Dark red bricks stand out against a stark blue sky. Long shadows peter out over fields, the soft light of the late afternoon giving the ruins an air of mystery. Who was that saint draped in a robe, holding a staff in his right hand? Or that elegantly-dressed woman, whose nose was rudely cut off?
On my stroll among the restored walls of an old Jesuit settlement I stumble upon remains of statues, lintels and columns. They raise questions about the past. As no guide or brochure were available, I relied on information from guidebooks and history books to answer the questions and tell the stories.
The Jesuits, or the Society of Jesus, is a Roman Catholic order of religious men, founded by Ignatius de Loyola and approved by the Pope in 1540. The order grew rapidly and 20 years later more than 1,000 Jesuits were already working in Europe, Asia, Africa and the Americas.
In the latter, 30 Jesuit missions were founded along the Paraná River of the former Province of Paraguay (currently northeast Argentina, south Brazil, west Uruguay and south Paraguay), where Jesuits converted and educated Guaraní Indians.
The Jesuit Missions and Guaraní Arts
The Jesuits created missions, or reducciónes, where they founded schools and hospitals for the Guaraní Indians and stimulated all forms of artistic talent. The Jesuits adapted to the culture of the indigenous communities, contrary to Spanish and Portuguese colonizers who just conquered and exploited the new territories.
Interestingly, the Guaraní had no tradition of carving prior to the arrival of Jesuits, yet they produced large quantities of fabulous sculptures and other arts. They combined traditional Guaraní with Christian elements, which later became known as Guaraní baroque.
The Expulsion of Jesuits from South America
In time the missions became too successful and too independent, and thus formed a threat to the Spanish colonizers. In 1767 the Spanish Crown expelled the Jesuits from their territories and in 1773 the Pope abolished the order. The Jesuit utopias were raided, the Guaraní Indians were captured or managed to flee into the forests. What is left today are ruins, which are well worth a visit.
I visited 2 of them, in Jesús de Tavarangüe and Trinidad. They are part of a larger group of smaller ruins, all located in east Paraguay, near Encarnacíon – a border town with Argentina.
The Jesuit Missions in Jesús and Trinidad
La Reducción “La Santísima Trinidad del Paraná” was founded in 1706 and was one of the most important Jesuit missions in the region. It is also by far the best-preserved mission in Paraguay. In the former square – Plaza Mayor – I admired the remains of the church with elaborate carved walls and sculptures in niches. The precincts of the church include arched walls of workshops and houses, as well as the remains of a cemetery and school.
Surrounded by extensive fields cultivated with soya and villages with cobbled streets where ox carts are still a common means of transportation lies La Reducción “Jesuítica de Jesús de Tavarangüe”, which was set up in 1685.
Here the Jesuits constructed one of the largest churches of all Jesuit missions, the ruin of which is all that is left of this mission. I walked up the stairs and took in the view from the 6-foot wide, red brick walls that emanate a feeling of the church’ grandness. I looked down the roofless ruin onto a row of columns on a floor that has disappeared under a green carpet of grass.
Before everything else threatened to disappear as well, Paraguay’s Jesuit Missions were designated a UNESCO World Heritage Status in 1993.
- The closest airports to the former Jesuit Missions are Libertador General José de San Martín Airport in Posadas, Argentina (22 miles) and Guaraní International Airport in Asunción, Paraguay (128 miles). Both cities have bus connections with Encarnacíon, along Ruta 6, which is a good base to visit the Jesuit Missions in both Trinidad (17 miles) and Jesús de Tavarangüe (25 miles).
- If you’d like to visit other former Jesuit missions in the region as well, it may be handy to rent a car as going by bus can be (too) time consuming. These missions are all located along Ruta 1: San Cosme-San Damián, Santiago, Santa Rosa de Lima, Santa María de Fe and San Ignacio Guazú. You can find car rental agencies in Ciudad del Este and Posadas.