Today we are heading out to the one thing I have been looking forward to all trip, visiting the Jesuit Missions in the jungle.
The start to the day was not great. I was woken up at 3:30 am to a rustling noise at the foot of Jamie’s bed and I had no idea what it was. I was hoping it wasn’t some weird South American animal that carried rabies or was poisonous or anything. So I woke Haley and Jamie up and we the figured out that the noise was Jamie’s packet of Oreos. So to catch the culprit we put the packed in the middle of the room and waited.
Twenty minutes later, we caught a lovely sleek rat dragging the Oreos under the cuboard. So then we spent the next half hour trying to coax it into the cupboard to trap him. When that didn’t work Jamie decided that he was kind of cute and should give him a name. So we dubbed him Ralph Oreo and he probably has diabetes now after polishing off half a packet of Oreos to himself and keeping me awake with his munching. So we felt great and we had a 2 am for a 6 am flight for the next day.
The first mission we visited was San Ignacio, the most well preserved of the thirty missions that have been discovered in the jungle.
The missions were an incredible social experiment in colonial times. The Guarani people who lived in the jungle numbered some 15 million across the junction between Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil. They had been living there for 300 years before the Spanish and Portuguese arrived.
After the arrival of Europeans, the Guarani were regularly preyed upon by both Portuguese and Spanish slavers. In an effort to protect them, the Jesuits came to the area to establish these missions. They learned the Guarani language to a level of high fluency. In Guarani culture, chiefs were chosen based on their eloquence and generosity.
The Jesuits peacefully went to the Guarani chiefs and offered protection, a future in the new colony and Christianity. The chiefs brought their whole family groups and with the Jesuits (usually no more than two per mission) built the missions.
The above picture is a layout of most missions. The centre was the square and the church. On the left side was the cloister and house for the two Jesuits plus guests. Attached to the cloister was the school and library. Next to that was the workshops where the Jesuits taught the Guarani carpentry, stone masonry, art and eventually metal working. On the right side was the cemetery and a special house for the widows and orphans.
The long houses in the foreground were traditional Guarani houses with one per extended family but were subdivided by nuclear family. (The Guarani used to be polygamous until the Missions) there were rows and rows of them. The top two had a chapel making the entrance of the square.
Wandering around the square was decidedly eerie. When the Jesuits were expelled from Spain, Portugal and its colonies, the colonists moved in and burnt the missions to the ground and enslaved or killed the Guarani. I felt like I was walking on a graveyard is the only way I could put words to the feel of that place. And it was freezing cold so I was quite restless and uncomfortable.
But then we got to the Church. The Jesuits brought with them the Baroque style which the Guarani took and created a unique architectural style called ‘Baroque Americano’.
There are three door ways here. The middle door was for the married women and the children. The far left was for single people. The far right was for widows and the men. In its heyday the church would have looked something like this…
The detailing whilst fancy is all Guarani, depicting their local flora and any people or Angels all had Guarani faces.
We explored these ruins with a guide and she explained a lot of the history and bits and pieces.
San Ignacio is the best preserved misson and after some lunch we headed over to another called Santa Ana which was has not been restored. The feel of Santa Ana was totally different to this one.
This mission built the first printing press in South America. It traveled around the missions and allowed the Guarani people to develop a written language. Language for the Guarani was sacred it was the manifestation of the soul so a printing press was a catalyst of an explosion of guarani language literature. Only 2 percent of it has survived the destruction of the Missions after the suppression of the Jesuits.
This is what would have been the altar of the church of Santa Ana. It was laid out much like San Ignacio. Behind the cloister were the communal vegetable gardens. The Guarani had no concept of private property and the Jesuits adapted this to suit mission life by building communal farms. Every man contributed to the maintenance and the excess produce were traded and sold. They had a brilliant irirgation system that is still there.
We had mass in the remains of the cloister gardens. We celebrated the feast of St Ignatius early and I was suddenly hit with how awesome the Jesuits are and St Ignatius was. This were places of sorrow but also places of peace, family and joy. Exploring the more ruined Santa Ana with trees like this around…
… Was so much fun! And after a horrible, overcast and bitterly cold day, the sun came out to spectacular effect, particularly fitting given the Jesuit’s symbol.
This is so far my favourite day. Iguazu was amazing but these missions are all together special. They and the amazing social experiment are now gone, crushed by greed, fear and envy. The Jesuits who built and maintained these missions were amazing men. The did everything from saying masses and caring for spiritual needs to teaching architecture and carpentry and then maths, science and philosophy and then being the doctors, and advisors to the chiefs. They never were so pretentious as to assume they knew everything, they relied on the Gaurani themselves to lead and manage the work and law and order in the missions.
They fought and died to protect these people from a life of slavery and had to watch the life they built for these people be turned to ashes. The surviving Gaurani went to the cities as trained master craftsmen and melted into the rest of the population. There are only forty thousand Gaurani left today.
What a legacy to leave! Not everything the Jesuits did was perfect nor were they perfect men but amidst it all, they managed to provide an oasis of peace for a little while. Their legacy stands as an important lesson in human dignity and the importance of not doing nothing in the face of evil.
Viva Iesus Homnibus Salvator!