Monday, December 5, 2011

The Jesuit Missions

In the middle years of the 16th century, when this gentleman, Ignatius de Loyola, founded the Jesuit Order, the more venerable Augustinians (founded in the 5th Century), Benedictines, (in the 6th) and Franciscans (in the 13th) already had a long-established lock on many of the activities of the Roman Catholic Church.

Opportunities in Europe being limited, the Jesuits sought to grow their power and influence by turning to the Evangelization of the Orient and the New World – and they quickly became known for their willingness to go anywhere, and suffer extreme privation, to propagate The Faith.

This is a painting of one of those intrepid Jesuits of the period. Not quite what you'd expect of a priest, is it?

By 1541, they were established in India.
By 1551 there were making inroads into Japan.

And in 1554, the Jesuit priests Manuel de Nóbrega (on the stamp above) and José de Anchieta (in the portrait below) were able to celebrate mass in their newly-constructed collegio.

This is how it looks today:

And it is now situated in the heart of this city, modern São Paulo:

Half a century later, in 1606, the first of South America’s remarkable Jesuit missions was constructed across the border in what is now Paraguay.
It was a remarkable success.
And similar establishments soon sprouted up throughout the region.

Referred to by the priests as “indian reductions” (reducciones de indios), because they reduced the amount of land occupied by the Guarani Indians and drew the tribesmen  into settlements where they could more easily be converted, taxed and governed, the missions grew and flourished.
Jungle utopias or theocratic regimes of terror?
That depended upon whom you were talking to.

The Guarani undoubtedly benefited to a certain extent, because the Jesuits protected them from colonists who were always trying to enslave them.

But, it’s questionable if they wouldn’t have been much better off if both the colonists and the Jesuits had never come at all.

The Guarani were natural craftsman, and soon became skilled in construction and artistic techniques. The interior above is an actual interior from one of the few churches surviving from that time.

And here you have it, photographed from the outside.

Over the course of the next 180 years, the Guaranis and their Jesuit mentors generated a rich heritage of churches, religious sculptures and paintings.

But, in time, the royal governments back in Europe began to perceive the missions as an impediment to progress. They cared less about the propagation of the faith than they did about exploiting the land and its resources. And they wanted to exploit it for them, not for the greater glory of the Roman Catholic Church.

Ultimately, the Jesuits were forced to abandon the lands ruled by Spain and Portugual.
For more in-depth information about how it came about, go here:

After the Jesuits left (1767) the missions slowly died out, becoming victims of slave raids or being absorbed into European society.

Some have continued to be inhabited as towns.

Most have been abandoned and remain only as ruins. 

The feature film The Mission, with Robert de Niro, gave Hollywood’s version of the story back in 1986.
And won a prize at Cannes.
If you’ve never seen it, you might enjoy watching the trailer:

The waterfalls behind two of the scenes are at Iguaçu, a place I’ve written about earlier here on our blog:

Leighton – Monday


  1. Your photographic visions of such great beauty do not summon up memories of my time among the Jesuits, but your reference to "theocratic regimes of terror" does bring back more than a few final exam experiences.

  2. For some reason, I spent a year at Villanova University, among the Augustinians. (Pennsylvania). Much later, I took classes at Santa Clara University in California, a Jesuit Institution. There was a very different feel. I'm not sure whether you feel the Jesuits came in and took over the native peoples, but I do know they valued education, and learning, and discussion. there was a sense of respect and wonder (I was in the art building) just as I felt when I saw your pictures today. Lovely post.

  3. Ignatius Loyola was a soldier. When he was recovering from wounds, he had a vision instructing him to form an army for Christ. He established the Society of Jesus, often referred to as Soldiers for Christ. Initially, the Jesuits were established as a missionary order but in light of the Jesuit motto, "Give me the boy until he is seven, and I will give back to you the man", they moved onto education. (They got you too late, Jeff).

    Most Catholic priests enter the seminary today after college. There is a four year course of study leading to ordination, so back when young men were entering the priesthood, they were ordained at 25 or 24 years of age. The Jesuits required an eleven year course of preparation so Jesuits were ordained when they were closer to thirty-three. There is a big difference in a man who is 25 and a man who is 33. The men who made it to ordination in the Jesuits were more mature and more sure of the direction in which they were going.

    As to "theocratic regimes of terror", as educators in the twentieth century, the Jesuits did not engage in corporal punishment of their high school students as did the Christian Brothers. Until recently, the men who ran the commonwealth of Massachusetts were often triple eagles, the mascot of the Jesuit institutions in Boston. A triple eagle is a man who graduates from Boston College High School, Boston College, and Boston College Law School. When I was applying to college, women were only admitted to two schools that constituted BC, the school of education and the school of nursing. The Jesuits were dragged kicking and screaming into a world in which they had to educate women. This had nothing to do with misogyny; the goal of the Jesuits is always to bring intelligent and committed men into the priesthood.

    Getting back to "theocratic regimes of terror." The Jesuits and their brothers in education had nothing on the nuns. My husband insists that one of his ears sticks out more than the other because it was pulled and twisted by the nuns throughout his elementary school education.