TRINIDAD, Paraguay – In southern Paraguay, near the Parana River, the ruins of Jesuit missions founded in the 17th and 18th centuries to convert Guarani Indians to Christianity offer tourists a range of historical and artistic attractions.
The ruins, some of them rediscovered two centuries after they were abandoned and covered by the jungle, are also known as “reducciones,” or areas where Catholic missionaries settled Indians in communal, self-sufficient economic units.
For more than 150 years, the Jesuit missions were the only alternative for Indians to being rounded up into “encomiendas,” the system the Spanish conquerors established to force them to work as slaves on haciendas.
Each mission was managed by two or three Jesuits, who oversaw about 3,000 to 4,000 Guaranis, and the conventional arrangement included a large central square with a school, church, orchard and cemetery laid out around the Indians’ dwellings.
The Jesuits organized indigenous people into reducciones in other countries, such as Brazil, Bolivia, Argentina and Uruguay, but Paraguay is home to the ruins of two of the largest missions: San Ignacio Guasu, founded in 1609 and the earliest mission, and Santisima Trinidad del Parana, the largest and best preserved site.
At the San Ignacio mission, in the Paraguayan province of Misiones, the only buildings standing were part of the old Jesuit school and now host a museum where sculptures recovered from the old church are exhibited.
The statues are images of saints, virgins and martyrs carved in polychrome wood, with features resembling Guarani men and women, short and with slanted eyes.
This artistic synthesis is known as the Baroque-Guarani style, combining 18th-century European trends inspired by Jesuits like Italian Jose Brasanelli (1659-1728) with South American indigenous influences.
After the Jesuits were expelled from Spanish territories in 1767 by King Charles III, many of the images were destroyed because, being hollow, it was suspected that the priests had hidden treasure inside, Antonio Ramirez, a tour guide at the San Cosme y Damian mission, told EFE.
The San Cosme y Damian mission is in Itapua, a province located about 400 kilometers (250 miles) south of Asuncion.
The Jesuits named the mission for twin brothers and saints believed to have healing powers so they would protect the Indians from diseases, many of them illnesses introduced by Europeans and for which the natives lacked immunity.