Central America

Central America comprised, in 1868, five sovereign states, viz. Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Honduras, and San Salvador. The eastern coast of. Central America was discovered by Columbus in 1502, the western by H. Ponce in 1516. The Spaniards soon subjected to their rule the greater part of the country; but on the Mosquito coast the Indians maintained their independence, and the district of Peten was not taken possession of until 1697. In 1821 the five states overthrew the Spanish rule by a bloodless revolution; in 1822 they called a Constituent Assembly, and in 1823 they declared themselves an independent republic, under the name the United States of Central America. The new confederacy was continually a prey to civil war, arising principally from the mutual hostility of the three races: the white, which prevails in Costa Rica; the Indian, to which in Guatemala almost 90 per cent of the entire population belong; and the mixed, which is predominant in the three other states. The year 1839 put an end to the union, and the confederacy was divided into five sovereign and independent states. Together with the Spanish dominion, the ecclesiastical rule of the Roman Catholic Church was established throughout the whole extent of Central America. After the declaration of independence, the Central American confederacy showed itself favorable to ecclesiastical reforms and to religious toleration. The Constituent Assembly forbade the proclamation of papal bulls, and the receiving of money for indulgences. From 1826 to 1831 all the convents of monks except those of the Bethlehemites (q.v.) were suppressed, and in 1835 an annual visitation of the female convents was ordered, in order to see that no nun was retained in a convent against her will. In 1832 religious liberty was proclaimed, and Honduras even abrogated for some time the celibacy of priests. Since the dissolution of the union there has always been a fierce struggle between the clerical and the liberal parties. Some of the states, in particular Guatenmala, have recalled the priests, and re-enforced the most odious laws of intolerance which ever disgraced a papal country; others, in particular Honduras, have been more faithful to the principles of literalism. The religious condition of the people, as in all the papal countries of America, is very low. The grossest superstition prevails, especially among the Indians. In the Indian villages the rule of the priest is almost absolute. Worship consists mostly in processions and in the veneration of the images of the saints. Every Indian endeavors to possess a saint's image, which is preserved in the church, and which he carries about at processions on a gilded pole. At the festival of the saint the rossessor of the image gives a great banquet, and the priest receives for the mass which he says, in honor of the saint, money and fowl. If the possessor of the image dies without heirs, it is bought by another Indian, lest it be rejected from the church; for the church rejects every image that has no owner, and every such rejection is expected to forbode a calamity to the village. The processions are attended by flutes and other instruments, by immense clouds of frankincense, and by a great display of fireworks. A peculiar custom is observed on the day of Pentecost, when a white dove, ornamented with flowers, is placed on the head of the priest who stands before the altar, and flowers are showered upon him from all sides. Marriages are conducted in the villages before sunrise, a custom probably transmitted from the times of Indian paganism. Efforts to establish Protestantism in Central America have been repeatedly made, especially by missionaries sent out by the venerable Mr. Gossner (q.v.), but thus far without great permanent fruit. The Moravians, however, have had (since 1848) some flourishing missions on the Mosquito Coast, an independent district of Central America inhabited by about 20,000 Indians. Their missionary statistics in 1860 were as follows: stations, 3; missionaries, 7; converts, 219. The Roman Catholic Church in the five states of Central America is under the jurisdiction of the archbishop of Guatemala (who is assisted in his diocese by two bishops in partilus infidelium) and four bishops, at San Salvador, Nicaragua, Comayagua (the capital of Honduras), and St. José (in the state of Costa Rica). The aggregate number of parishes in the five states, according to the last accounts, is 243, with 4 missions, and the number of churches 716. See Reichard, Centro-America (Brunsw. 1851); Fröbel, Seven Years' Travel in Centro-America (Lond. 1853); Marr, Reise nach Central-America (Hamb. 1863, 2 vols.); Squier, Te States of Central America (N. Y. 1858). SEE AMERICA.

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