It all started with a photo: a beautiful photograph of an old wooden altar featuring an angel killing a devil painted in blue tinges. Some of the paint had chipped off and the wood was damaged. It was clearly a piece from colonial times.
The accompanying text told me the photo had been taken in the Church of San José in Valenzuela. I asked the caretaker of the museum for directions and, lo and behold, he could give them to me.
Some 80 kilometers east of Asunción we found the village of Valenzuela, where time seemed to have come to a standstill. Men passed by on ox-carts with enormous wheels. Others sat in front of their houses, watching the day go by while enjoying their tereré – a sweet, iced infusion made of herbs.
The church was closed but we easily traced down the caretaker. She didn’t mind walking with us to open the church. She patiently waited for us to check the interior out and be in awe. San José is not just the name of the church, but also the village’s patron saint. The altar – or more specifically, the reredos – is the church’s outstanding feature thanks to the profusion of intricate carving. We’ll leave it to the photos to convince you.
We fell in love with Paraguay’s Franciscan churches. However, the tourist information in Asunción had no other information about the subject, except the well known Yaguarón church. We decided to start our exploration there.
The Franciscan Order
The Franciscans are members of a Roman Catholic religious order founded by St Francis of Assisi in the early 13th century. They have become known for their work in foreign missions and their focus on education. Franciscan friars accompanied expeditions of the Spanish colonizers and thus arrived in Paraguay where they founded reducciones, a well-known form of colonization in South America: a settlement under ecclesiastical or royal authority where indigenous people would be converted, taught and protected.
In return the indigenous people had to be available for labor. In the churches, most woodwork was done by the Guaraní people who used local plants to make the dyes. Constructed in Baroque or Rococo styles, the wooden structures are elaborately decorated and very colorful.
El Templo San Buenaventura in Yaguarón
Yaguarón is a town 48 kilometers outside Asunción and once a village of indigenous Guaraní people. Many of the ancient houses have been demolished but El Templo San Buenaventura (constructed 1755-1772) has stood the test of time and still functions as a church today. The exterior of the church is named after one of the founding fathers of the Franciscan mission.
The church is impressive in its plainness: whitewashed adobe walls lined with colonnades supported by pillars of lapacho wood. The modest exterior stands in striking contrast to the elaborately decorated interior, overwhelming with the frilly ornaments typical of Baroque and Rococo, and with a beautifully painted cassette ceiling.
We were determined to find more of these churches. And we found them. That the tourist information didn’t know them was beyond us, but for us this week became a highlight of the cultural part of our South America journey.
For more than a week we drove in and around Asunción, asking around, checking with church administrators to see who might know more about this part of Paraguay’s history. Finally, in Tobatí, the City of Ceramics – in the surrounding areas are many ceramic factories where bricks, roof tiles and pottery are manufactured – we struck it lucky.
The church is modern. The old one has been torn down in 1940 to make way for a bigger one. Fortunately, they have kept the colonial-era altar, confessionals and pulpits, which were all made of wood, covered in gold paint and featuring numerous saints.
Outside we met the former priest, now retired. The octogenarian was a passionate storyteller, explaining us how he was trying to get the altar and other woodwork restored which were seriously affected by longhorn beetles. His major obstacle was, not surprisingly, sufficient funds.
The priest not only offered me a book he had written about Tobatí’s history, called Tawa Pueblo Ciudad, but also carefully explained where we would find more Franciscan churches.
Although some of them were torn down and rebuilt in the last century, ancient carved wooden side altars, reredos, pulpits and confessionals have been preserved and remain as magnificent pieces of art.
Among the ones we found are:
- The church of San Agustín in Emboscada
- Nuestra Señora de La Candelaria Church in Capiata
- The Franciscan San Lorenzo de Altos
- San Francisco Church in Atyra
Clearly this route is not for everybody. But if you are a culture and/or church buffs just like us, put them on yourbucket listt!