The Jesuit Missions Tour

So the whole purpose of flying to Santa Cruz was so I could go visit two of the seven Jesuit Missions a few hours drive from Santa Cruz. The Jesuits moved into the Chiquitania region of Bolivia in the 17th century from Paraguay and immediately went about “making friends” with the indigenous communities of the region in order to ensure that they could co-exist with the indigenous people. The Jesuits established a community hierarchy in each settlement headed by three Jesuit priests that was protected by a military unit and this unit afforded the indigenous peoples protection from the Spaniards. In order to further gain the trust and respect of the indigenous peoples, the Jesuits introduced music to the communities and over time gained incredible power and influence over southeastern portions of Bolivia. The Jesuit settlements reached their peak of power when Father Martin Schmidt designed a number of the missions and taught indigenous people how to build their own musical instruments. A power struggle between the Catholic Church and the Spanish lead to the expulsion of the Jesuits in 1767.

Anyway, I was off to visit two of the missions: the mission in San Xavier and the mission in Conception. My guide Maria and driver Pepe arrived shortly before 9 on Monday, and we hit the road for the four hour drive to San Xavier.

Cheesy Bolivian bread goodness

On the drive we had to pass through a myriad of highway checks by police as well as toll stops. At each stop our vehicle was besieged by local women who were selling homemade food stuffs. At one of the first stops, Pepe purchase a bag of homemade cheese bread. And let me tell you, you have not lived until you have tasted this stuff. Small rounds puffs of cheesy goodness made with yucca flower and egg and loads of cheese (usually homemade mozzarella). These little dynamos were highly addictive, but fortunately, very filling. Really one of the most tasty treats I have eaten on this trip to date.

Mooo (weird looking cows)

So once we had passed out of the suburbs of Santa Cruz, we were driving through flat land farming area for the first 2 plus hours of the trip. We passed massive ranches with lots of funny looking cows, wheat and soygum farms and of course lots and lots of sunflowers used to produce sunflower oil.

Horse and buggy
Mennonites in a buggy

As we drove, we passed through the little town of 4 Canadas (seriously). The town was apparently settled by a lot of Mennonites from Canada and we in fact saw a mother and daughter in classic long dresses and bonnets as well as a number of horse and buggies. What I found particularly surprising is that Mennonites have clung to the German language and have never learned Spanish. Apparently the Mennonites own several large farms in the area and participate in a number of cooperatives to sell their farm products. Given this, I found it weird that they did not speak Spanish.

Anyway, about 2 ½ hours into the trip, the road became much more windy and hilly and instead of wide open farms, we started to see more jungle like scenery with a lot of flowering trees. In addition, the landscape included massive boulders on both sides of the road and we passed a number of little streams and lakes with interesting looking birds (sorry no pics).

The front of San Xavier mission church

We finally reached the little town of San Xavier around 1:00 p.m. After the typical Bolvian massive lunch, Maria and I wandered down the street to tour the church and museum. Maria was a wealth of information about the church. She told me that the San Xavier mission church was built between 1749 and 1752 by Father Schmidt. After the Jesuits were booted from Bolivia, the missions (including the San Xavier mission) fell into complete disrepair. Fortunately, in 1972, Swiss architect and Jesuit priest Hans Roth began an extensive restoration project of the missions. The San Xavier church was restored by Roth between 1987 and 1993 using some individuals brought over from Europe and also many, many local people. The restoration project included shoring up the structure, refurbishing paintings, and recreating statutes, alters and benches, many of which would not be refurbished.

17th century statutes in museum

The museum was quite interesting, and included a myriad of artifacts from the church, including small wooden statutes, silver chalices, and pieces front the original wooden building. Now while the museum was interesting, the church was absolutely spectacular. The restoration project was incredible. Most of the original roof remained in tact, however, many of the original pillars had been replaced and the painted design on the walls had been redone. There was one wall where a fresco had been uncovered and that was really spectacular.

Original fresco

Throughout the church, there were symbols of the interaction between the indigenous peoples and Catholic history. For example, statutes were made to look like indigenous peoples while others were clearly of Western European persons (lighter skin and curly hair).

Interior of San Xavier church mission

We wandered around the church and admired the amazing architecture and hand crafted designs. To think that all of the artwork was done by hand using a paintbrush or a hammer and chisel was simply astonishing. One of the more remarkable churches I have ever seen.

After the visit, we hopped back in the car and drove another hour down the road through similar landscape and hilly conditions to reach Conception, the home of the second mission I was going to visit the next morning. Once we were checked into the lovely little garden hotel, Pepe and Maria gave me a brief tour of the dusty little town. Most of the streets were made of red dirt and motorcycles constantly buzzed by us. The buildings in the town were single level colonial style with clay or thatched roofs. It appeared to me that the majority of the buildings housed restaurants or little stores.

The lake and damn in Conception

After a quick tour of the town, we ended up driving to a small lake nearby that also included a dam from which hydroelectric power was drawn. Because it is the dry season, there was very little flow through the dam, but I was told during the wet season, there is a lot of power generated from the dam.

Conception mission church at night

After the visit around the area, Maria and I had dinner at a local restaurant and then visited the Conception church just before high mass was to begin. The lighting in the old church was exquisite and I was actually surprised by the number of people who were attending mass. There was a fellow playing a guitar and singing and number of people lighting candles. Just as the priest made his entrance, Maria and I left.

17th century statutes
Original pulpit from Conception mission

I ended up with a lovely night’s sleep and after breakfast, Maria and I took in the museum and the church. As with San Xavier, the Conception church museum contained a myriad of artifacts. The biggest difference between the two museums, however, is that Conception is the center for all the mission restoration projects so there was an entire room dedicated to Roth’s restoration work. It was fascinating to see how Roth recreated many of the missions and how the art work was undertaken to recreate or restore the art and artifacts of each church.

Exterior hall of mission church
Inside Conception mission church

We moved on to the church and spent about an hour wandering around the exterior courtyard and the inside of the church. Maria told me that the mission church was constructed between 1752 and 1756 by Father Schmid (that guy was incredibly busy), and from 1975 to 1996 Roth and his bevy of assistants reconstructed the mission.

The most fascinating part of the church for me was the paintings Roth had commissioned by local artists which wove the story of Christ’s crucifixion with the local struggles of indigenous peoples. Now these paintings were not part of the original mission, but were replacements for a series of painting that had hung on the walls, but been stolen over the years. I thought that the artwork really enhanced the meaning of the church and its relationship to the indigenous peoples. Really amazing artwork.

Original railing in Conception mission church
Conception mission church

With the second of the two mission visits complete, we began the loooooong drive back to Santa Cruz. We stopped for lunch in San Xavier, and I resisted the oversized lunch and opted instead for a bowl of pumpkin soup and a chicken salteña (a baked pastry filled with spicy chicken). Then it was back in the car for the four hour drive to Santa Cruz through the hill country and then past the endless farms.

It had been a long two days, but entirely worth it. Tomorrow I was off to São Paulo, Brazil for a brief one day stop (and a market tour on Thursday morning) before my transatlantic flight to Dublin and a meet up with my sister and brother-in-law for a driving trip around Ireland. Can’t wait to see them.

Author: lawyerchick92

I am a lawyer by trade, but long to be a full time traveller. My life changed for the better when my brother donated a kidney to me on October 14, 2002.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: