Search Supreme Court Cases


U.S. Supreme Court

Ponce v. Roman Catholic Church, 210 U.S. 296 (1908)

Ponce v. Roman Catholic Church

No. 143

Argued March 3, 1908

Decided June 1, 1908

210 U.S. 296


Under the Organic Act of Porto Rico, March 2, 1901, 31 Stat. 77, the legislative assembly has express authority to legislate regarding the jurisdiction and procedure of its courts, and it has been usual for Congress to give such power to the legislatures of the territories.

Such legislation was not contrary to the Constitution, and was in conformity with the power conferred by Congress upon the legislative assembly to regulate the jurisdiction of the courts.

Since April 11, 1899, Porto Rico has been de facto and de jure American territory, and its history and its legal and political institutions up to the time of its annexation will be recognized by this Court.

As to our insular possessions, the Spanish law is no longer foreign law, and the courts will take judicial notice thereof so far as it affects those possessions.

The Act of Legislative Assembly of Porto Rico of March 10, 1904, conferring jurisdiction on the Supreme Court of Porto Rico for the trial and adjudication of property claimed by the Roman Catholic Church was within its legislative power.

The general prohibition in the Act of July 30, 1886, 24 Stat. 170, against territorial legislatures' passing special laws does not apply where specific permission is granted by the organic act of a particular Territory.

Page 210 U. S. 297

Because it gives a certain corporation a right to maintain an action, a law cannot be regarded as a special law granting an exclusive privilege where it confers equal rights upon the people and the municipalities affected by the right and interested in matters affected.

A dedication to a public or charitable use may exist even where there is no specific corporate entity to take as grantee. Werlein v. New Orleans, 177 U. S. 390.

The Roman Catholic Church has been recognized as possessing legal personality by the Treaty of Paris with Spain of 1898, and its property rights solemnly safeguarded. In so doing, the treaty followed the recognized rule of international law which would have protected the property of the church in Porto Rico subsequent to the cession. The juristic personality of the Roman Catholic Church and its ownership of property was formally recognized by the concordat between Spain and the papacy and by the Spanish laws from the beginning of settlements in the Indies. Such recognition has also been accorded the church by all systems of European law from the fourth century of the Christian era.

The fact that a municipality in Porto Rico furnished some of the funds for building or repairing the churches cannot affect the title of the Roman Catholic Church, to whom such funds were thus irrevocably donated and by whom these temples were erected and dedicated to religious uses.

This suit was commenced by the Roman Catholic Church in Porto Rico through the bishop of that diocese, against the Municipality of Ponce. The complaint fully set forth the facts by reason of which relief was demanded. A demurrer was interposed, which was overruled, and leave to answer granted, which defendant having failed to do, judgment was entered by default.

It appeared that the Roman Catholic Church had been for many years in the lawful and peaceful possession of two churches, or temples, one in Ponce and one in Playa, the port of Ponce, dedicated, consecrated to, and always used by, the Catholic Church for its worship.

The petition alleged, among other things, that

"these temples or churches were built with the funds of the municipality within which they are situated, and since then they have been maintained by donations and alms from the parishioners, and, with respect to them, their possession by the Catholic Church runs for many years, counting from the time when the building

Page 210 U. S. 298

of the same was completed. And none of the buildings of those temples, since they were built, has been used for any other purpose than Catholic worship."

In 1827, by reason of steps taken by the royal alcalde of Ponce and by the then governor of the island, Don Simon de la Torre, a board or commission having jurisdiction over the repairing and conservation of churches advised the governor that it was

"in keeping with the decorum of a rich and Christian city like Ponce to have a temple which would show that such conditions existed, covered with an arched roof, and not a roof of thatch,"


The petition describes with considerable minuteness of detail the various steps taken to rebuild or repair this church at Ponce. The last estimate for repairs was made in 1872.

It is evident from the record that the sums expended came from several distinct sources --

(1) Funds voluntarily contributed by the parishioners; (2) the funds of the "House of the King;" (3) an assessment made in 1835-6; (4) moneys advanced by the municipality.

As to the church at Playa, it was erected, in part, at least, with funds donated by the parishioners, and apparently on private land.

Whether the funds subsequently used for repairs of either or both of the temples were in part derived directly from the municipality or merely taken by way of loan was a matter between the central government and the municipality, which could not affect the title of the church under the then-existing relations between church and state.

The complaint then alleged:

"13. The City Council of the city of Ponce has included in the inventory of its property the parochial church described in the first allegation of the complaint, on the ground that, from time immemorial, the said church has been included in that inventory. We do not know the exact date on which that inventory may have been made, but, according to the information we have, it only runs back a few years from this date. "

Page 210 U. S. 299

"14. After the change of sovereignty, the City Council of Ponce attempted to record in the registry of property the possession of the said church, and the lot upon which the same is situated, but, in view of the fact that this was contrary to the provisions of paragraph 2 of article 25 of the regulations for the application of the mortgage law, which excludes the inscription of public temples used for Catholic worship, the registrar of property of the District of Ponce refused to make the inscription unless a decision be obtained from the Secretary of Justice to authorize the same, notwithstanding the prohibitive provisions of the regulations. The Secretary of Justice rendered the decision applied for, repealing, without being a legislative authority, the said article 25 of the regulations in its second paragraph."

The Supreme Court of Porto Rico rendered the following judgment at San Juan, Porto Rico, May 21, 1906:

"This cause having heretofore been regularly called for decision upon the demurrer filed by the defendant to the plaintiff's complaint, and the same having been fully considered and overruled, and leave granted the defendant to file an answer within the time prescribed by law, and the said defendant having failed to file such answer, and judgment by default having been duly rendered therein, all of which proceedings appear in the record of this court, it is accordingly now hereby ordered, adjudged, and decreed that the plaintiff have judgment against the defendant as prayed for in the complaint, and that all adverse claims whatsoever of the defendant and of all persons claiming or to claim the property herein described, or any part thereof, under said defendant are hereby ordered, adjudged, and decreed to be invalid and groundless, null and void, and that the plaintiff be and hereby is declared, adjudged, and decreed to be the sole, true, lawful owner of the houses and lands hereinafter described, as set forth in the complaint, and every part and parcel thereof, and that the title of the plaintiff thereto is adjudged and decreed to be quieted against any and all claims and demands

Page 210 U. S. 300

of the defendant, and the said defendant is hereby perpetually enjoined and estopped from setting up any claim or title whatever thereto, or to any part thereof."

"Said premises are bounded and described as follows:"

" The first is a building constructed of brick and masonry, situated in the city of Ponce, on an area of sixty-five meters and eight centimeters wide, including the walk, the building measuring forty-eight meters long by twenty-five meters and sixty-seven centimeters wide; bounded on the north by the Plaza Principal; on the south by the Plaza de las Delicias; on the east by the fire department, which is situated on the same lot or yard as the church; on the west by the said Plaza Principal."

"The second is another building situated in the center of the Plaza de la Playa de Ponce; the superficial area whereof measures forty-two meters and twenty centimeters long, by nineteen meters and forty centimeters wide; including the walk, the building measuring eighteen meters and thirty centimeters long by sixteen meters and twenty centimeters wide. It is bounded on all four sides by the Plaza de la Playa."

"The inscription of possession heretofore made in the registry of property at Ponce, concerning the above said properties, in favor of the defendant, the Municipality of Ponce, is hereby cancelled and declared to be utterly null and void, and the proper indorsement must be made upon the said registry indicating the same."

"It is hereby further ordered, adjudged, and decreed that the plaintiff do have and recover all costs of this suit, which are hereby taxed at $ ___ dollars, and that the defendant be ordered to pay the same within thirty days from this date."

"Thus, we pronounce, command, and sign."

The case was then appealed to this Court, and the following errors assigned:

"First. That the Supreme Court of Porto Rico was without jurisdiction of the subject matter in controversy. "

Page 210 U. S. 301

"Second. That said court was without jurisdiction of the parties."

"Third. That the said court erred in overruling the general demurrer and the eleven special grounds of demurrer interposed by the defendant to the complaint filed in said cause."

"Fourth. That the said court erred in rendering judgment against defendant in said cause, upon the pleadings in said cause, and that the judgment is contrary to the law and the facts as stated in the pleadings in said cause."

"Fifth. That the court erred in entering judgment without taking evidence and proofs or setting the cause upon the docket for hearing."

"Sixth. That the said court erred in rendering judgment in favor of the plaintiff and against the defendant in said cause. "

Page 210 U. S. 303

Powered by Justia US Supreme Court Center: PONCE V. ROMAN CATHOLIC CHURCH, 210 U. S. 296 (1908)

Official Supreme Court caselaw is only found in the print version of the United States Reports. Justia caselaw is provided for general informational purposes only, and may not reflect current legal developments, verdicts or settlements. We make no warranties or guarantees about the accuracy, completeness, or adequacy of the information contained on this site or information linked to from this site. Please check official sources.