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Sao Miguel das Missoes, Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil.   Source: GF de Almeida / CC BY 2.0

Sao Miguel das Missoes Brazil, A Mission Forced to Abandon its Converts


Brazil is a huge country, well known for its carnivals, rich coffee, fantastic soccer players, and diverse heritage. One of its most remarkable archaeological sites is the São Miguel das Missões. This is an extraordinary example of 18 th century architecture in the southern state of Rio Grande do Sol that has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1983.

The Jesuit Order Province and Indian Reductions

To understand the importance and the saga of the mission, it is necessary to understand the history of the Jesuits in this part of Latin America. The Jesuit Order is a religious order has been significant in the Roman Catholic Church for centuries as they were active in the conversion of indigenous people to Christianity during the colonial era.

The Spanish government, in particular, granted them various privileges and allowed them to establish missions among the native peoples. These were called ‘Indian Reductions’ and the indigenous people were persuaded or forced to live here so that they could be Christianized and ‘civilized’.

The museum at the mission site (CC BY 2.0)

The museum at the mission site (CC BY 2.0)

Unlike other missions, the Jesuits were popular in Brazil with the native Guarani because they respected the indigenous culture. By the mid-18 th century, missions such as Miguel das Missões were seen as admirable Christian communities. The Jesuits helped the Guarani to defend themselves mainly from Portuguese slave traders who sought to enslave the indigenous people.

The History Of Sao Miguel Das Missoes

In the mid-seventeenth century, the Jesuits established missions in Bacia do Rio Prata, where they converted many of the Guarani people to Christianity. However, these were attacked and destroyed by slave raiding parties from Portuguese Brazil, known as Bandeirantes.

The Jesuits later built more missions and one of these was Sao Miguel das Missoes, which in English means ‘Saint Michael of the Missions’. The Jesuits build a church in the area in 1735 which became a focal point for the local Guarani community and within a few years, a small town had grown up around the Jesuit mission. Here the local indigenous people were protected from attacks by the Bandeirantes. The Church was designed by a member of the order and completed in 1745.

This remarkable social experiment ended, however, when Spain ceded the area controlled by the Jesuits to the Portuguese in 1750, after the Treaty of Madrid. The area was transferred to the control of the Portuguese, who had legalized the enslavement of the indigenous people. They also ordered the expulsion of the Jesuits which left the Guarani defenseless.

The indigenous people who stayed on at the mission after the Jesuits left were attacked and many were captured by joint Spanish and Brazilian military forces. The native people revolted, leading to the Guarani War, during which the mission was abandoned and neglected for many years.

Since the mid-twentieth century, there have been several projects to preserve the ruins. It is believed that the original mission-church was the model for the present cathedral in nearby Santo Ângelo city.

The Ruins Of Miguel Das Missoes

The mission, designed in classic Spanish-Colonial style and built using local red sandstone, is the most impressive example of its kind in all of Latin America. The main church is largely undamaged, and its walls and front entrance are well preserved. Sadly, it is missing its roof and none of its other wooden structures have survived.

An interior view of the pillars of Miguel Das Missoes (Struck, MB / CC BY ND-NC 2.0)

An interior view of the pillars of Miguel Das Missoes (Struck, MB / CC BY ND-NC 2.0)

The intact connecting walls have fine examples of Romanesque windows and the interior of the ruins hosts two parallel rows of arches. The bell tower is almost in perfect condition and is about 120 feet high (40m).

At the back of the church lie the ruins of the mission house where the Jesuits lived and around the church are a number of ruined dwellings and walls. The site extends for several acres and near the ruined Reductions is a small museum. This contains the original bell which was designed with Christian motifs, influenced by indigenous art. On display are also a number of crosses and sculptures that once adorned the mission.

Journeying To Miguel Das Missoes

Reaching the site from Santo Ângelo is easy, although accommodation near Miguel das Missoes itself is plentiful. A small entrance fee is required to visit the old mission and hiring a guide or using audio headsets that narrate the history of the place is possible. Another pleasurable experience is browsing through the traditional handicrafts sold at the local Indian communities.

It is worth noting, however, that it can get very hot in the summer.

Top image: Sao Miguel das Missoes, Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil.   Source: GF de Almeida / CC BY 2.0

By Ed Whelan


César, P. D. A. B., & Tronca, B. (2017). R uins of the Jesuit-Guaranis Missions of São Miguel Arcanjo: An Overview on the UNESCO World Heritage in Brazil. CICS-Publicações/eBooks, 229-246

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Privatto, N. S., & Bahl, M. (2011). São Miguel das Missões: Caderno Virtual de Turismo, 11(2), 191-204

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Jackson, R. H. (2009). Missions on the frontiers of Spanish America. Journal of Religious History, 33(3), 328-347

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Ed Whelan's picture


My name is Edward Whelan and I graduated with a PhD in history in 2008. Between 2010-2012 I worked in the Limerick City Archives. I have written a book and several peer reviewed journal articles. At present I am a... Read More

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