The Jesuit missions in Paraguay were a remarkable historical social experiment and have been the subject of many books, articles, and even a movie, The Mission . Two of the most famous of these are the Missions of La Santísima Trinidad de Paraná and Jesús de Tavarangue. These missions or reductions, now both in ruins, played a significant role in the history, as well as the culture, of Paraguay and UNESCO has recognized the sites as having ‘outstanding universal value’.
The History of La Santísima Trinidad De Paraná and Jesús De Tavarangue
Paraguay was explored by the Portuguese adventurer, Aleixo Garcia , who was employed by the Spanish Crown. There was a large indigenous population in the area and the Spanish effectively enslaved them in the notorious ‘ Encomienda’ system. The conditions endured by the Amerindians were appalling and rebellions were frequent.
The Jesuits, a clerical order of the Catholic Church, established missions to help in the conversions of the indigenous people and began to evangelize them in the remote parts of Paraguay. The missions were self-contained societies, colonies where they were taught the Christian Gospels . The Jesuits claimed they did much to improve the conditions of the people and their missions were recognized by the Spanish monarchs.
Jesuit preaching to the indigenous people by Wilhelm Lamprecht 1685 ( Public Domain )
La Santísima Trinidad de Paraná was built in an area which is now Southern Paraguay. It expanded to become a small city , with a plaza and even a museum. It was designed to be self-sufficient and many native Guarani people lived there, safe from the numerous slavers active in the area. It was originally constructed in 1706 and the city centered around the plaza where many public celebrations took place. A large church which was also used as a meeting house , a school, several workshops, a museum, and housing for the local population was also constructed.
Jesús de Tavarangue, another one of the Jesuits’ self-contained communities, was founded in 1685 in what is now Alto Parana. This mission was moved several times before it was established in the Itapúa Department in Paraguay in 1760. This community grew fast and its church was being constructed when the Jesuits were expelled. The Enlightenment in Europe – an intellectual and philosophical movement that dominated the world of ideas in the 18th century – had led to growing anti-clericalism and many governments had become suspicious of the Jesuits.
The Spanish king signed an order expelling the Jesuits from the Americas and this ended the communities in 1767. The missions were left leaderless and many of the inhabitants were later killed by other tribes.
The Two Ruined Missions
The two ruined missions are about 7 miles (10 km) apart and very similar with the churches being the centerpieces of both the reductions. While the church of the Jesús de Tavarangue is quite well preserved, the one at La Santísima Trinidad de Paraná is still in remarkable condition. But sadly, its once majestic dome and decorations are gone.
Ruins of Jesús de Tavarangue (Photo by Zeiger, S )
There is much to admire in this great example of 18 th-century ecclesiastical architecture , a combination of Christian and Arabic designs , such as a beautiful stone pulpit and friezes. Once shrines dedicated to Catholic saints stood at each of their corners of the large plazas that dominate each site.
The priests lived and oversaw the communities from the nearby religious houses of the Jesuits. The buildings where the indigenous Christian converts lived at La Santísima Trinidad de Paraná and Jesús de Tavarangue no longer remain, although they lived in large buildings made of stone, not dissimilar to modern apartment blocks .
Detail of La Santísima Trinidad de Paraná (comtessek/ Adobe Stock )
There are also the remains of a college, school, cloister, garden, and workshops to be seen at both missions. At La Santísima Trinidad de Paraná the ruins of the Coty Guazú or Great House, once an orphanage, can also be seen.
Getting to the Mission
Buses to the remote locations from the capital of Paraguay are available and some accommodation near La Santísima Trinidad de Paraná and Jesús de Tavarangue in the town of Trinidad is offered. An admittance fee is charged to enter both locations and well worth the money as these incredible ruins are sets in the midst of stunning scenery.
Top image: The ruins of Jesús de Tavarangue Source: Kylie / Adobe Stock
By Ed Whelan