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.

    • Jesús del Tavarangué (1685)
      Named as a Patrimonio Universal de la Humanidad by UNESCO in 1993, and located in the Ciudad de Jesús, this mission is in a scenic area and is one of the most restored and visited Jesuit reducciónes.
    • Santa Rosa de Lima (1698)
      248 Km frim Asunción in the city of Santa Rosa, this mission is well-known for the architectural details and the Capilla de Loreto.
    • Trinidad del Paraná (1706)
      Also named as a Patrimonio Universal de la Humanidad by UNESCO in 1993, this was the last of the Jesuit reducciones in Paraguay and is the one most often visited. The great church, school, workshops, housing, cemetery, orchard and museum offer insight into the life and philosophy of the missions.

      Most of the missions are located between the Paraguayan and Brazilian borders, in the province of Missiones.

    • San Jose de Lules
    • San Ignacio Miní (1732)
    • San Ignacio Miní's Mission, Nuestra Señora de Loreto, Santa Ana, Santa María La Mayor
    • Corpus, San Carlos, San José, Martires, San Javier, Conception, Apostoles, Santo Tomé, Yapeiu, La Cruz, Candelaria
    • Sao Lourenco Martir , now known as San Lorenzo in the Parana region.
    • San Nicolas , originally founded in Brazil and moved to what is now Missiones province following attacks by bandeirantes.
    • Santa Ana , originally founded in Brazil and moved to this site near the Parana river.

      The missions are located in Chiquitania region from Santa Cruz, east across the Río Grande towards the border with Brazil. The missions, constructed between 1696 and 1760, were declared "World Heritage" by the UNESCO World Heritage Committee in 1990.

    • San Javier 1691, was the first Bolivian mission. Its church “is a long low building, the roof coming down steeply to create a verandah on the sides and a deep porch in the front. There is a cloister to one side, with an open wooden belltower. The church interior is a simple rectangle with two lines of immense columns, each carved out of a single tree, marching down to the high altar. The woodwork is picked out in two colours, a reddish brown made from the local earth, and black from soot. Above the altar are carvings -- crude by Jesuit standards, but lively -- telling the story of the Jesuits. Locked during the day, at night the church comes alive when the electric chandeliers blaze with light and the nave is packed for the evening service.”
      Bolivia's Jesuit missions:
    • San Ramón
    • San Ignacio de Velazco
    • Concepción
    • Santa Ana (1637)
    • San José de Chiquitos
    • San Jose
    • San Francisco Javier, Conception, San Miguel, San Rafael
    • Sao Joaquin (1747), San Estanislao (1747), Belen (1760)


    • Sao Miguel Arcanjo (das Missoes) (1687) , near the city of Santo Angelo, is “Listed by Unesco as a World Heritage Site, the ruins of the mother church of São Miguel are the main symbol in Brazil of the missionary civilisation. Designed by the Jesuit priest and architect João Batista Promoli, the church is an example of the baroque architecture of the missionaries, inspired by Renaissance rules established by Vignola for the Gesu church in Rome. The largest piece of religious architecture in the Jesuit settlements, it still possesses the remains of walls, partitions, vaults, facade and bell tower, and, as an important world heritage site, has been preserved and restored by the Ministry of Culture. Next to it is the Museum of Missões, where objects of art and architecture are on display and there is a reconstruction of the settlement and the Indian houses by the architect Lucio Costa.”.
    • San Luis Gonzaga and Santo Angel Custodio Missions
    • Santo Angelo (1706), Sao Francisco de Borja (1682), Sao Nicolau, Sao Luiz Gonzaga, Sao Lourenço Martir (1690), Sao Joao Batista (1697)


    • San Juan Bautista in present day Colonia de Sacramento, orginally founded by the Portuguese.

      to get to any of the missions, check flights from your area. You can also browse for hotels and car rentals.

      Have you visited the Jesuit missions? If so, share your experiences with a post in the forum.

      Buen viaje!