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Jesuit missions in Bolivia, Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil

Agents of interference or bearers of great fruit? Either way, the Jesuits left an indelible footprint on vast swathes of South America – good news if you’re a history buff with itchy feet!

We come in peace

Representatives of the Society of Jesus, commonly known as Jesuits, first arrived in Brazil in the 1540s and by the time the order was expelled from the continent in 1767 they had forever changed the course of the continent’s history.

La Santísima Trinidad in Paraguay (Photo: Niels Mickers)

These days most ‘colonialism’ is condemned as evil and exploitative but the jury is still out on the Jesuits, whose mission was to uplift and civilize the locals by converting them to Christianity and teaching them useful trades like tanning and carpentry and finer arts such as music and painting. There’s no denying that their actions were a bit patronizing, but their intentions were good and they were much loved by the locals. At their peak, Jesuit reductions housed a total of 150,000 indigenous people.

A clip from The Mission, the 1986 film which brought, however briefly, the Jesuit project in South America to popular attention.

The Jesuits were abruptly expelled by the Spanish king in 1767 who was worried about their increasing influence and suspicious that they may be stealing from the Crown and harbouring vast reserves of silver and gold – both manifestly untrue. Whatever your take on the Jesuits, there’s no denying that their missions provide one of the most culturally-rewarding tourist experiences anywhere in South America.

In fact, I’d go so far as to say that the missions circuit in Chiquitania in Bolivia is my favorite place on the continent.

Missions in Paraguay

Of the eight missions in what is now Paraguay, only three – La Santísima Trinidad, Jesús de Tavarangue and San Cosme y Damian – are regularly visited, and even these see only a trickle of tourists. It’s a great pity that hardly anyone bothers to see them because they really are some of the most evocative historical sites I’ve ever been too. The buildings, made from local stone which glows a reddish orange at dawn and dusk, are all in a semi-ruinous state, but there’s more than enough left of them to get a feel for what they must have been like in their heyday. They are all within relatively easy driving distance of Encarnacion, which is right on the border with Argentina. The three missions can easily be visited as an add-on to an Iguazu Falls itinerary.

Missions in Argentina

As many as fifteen mission ruins are found in present day Argentina, but by far the most impressive is San Ignacio Mini which is located about 60km north of Posadas and about three hours’ drive from the Iguazu falls. To me, San Ignacio Mini felt like a much bigger and more intricate version of the Paraguayan missions (the building materials, design and topography are all similar) but it also has a much more developed tourism infrastructure which makes it feel slightly less special. Other Argentine missions worth visiting are Nuestra Señora de Santa Ana, Nuestra Señora de Loreto, and Santa Maria la Major, which are all smaller, more ruined, and less touristy.

San Ignacio Mini (Photo: Juan)

Another very important Jesuit site in Argentina is the Manzana Jesuitica in Córdoba, Argentina’s second-largest city. This complex was the capital of the Jesuit Province of Paraguay, and is still the site of the University of Córdoba which was founded by the Jesuits and is one of the oldest and most prestigious educational institutions in South America.

Missions in Bolivia

The mission churches in the region of Chiqitania in the extreme South-East of Bolivia are completely different to those in other parts of South America. All but one of the Bolivian churches are made from adobe and wood (the exception is San Jose de Chiquitos which is built from stone) and they have all been painstakingly restored to a point where they once again serve as churches for the towns they are located in…Some have described Chiquitania as a ‘living musuem’, but there should be far more emphasis on the ‘living’ aspect than the ‘museum’ one.

San Javier has a typical wood and adobe church (Photo: Gatol Fotografia)

They are much harder to get to than the Argentine or Paraguayan missions, and I would highly recommend chartering a guide and a vehicle to do the entire circuit. Each mission is different to the next, but my all-time favourite is tiny Santa Ana – I will never forget watching a dozen or so local children practicing the violin in its unmown plaza.  Music lovers should try to visit during the International Festival of American Renaissance & Baroque Music which will be taking place in late April 2016.

The interior of the church at San Javier (Photo: Gatol Fotografia)

Missions in Brazil

I have not visited São Miguel das Missões, in Southern Brazil but it is most definitely on my bucket list. It’s the only Brazilian mission which wasn’t completely levelled following the Jesuits’ expulsion. Although it’s not meant to be as significant as San Ignacio Mini, those in the know commend its dramatic location on a treeless plain, its excellent site museum and its informative – albeit slightly cheesy – sound and light show.

São Miguel das Missões (Photo: Ernesto Pletsch)

Further reading

This blog barely skims the surface of what is one of the most fascinating periods in South American history. Here are links to some of my favourite articles.

The Jesuit Republic of South America by Richard O’Mara

The Jesuits in Latin America: Legacy and Current Emphases by Jeffrey Klaiber

Araujo to Zipoli: Baroque music in South America by Jane Shuttleworth

Full credit to Flickr user Tanenhaus for the cover image of this blog.


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