May 19, 2006 GMT
(3) Bolivia: The Missiones

Armed with only a small amount of information and the promise that they offered a unique spectacle I set off for the Missiones.

Long an isolated area to the NE of Santa Cruz, the Chiquitania, was once only accessible by a not too well maintained dirt road. The entire loop was over 700 km, usually taking the better part of a week to complete in the dry season; nearly impassible in the wet season.

Within the last two years the first 350 km from Santa Cruz to Conception had been paved. I took the easy route.

They were right! The way to this Chiquitania Region was through Santa Cruz. You had to go south to go north. For the sake of a 50 km connector road you had to go 100 km south and return 100 km north to arrive at the same latitude only a few km to the east.

In the absense of any real information I conjured up an image of a small country parish offering service to twenty or thirty parishoners. I could not have been more wrong.

The Jesuit Missionaries came from Bavaria, Bohemia and Switzerland, over the period 1720-1760. They incorporated German baroque elements into their designs. Once long forgotten, the Missiones now are considered one of Bolivia's and the world's greatest cultural treasures.

Conceived, designed and built on a grand scale, by Father Schmid, the Missione Complex was a complete unit. In the shape of a quadrangle occupying at least, a complete city block, the outer perimeter enveloped a spacious inner courtyard.

San Xavier Missione.JPG

The Missione formed one side of the quadrangle; the other three the living quarters, convent, kitchen etc. The bell tower, always a separate structure was located either inside or outside of the compound. The Missione with a capacity for hundreds...maybe even a thousand...the walls whitewashed adobe and wood construction. The inner and outer walls highly decorated with painted frescoes, the roof a wooden beam structure supported by barley twist Ironwood columns, the trademark of the designer and builder, Father Schmid.

Conception Bell Tower.JPG

Once in disrepair they have been restored to their former glory and pressed back into service, not as Jesuit missions, for the Jesuits were expelled in 1767 by the Spanish Crown, but as a Catholic service. The restoration was initiated by Roman Catholic Archbishop, Antonio Eduardo Bösl, who mobilized the resources to finance and execute the work, in the early 1980's. His final place of resting is fittingly within the Missione at Conception (1925-2000).

Missione Conception.JPG

The Jesuits had worked their way west from Brazil and Paraguay into this unknown corner of Bolivia. They organized and educated the Chiquitano and Guarayo Indians and changed their subsistence lifestyle into one of crop surpluses and plenty. They introduced crops and farming techniques unique to this part of the world and generated a sedentary lifestyle for these semi-nomadic people. They raised and trained a strong army to protect themselves and their way of life.

Eventually the Spanish and the Portugese became aware of this thriving civilization. In a simultaneous and uncoordinated effort, driven by their greed and lust for and gold and riches, they attacked from the east and the west. As efficient and effective as the Missione forces were, they were unable to defend against a sustained attack on both fronts. They fell.

The Portugese and Spanish found not gold and riches but only a coordinated, religious, farming community content in their daily lives, in this land of abundance.

With the guidance and knowledge once provided by the Jesuits, removed from their daily cycle, the learned technologies were soon forgotten and the Indians returned to their subsistence lifestyle.

Without the gold of conquest to sustain their greed, the Portugese and Spanish retreated from whence they came.

The society, so patiently nurtured by the Jesuits, fell into disrepair and decay. The Missions began to crumble and deteriorate.

Posted by Robert Bielesch at May 19, 2006 10:06 PM GMT
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