming’s excellent history, The Conquest of the Incas, only 20% of the gold went to the King of Spain. Where did the rest go? Pizarro and the conquistadores probably got the lion’s share, but after visiting dozens of Peruvian churches, I am beginning to think that the Church came in for a huge windfall, if not sooner, then later. You can see it at the Cathedral and San Pedro in Lima, in addition to the Church of the Company in Arequipa and the massive Cathedral in Cusco.

The first church I visited in Lima was La Merced on Jirón de la Union, whose altar is shown above. As I visited more and more churches, I saw the tons of gold and silver lavishly displayed, so much so that many of them are victims of larceny, such as the church at Maca at Colca Canyon. (Although stripped of much of its gold, it still looks impressive to me.) In the nearby church at Coporaque, I discovered a motion detector that tracked my movements in the nave with an audible beep.

Nowhere have I ever seen such a display of wealth. It is no surprise that many of the churches, such as the Cathedral at Cusco, have security personnel to protect the churches’ wealth.

There was another side to the splendor of the great Peruvian churches.

The Birthplace and Chapel of St. Martin de Porres in Lima

The Birthplace and Chapel of St. Martin de Porres in Lima

On Callao near the intersection with Tacna is the birthplace and chapel of St. Martin de Porres. The chapel is tiny (you can see the sign by the leftmost door) and contains only a prie dieu and a statue of the saint, along with a bin for prayer requests and another for contributions. The building also contains doctors’ offices and a cafeteria for the elderly poor of the neighborhood. In fact, when I was waiting for the building to open at 2:30 pm, I shared the doorway with one of the volunteers, a sweet lady who spoke little English, which added to my little Spanish, managed to allow us to communicate. Needless to say, I made a contribution.

I neglected to say that St. Martin de Porres was black and a descendent of slaves. The stories about his life have a certain sweetness to them, and he is much loved by the people of Lima.