Last church standing – Santa Maria del Morel- Villafáfila, Spain

The small village of Villafáfila is some forty kilometres north of Zamora, fifteen kilometres east of the Moreruela Monastery has a population of approximately 500 people. Whilst in its prime the small town of Villafáfila once boasted eleven churches, today only one stands, the Iglesia de Santa Maria del Morel.

The Church of Santa Maria del Morel was first documented in 1147 around the same time the Moreruela Monastery was being established by the Benedictines. In 1162 Pope Alexander III, by papal bull, at the request of the bishop of Astorga D. Fernando, took under his wing all the properties of the diocese, including those held in Villafáfila. The church has been described as a gothic church built by Moorish craftsmen.

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On 11 August 1201 King Alfonso IX of León his wife Ms. Begenguela, and his son Fernando future king of Castile and Leon, Castile spend the day in Villafáfila on their way to meet with Alfonso VIII. The Kings close association with the Cistercian order is well documented having donated the lands for the Moreruela Monastery to the Cistercian Order a few years previously.  In 1221, an apostolic judge, rumoured to be Arnuad Amalric, a deputy of Pope Honorius III, declared that Villafáfila belongs to the church of Santa Maria del Morel, by right of patronage.

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From the time of establishment, the Church of Santa Maria del Morel and the neighbouring Moreruela monastery would feud over the ownership and sale of proceeds from the salt mines, the rights to grazing land and the rights to extract wood and products from the forests.  This bitter rivalry would last till 1809, when Joseph Bonaparte, the brother of Napolean would pass a decree where all monastic, medicants and clerical male orders were banned in Spain. The assets of the monks living in the Moreruela Abbey were confiscated and sold in public auction. A second confiscation occurred in the year 1820 and then a final confiscation and closure of the Moreruela monastery in the year 1835 when Juan Mendizabel, closed all monasteries in Spain. In the years between 1809 to 1835, several religious objects and ornaments from the monastery church were transferred to the local churches in Villafafila.

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Today ancient two Celebrant chairs from the Moreruela Abbey can be found in this church. In the end, the last monks from the monastery lived their lives out in Villafafila, each Palm Sunday, the last remnant religious objects auctioned to the church and its parishioners.

The church altar is fascinating and represents the alquerque in The Devil’s Prayer.

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I was truly fortunate, that we got there around midnight and the pastor, not only opened the church but allowed us to light the altar up with candles to recreate the Indiana Jones moment in my book.

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The story was changed to a statue to avoid desecration of the amazing paintings which adorn the altar.

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Spain is full of amazing lost churches and this one is a gem. Standing as it did from the 12th Century, it had a baroque upgrade around the 16th Century and will update this page, one day with some of the incredible baroque features this Church boasts.

Of course, as with the Church in Asen’s Fortress, everything else which surrounds it has disappeared in time, yet this church remained untouched. Even the mighty neighbouring Moreruela Abbey which it so strongly competed against over centuries now a dilapidated deserted ruin. But then, if you believe The Devil’s Prayer, it had to. For it held a secret protected by the Devil himself.

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Getting there

Villafáfila is some 40 hours north of Zamora and I would strongly recommend a visit to this small church if you choose to visit the impressive ruins of the Moreruela Abbey which is less than 5 kilometres from the church.  The small town houses a pigeon breeding industry which has operated since ancient times. Today it is has become a wild life sanctuary and is popular with bird watchers who come to view the migratory and local bird species which inhabit the salt flats.

Travel tips

Visit Zamora, see this amazing Romanesque town and do a day trip to see the Moreruela Abbey and the Iglesia de Santa Maria del Morel. I doubt Villafáfila with a population of just 500 people boasts even the most basic hotel.

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