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Jesuit Missions of South America

Jesuit Missions of South America


San Ignacio Mini

Living quarters at San Ignacio Mini Jesuit mission in Argentina

Peter and Jackie Main

The priests of the Society of Jesus, more commonly known as Jesuits, who developed the series of missions in what is now Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Uruguay and Paraguay had little notion that one day the ruins of their establishments, great or small, would be on the tourist circuit.

Visitors come to see the ruins, the grand scale of some of the churches, the native carvings copied from European art of the day, and the way of paternalistic, benevolent governing that made the Jesuit missions a total contrast to the management of native tribes elsewhere in Latin America.

In return for an exemption to the policy of encomienda in which the native tribes were subject to manual labor for their subsistence, the Jesuits proposed a novel idea in which each settlement, called a reducción or redução in Portuguese, was developed as a social and economic extension of the mission to bring the Roman Catholic religion to the indigenous populations, mainly the Guaraní tribes, via spiritual instruction, education, commercial endeavors and trade. These missions would create tribute for the Spanish crown as “payment” for leaving the territories in Jesuit control. There were two priests assigned to each reducción, each with separate and clear duties.

The Guaraní were farmers with a reputation as fierce warriors. Under the reducción system, they lived communally and brought their farming skills with them. They learned basic education and crafts such as carpentry, leather tanning, tailoring, art, bookmaking and manuscript preparation. The more promising boys were given advanced, classical educations. The Guaraní society quickly became literate, and their architectural talents became known as Guaraní baroque. The Indians worked communal lands, had a short work day with time devoted to religious ceremonies, sports, education and music.

The development of creativity and art led to magnificently worked churches and architecture in the missions. The Jesuits in turn protected the tribes from “bad influences” and exploitation by the Europeans. In effect, since these areas of South America were remote from the Spanish and Portuguese crowns, the Jesuits created their own powerful domains.

Over the next 150 years, the missions grew into small cities, economically strong and centers of education and crafts for the Indian tribes. The reducciónes had their individual style, but all shared the same organizational plan. Surrounding the village plaza with its cross and statue of the mission's patron saint, were the church, college, churchyard and houses for the Indian residents. Each reducción also provided a house for widows, a hospital, many workshops for the creation of artistic items and several warehouses.

As they grew, the mission cities drew the notice of Spain, Portugal, and Pope Clement XIV who feared that the Jesuits were becoming too powerful, too independent. In 1756, Spanish and Portuguese forces attacked the missions, killing many and leaving the reducciónes and reduçãos in ruin. The surviving natives fled, and the Jesuits were expelled from South America, as they were from other portions of the globe. However, their spirit remains in the ruins of many missions: sixteen reducciónes in Argentina, seven in Paraguay and seven reduçãos in what is now Brazil.

The first missions were in Brazil, begun in 1609, but abandoned in the 1640’s after repeated raids by the Paulistas, from Sao Paulo, which had been founded by Jesuits in 1554. Later missions were armed and ready to repel bandeirantes, the Portuguese and half-breed Indian slave raiders from Brazil.

In Paraguay, the mission sites were centered between the Tebicuary y Paraná rivers in what are now the departments of Misiones and Itapúa. See this map.

  • San Ignacio Guazú (1610)
    The first Jesuit Reducción in Paraguay is located in the city of San Ignacio de las Misiones, 226 Km from Asunción. The mission museum is representative of all the Jesuit reducciones with a detailed view of the missionary way of life.
  • Santos Cosme y Damián (1632)
    Located in the city of Santos Cosme y Damián, 342 Km from Asunción, this mission was an astronomical observatory with a school.
  • Santa María de Fé (1647)
    Located in Santa María, 240 Km from Asunción, near the Ciudad de San Ignacio, this mission is built on a large scale. It has a museum with details of the architecture and daily life.
  • Santiago (1651)
    This mission is one of the best historical mission sites still in use. The homes of the Indians bordered the central plaza where there are monuments and a museum. Located in the city of Santiago, which is the center of the Fiesta de la Tradición Misionera.

    More Paraguayan, Argentine, Bolivian, Brazilian and Uruguayan missiones on the next page.

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