Jesuits Found Paraguay

Members of the Society of Jesus established the first missions to the Guaraní Indians in the interior of what is now Paraguay, converting the Guaraní to Christianity and encouraging their self-sufficiency.

Summary of Event

Spanish and Portuguese exploration and exploitation in South America during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries affected the interior region known as Paraguay less than any of its neighboring regions. This landlocked area at the beginning of the seventeenth century occupied about half of South America stretching from Peru south to Patagonia. It was bordered on the east and south by Brazil, on the west and south by Argentina, and on the north by Bolivia. In 1600, its northern border was Peru. Sixteenth century explorers were interested in the riches of Peru and Mexico. They found little to tempt them in Paraguay. In comparison to Peru and Mexico, Paraguay was a sprawling wasteland with virtually no enticing mineral deposits to attract colonizers seeking gold and silver. Thus, it escaped some of the colonial strife that befell its neighbors to the east and west. [kw]Jesuits Found Paraguay (1608)
[kw]Paraguay, Jesuits Found (1608)
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Social issues and reform;1608: Jesuits Found Paraguay[0490]
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Paraguay;1608: Jesuits Found Paraguay[0490]

The territory that became Paraguay belonged to the Guaraní Guaraní Indians Indians. The predominant method for traveling within this territory was by means of its rivers, notably the Parana, which forms the border between Paraguay and Brazil, and the Paraguay, South America’s fifth largest river. A major problem for the Guaraní was that slave raiders from Brazil, mamalucos, invaded their villages, captured the residents, and sold them as slaves. The Indians’ villages had only meager fortifications, and the Indians themselves lacked weapons that could compete with the fire power of the mamalucos.

Under Spanish law, Paraguayan Indians were outside the jurisdiction of the colonial government. They were forbidden to have guns, so they could not acquire the means to defend themselves effectively. The few missionaries that reached the Guaraní in the late sixteenth century, mostly Dominicans and Franciscans, essentially sprinkled them with holy water and considered them Christian converts, although these Indians did not embrace Christianity in any deep or active way. They viewed these early missionaries with suspicion and disdain. Christianity;Paraguay
Christianity;Native Americans and

The Society of Jesus, more familiarly called the Jesuit order, which had been in existence for less than a century, was just beginning to make inroads into South America at the beginning of the seventeenth century. Its novices, essentially vigorous young men, were subjected to fifteen years of intensive training before they were admitted to full membership in the order. They were considered the most intellectually elite group within the Roman Church.

A contingent of twenty Jesuits was sent to Peru in the late sixteenth century to work with the Indians. They learned native languages, and besides converting the indigenous people to Christianity, they helped them to bring about reforms within their society and to become self-sufficient. They also protected the natives from the mamelucos, who sought to enslave them. When Francisco de Victoria, Victoria, Francisco de bishop of Tucuman in Paraguay, discovered what the Jesuits had accomplished in Peru, he begged the provincial to send him missionaries for Paraguay. In 1588, three Jesuits arrived from Peru in the Paraguayan town of Santiago del Estero. Father Francisco de Angulo Angulo, Francisco de remained in town, but Father Alonzo de Barcena, Barcena, Alonzo de accompanied by his secretary, Brother Villegas, struck out into the wilderness seeking Indians to convert to Christianity.

Barcena and Villegas quickly won over the Indians because of their willingness to fit into the Guaraní communities, sharing with the Indians—essentially a peaceful and simple people—the hunger, illnesses, and dangers that were part of everyday Guaraní life. Having worked among the Peruvian Indians for twenty years before they came to Paraguay, these missionaries were fluent in the languages the Guaraní spoke.

By 1600, the Jesuits had begun to organize some 150,000 Indians into productive farming communities called reducciones. The purpose of the missionaries was not merely to bring the Guaranís to an acceptance of the Christian faith but also to provide education for them and to help them improve their lots by becoming self-sufficient. Property in the reducciones was held in common, but the missionaries reserved the right to make important decisions. The average work day in the reducciones was six hours. The Guaraní spent their nonworking hours praying or perfecting skills such as art, music, wood carving, and clock making. The Guaraní, guided by the Jesuits, built within their reducciones cathedrals, churches, schools, hospitals, libraries, and dwellings for widows. Guaraní villages were carefully planned communities with central squares, public buildings and churches, and meticulously plotted residential areas. The Jesuits strove to reinforce the family structures of the natives. Chiefs within each mission were appointed to head blocks of several families. Some reducciones had as many as twenty thousand inhabitants.

In 1597, Hernando Arias de Saavedra Arias de Saavedra, Hernando became the first native-born governor of Paraguay. He served three nonconsecutive terms as governor between 1597 and 1618. Under his leadership, the Jesuit Province of Paraguay was established in 1604. Paraguay became a nation in 1608. In 1609, at Arias de Saavedra’s instigation, the first Jesuit mission in Paraguay, the Loreto Reduccion, was established, followed in 1611 by the Reduccion Santa Ignacio Miri. By 1630, eleven more reducciones had been established in Paraguay, and by the end of the century, there were some thirty such settlements in Paraguay, Peru, Argentina, and Brazil.

Diego de Torres, Torres, Diego de a Jesuit, became an adviser to Francisco de Alfaro, Alfaro, Francisco de a judge who, with Torres’s guidance, issued ordinances to benefit the Guaraní. On January 30, 1607, he issued the Cedula Real, which guaranteed any Guaraní who converted to Christianity a ten-year exemption from paying taxes. On March 6, 1609, in the Cedula Magna, he affirmed that the Guaraní enjoyed the same freedoms that were accorded to Spaniards, thereby reaffirming their freedom from slavery, although in actuality many of the Guaraní lived in virtual slavery, because, when they could not meet externally imposed financial obligations, they became indentured servants. (It is important to remember that nearly all the existing information about the Jesuit missions and the Guaraní was produced by Jesuits, so the viewpoint informing these reports was most likely slanted in favor of the Europeans.)

In essence, the reducciones were a society within a society. These settlements were viewed by many as Utopias, privileged communities that existed for the protection of their inhabitants. Although Paraguay did not have the number of Spanish settlers that other South American countries had attracted, there were in the larger society numerous Creole farmers, called peninsulares, native-born citizens of Spanish lineage. As the reducciones spread throughout the region, these Creole farmers became resentful of them because they were in competition with the reducciones, especially in the profitable yerba mate trade. As a result, in 1767 the Spanish king expelled the Jesuits from all of South America’s Spanish colonies.


The Jesuit missions in Paraguay were remarkable entities that brought to the indigenous people an order, a prosperity, and a self-respect that they had been lacking before the missionaries arrived. Although the Jesuits taught the Guaraní a great deal about Western culture and traditions, they did not do so at the expense of weakening the Indians’ own traditions.

From the beginning, the Jesuits became one with the Guaraní, first learning their languages and then living on an equal basis with them within the communities they inhabited. The Guaraní had not had favorable contact with prior Christian missionaries, but they sensed quite quickly that the Jesuits were a different breed from the Dominicans, Franciscans, and Benedictines who had come into their villages earlier.

The Guaraní needed the kind of guidance and structure that the Jesuits provided. It is significant that when the Jesuits were finally expelled from Paraguay by the king of Spain in 1767, the reducciones quickly deteriorated, and the Guaranís entered a period of decline.

Further Reading

  • Haverstock, Nathan A. Paraguay in Pictures. Minneapolis, Minn.: Lerner, 1995. Directed toward adolescents, this book provides helpful background and mentions the Jesuit missions briefly but cogently.
  • Morrison, Marion. Paraguay. Chicago: Children’s Press, 1994. Written for a juvenile audience, this book presents a solid overview of the country and devotes several pages to the Jesuit missions.
  • Reiter, Frederick J. They Built Utopia: The Jesuit Missions in Paraguay, 1610-1768. Potomac, Md.: Scripta Humanistica, 1995. This remarkably detailed account of the Jesuit missions in Paraguay is comprehensive. By far the best source in the field, it is well written and easily accessible.

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