Many archaeological sites and ruins from the colonial period are to be found in the former colonies of the Spanish Empire, and the Republic of Uruguay is no exception. Calera de las Huérfanas is one of the most important ruins from the colonial period, one of the many Jesuit missions that played such a decisive role in the history of the region. The site is now a national monument and is located in an area of great environmental importance.
The Purpose of Calera De Las Huérfanas
The area around Calera de las Huérfanas was granted to the Jesuit Order in the early 18 th century. This Catholic Order was very active in the general region and played a crucial role in converting the natives to Christianity. The Jesuit missions in Paraguay, Argentina, and Uruguay, were regarded as ideal Christian communities and even utopias.
Calera de las Huérfanas was an agricultural and an industrial collective, a community created by the Jesuits that at its peak was home to 250 people, including slaves. The original function of the mission was to produce lime, an essential material for the building industry in that period. Crops, and even a vineyard, were planted to feed this self-sustained society. Today, Uruguay is still known for being one of the top wine producers in South America.
The profits were used to provide funds for orphans in the River Plate region which is how the mission got the name meaning ‘Lime Quarry of the Orphans’.
In 1767 the Jesuits were expelled from the Spanish Empire and the complex was transferred to a Board of Trustees. It was administered by the father of the Argentine national hero, José de San Martin. In 1777, Calera de las Huérfanas was donated to a Catholic organization and was expected to provide funds for the College of Orphan Girls of Buenos Aires .
Ruins of Calera de las Huérfanas (Barriola, N / CC BY 3.0 )
Following the collapse of Royal authority after the Napoleonic invasion of Spain, a new government took control of what is now known as Uruguay. Later the lands and complex at Calera de las Huérfanas were secularized and the lands given to notable locals. In time, the church and the ancillary buildings fell into decline and were abandoned.
The Altar and More of Calera De Las Huérfanas
The focal centerpiece of the area is the ruined Jesuit Church . Baroque in style and constructed from local stone, it has a distinctive reddish hue. The church windows and other architectural features were ornate, but perhaps the most intriguing aspect is the altar, which are typically free-standing and made of wood. However, in the church of Calera de las Huérfanas, the altar is built into the wave of the nave. The reasons for this are not known, but it may be related to the insecurity of the times. By constructing an altar into the wall, the builders were ensuring that it was not going to be easily destroyed.
The ruined walls at Calera de las Huérfanas (Fedaro / CC BY-SA 3.0 )
Among the other ruins to be seen are the walls of some of the homes and workshops of the community. The remains of the lime kilns can also be seen and the original well still stands.
The Birds of Calera De Las Huérfanas
The ruins are located in a stunning landscape that is of great environmental importance and recognized as a wildlife preserve by the Uruguayan government. It is home to many varieties of bird, including woodpeckers and many ornithologists visit the site to view the spectacular birds. The birds’ songs are popular with the visitors and many of the birds have nested in the ruins of the church.
Visiting Calera De Las Huérfanas
In the 1930s the site was declared a national monument by the Uruguayan government. The site is approximately 11 miles (16 km) from Carmelo and accommodation is available in town.
No longer accessible, the Jesuit church remains the focal point of the site ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )
No entry fee is charged although a donation is appreciated and guides are available. The small museum on site is worth a visit, although it’s not possible to enter the ruins of the old church as it is cordoned off.
Top image: The church at Calera de las Huérfanas Source: Fedaro / CC BY-SA 3.0
By Ed Whelan