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The Old Temple of Saint Augustine, (Antiguo Templo de San Agustín) was home to the National Library of Mexico for some 112 years. Today, it’s a magnificent former Augustinian monastery awaiting the next phase of its storied history.
Easily one of the most important monasteries in New Spain, in fact, the building was completely destroyed in 1676, and then only reopened in 1692. That earlier construction had begun in 1541, and finished, over many decades, in 1587.
The San Agustín monastery housed the College of the Holy Name of Jesus, dedicated to teaching reading and writing. Students were both Spanish and indigenous Mexican people. That work carried on for many years. And as the Augustinians were never expelled from New Spain, as the Jesuits had been, their influence on the education level can be understood as extensive.
However, by 1861, the Reform Laws were being truly enacted, and the building was confiscated by the government. In 1867, a presidential decree created the National Library of Mexico. The Library was to remain there until 1979. In 1914, the library passed to the then-new National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM). UNAM maintains control of the building and various plans for its future have been announced. These include a museum of Indigenous Languages. But the state of the building remains perilous.
In 1957, the old sacristy and the small cloister were returned to the Augustinians who re-established their church. They rebuilt just about the entire interior, from pews, to confessionals, and the altar. While this part of the complex of the Temple of Saint Augustine is accessible, it remains to be seen what will become of the old library.
Importantly, in 2019, researchers with the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) made significant discoveries during digs aimed at preserving the building. Discoveries included multiple human burials, as well as a wealth of information about the various phases of re-construction over the four centuries of the building’s history.