Their Construction
Their Preservation

The List

The Jesuit Missions - Their Churches

Ad Maiorem Dei Gloriam. "For the glory of God", to which could be added, "and salvation of one's neighbour." This, the Jesuits' motto and codicil, takes on a visually awesome appearance when the churches of the Jesuit Missions Circuit are encountered. These edifices, so inspiring, so evocative, and so unique, stand as architectural and spiritual proofs of how seriously the missionaries took their vows. These same churches - known as templos locally - also stand as testimony to the incredible talent and faith of the local peoples, who painstakingly built each and every one by hand under the guidance of the Jesuits (with the exception of that of Santa Ana de Velasco, which they built from memory a few years after the Jesuits' expulsion). If one doubts the success of this bold experiment in harmonising the cultures, beliefs, and societies of the Old and New Worlds, these magnificent buildings offer more than adequate proof.

The churches were built with the explicit intent of proclaiming the supreme power and presence of God in their midst. Both Jesuits and natives took the rôle and symbolism of a physical building very seriously. Each was to be the actualisation of the biblical mandate domus dei et porta coeli ("The house of God and gate of heaven", Gen. 28:17). In fact, several bear this inscription on their front façades. They were - and are - stunning architectural masterpieces, the likes of which are found nowhere else on earth. They remain today as the only uninterrupted physical examples of a successful architectural, social, and spiritual synthesis between native and European cultures anywhere in the Western Hemisphere. Of the better known Jesuit missions of Argentina and Brazil, and especially those of Paraguay (constructed in similar fashion to those of the Chiquitos before being rebuilt in stone), every one is now a ruin. Only these seven in the Chiquitania remain, lovingly restored to their original spendour.

Hand-painted beams and roof: church of San Xavier

Their Construction: An Overview
Dr. Eckart Kühne, an internationally recognised expert on these churches and key collaborator with the master restorer (and former Jesuit) Hans Roth, offers an excellent synopsis of their general type and structure, as follows.

"The stylistic and structural type of the 'multi-aisle timber-skeleton church' originated in the seventeenth century in the sub-tropical wooded areas of Paraguay and Bolivia. A single, large saddle roof on carved wooden columns covers the roomy church with vestibule and lateral porticos. The type is related to the building method of the [Amer]Indian community houses, uses existing building materials and is thus suited to the regional climate, social requirements, limited previous technical knowledge of the [builders], and the marginal situation in the Spanish colonial empire. In all mission villages, the church, together with the bell tower, pasonage, school, workshops, and dwelling-houses, make up a uniform, planned design."

Kühne also notes that: "In their construction and style, the seven churches (except parts of [that of] San José [de Chiquitos]) form a very homogenous group. All were built between 1745 and 1775, but their artistic adornment, with carved altarpieces and sculptures, continued to be added until around 1810."

These edifices are the only intact examples of the first period of mission church architecture left in the Western Hemisphere. It may surprise many to know that most of the mission churches outside of urban areas were first established - whether in Argentina, Bolivia, Paraguay, or elsewhere (including the southwestern United States amd Mexico) - as wooden and adobe structures, much along the lines of these Chiquitos mission churches, albeit less ornate. In most cases, these were surprisingly simple structures, essentially "a long hall made of a wooden frame with adobe walls, a pitched wooden roof and two rows of wooden columns separating the aisles", according to the noted art historian Dr. Gauvin Bailey (Art of Colonial America, p. 225). These structures allowed for fast construction with no prior archirectural experience (especially important given that native craftsmen had no concept of such large buildings).

In short order, however, many were re-built in stone, which the missionaries felt imparted a sense of solidity and at the same time was more befitting for a house of God. The churches of the Chiquitania, however, with the sole exception of that of San José de Chiquitos, were of wood and adobe. (The bell tower of the now-vanished church of San Juan Bautista also is of stone, although its church was of adobe and wood.) As Bailey notes, the churches of Chiquitos are rare exceptions in that they (or their wooden skeletons, at least) are preserved in their original form, and stand as singular examples of what the earliest Jesuit churches in Latin America looked like.

All were built after the towns were established, not simultaneously. (Provisional chapels were used at first.) Although each is unique and stands on its own merits, each also followed a precise plan and uniform design that called for not just an enormous church, but also a bell tower, parsonage, school, workshops, and houses for the Indian converts, in fact, a complete mission complex (complejo). Dr. Alcides Parejas, a leading Bolivian authority on the missions, identified seven principle characteristics of these churches.

  • The use of a wooden skeleton, which allowed construction of grand proportions: a floor plan between 3,300-5,280 sq. ft (1,100-1,600 sq. ms), 53-66 sq. ft (16-20 sq. ms) width by 165-198 sq. ft (50-60 sq. ms) length by 33-46 sq. ft (10-14 sq. ms) height, for an area of 3,300 sq. ft (1,000 sq. ms) and an interior volume of an astonishing 333,000 cubic ft (100,000 cubic ms)
  • A capacity for more than 3,000 individuals (although much smaller in the case of Santa Ana)
  • Five naves: one central; two interior lateral; and two covered lateral (which correspond to the outdoor side aisles)
  • Interior naves formed by two parallel lines of enormous wooden columns. The rows include between seven and nine columns, making a total of between 14 to 18 columns.
  • A gable type roof of two planes
  • A façade with a single entrance (of two joined doors) and blind windows
  • Entranceways protected by a prolonged interior structure that forms an exterior portico

An architectural element often overlooked was the importance of the interior courtyard, whose presence is so subtle as to be an afterthought for most historians. However, it was nearly as important as the church itself, as it connected the entire complex, afforded the religious community a sheltering wall in case of attack, often had gardens that provided food for the clergy, and served as a respite against the darkness of the church (before electrification), and a spot for relaxing.

The courtyard is rarely seen in photographs of Chiquitos church complexes, so I'll make your day by presenting a brief visual tour of a section of the courtyard of the church of San Xavier, graced by our lovely guide Demetria, who alone is reason enough to visit Bolivia any day....

Follow me, please....

Standing tall in front of the sacristy door....

That bench looks inviting....
No doubt contemplating the Jesuits' many achievements....

Eleven churches were built, of which seven still exist. One - that of San Ignacio de Velasco - is a not a restoration but a reconstruction, thus the reason for its omission as a World Heritage Site. And we have no idea what the church of the short-lived reducción of San Ignacio de Zamucos might have looked like. The seven that still exist comprise the Jesuit Mission Circuit churches (three others, those of Santiago de Chiquitos, San Juan Bautista, and Santo Corazón, also exist, albeit in a state of replacement, ruin, and replacement, respectively). At least three (San Xavier, San Rafael de Velasco, and Concepción) are attributable to the indefatigable Fr. Martin Schmid, and another two (San Ignacio and San Miguel) to one of his co-workers.

The enormity of the task of building these churches is scarcely imaginable today. They did not spring up overnight: It took years of painstaking work, with every piece hecho a mano ("made by hand"). Take the example of the templo at Concepción, which was begun in 1752 by Schmid and completed his associate Messner. More than 2,000 hardwood trees were felled, as each of the massive beams required an entire tree trunk. The trees were about 36 feet (12 metres) in height, and on average weighed in excess of nine tonnes. For the roof, more than 100,000 bricks and tiles were needed, and an additional 150,000 for other sections of the building. The vertical columns - also of hardwood - weighed 20 tonnes each. All this was done by hand, using only the crudest of tools. The result was a church that held more than 3,000 people.

UNESCO World Heritage Site plaque: church of San Xavier

So important were - and are - these churches that they were named to the register of the prestigious World Heritage Sites by UNESCO in 1990. They still play a central role in the lives of the people of the Chiquitania, and to the missionaries (now mostly German, Italian, and Polish Franciscans) who continue to minister to their spiritual needs. They are at the same time parish churches - enormously large and historic ones at that - and spiritual centres for the people who live in the region and still observe many of the same rites and traditions from the missionary era, three hundred years on.

Their Preservation: The Genius of Hans Roth
That they still exist today is a small miracle in itself. One would never guess that a few decades ago every one of them was in a state of near ruin. They had been photographed and written about by Plácido Molina Barbery in 1940, who with Viador Moreno Peña was successful that same year in getting them named as monumentos nacionales by the Bolivian government, but this did nothing for the preservation.

In 1957, a Jesuit missionary visiting Bolivia, Fr. Felix Plattner, travelled to the Chiquitania in an attempt to re-trace the peregrinations of his vocational ancestor Schmid, so important in the history of the Jesuit missions in Chiquitos. He was amazed at what he saw - seven massive templos seemingly frozen in time, and decaying by the minute. Standing in front of the church at San Rafael de Velasco, he made a vow that he would try to save at least one of these spiritual masterpieces before they all sank into oblivion. In 1972, he sent to San Rafael a Swiss architect and then-Jesuit priest, one Hans Roth. Plattner gave Roth six months to begin the restoration, along with round-trip air fare. Roth arrived and never went back.

The fact that these churches exist in their present form is due largely to the late architect and preservationist Roth. Working with a few European colleagues - including Kühne - but otherwise with entirely native talent, Roth almost single-handedly saved these monuments from near-certain ruin. He spent more than 27 years at this labour of love, his life's work, and had a rôle in every aspect of each church's restoration or reconstruction. At the time of his death (1999), he had successfully or largely restored the churches and numerous other colonial buildings of San Xavier, San Rafael, San José de Chiquitos, Concepción, San Miguel de Velasco, and Santa Ana - all now World Heritage Sites - and the second reconstruction of the church of San Ignacio (the first was a botched job demolished in 1948). He also worked on the amazing Sanctuario Mariano de la Torre de la Virgen de la Asunta in Chochís and at least a hundred other sites throughout the region.The Chiquitania today would be a very pale shadow of its former self were it not for Roth's incredible efforts. It is no exaggeration to say he was as important to the region as was Fr. Schmid more than 200 years before.

Roth's close collaborator Kühne - who knew him better than anyone - sums ups Roth's work in the following passage.

"That which began as a short rescue action of a collapse-endangered church gradually became one of the most comprehensive and sustainable restoration projects in all of South America - not just with a view towards preservation of old monuments, but also as a means for the social, cultural, and pastoral development of the region, similar to [that of] when the buildings [first] arose. Roth worked like a missionary, only for church employers, without the backing of national authorities, without previous monument preservation instruction, and almost only with local craftsmen who were trained on the building sites and in the apprentice workshops. In addition, Roth raised over one hundred new buildings - from churches to schools and house-building programmes - with which he created a new regional architectural style. He founded museums and archives, defended the rights of the [indigenous peoples] and studied their history."

The final Roth-designed building was the church of San Julían. A small town just outside the southwestern perimeter of the Chiquitania, founded in 1967 by the Franciscans, construction on its church began on 17 January 2000, five months after Roth's death, using the design that he and Kühne created. Roth's friend and patron, Bishop Antonio Eduardo Bösl, died some nine months later. The work was dedicated on 15 December 2001. San Julían is now a fetid mess, riven by dissention and exemplifying the pathetic depths to which the Morales government has sunk in its attempts to brutalise anyone who disagrees with its programmes. Its church, however, is beautiful.

He made it possible: the late Hans Roth
"In memory of Hans Roth (1934-1999), theologian and architect. Restorer of the Jesuit churches, defender of Chiquitania culture, creator of a new regional architecture, and driving force behind the music of the missions. He taught us to dream and made that dream a reality."

From an aesthic standpoint, it can be argued with little likelihood of rebuttal that some of the restorations are more succesful than others. While San Xavier (with the exception of its gaudy reredos), San Rafael, San Miguel, and especially Santa Ana are faithful to one degree or another in detail, the artwork on the front façade of Concepción is a fanciful guess (although the original church also had painted walls) and detracts from the church's beauty. Likewise, San Ignacio's new church, whilst showing much evidence of an attempt to preserve architectural fidelity, has a distinctly refurbished look to it. (The original church was considered the most beautiful - and largest - of the Chiquitos missions.) San José de Chiquitos' stone templo and other buildings retain their outward appearance as they would have been seen in the days of the Jesuits, but the interior of that church is now the one in greatest danger of deterioration of all the mission complexes. What cannot be argued is that these monuments would not exist today were it not for the intervention of Roth and others.

In fact, as Kühne notes in the abstract to his thesis, "The restoration of the three churches of Martin Schmid (i.e., San Xavier, San Rafael and Concepción) by the architect Hans Roth took place after 1972 according to three totally different concepts. In San Rafael with very modest financial and technical means and in ignorance of the historic preservation fundamentals, the largest part of the wooden structure was replaced and the murals were completely painted over. In Concepción the wish of the bishop to build a magnificent and resplendent new cathedral was decisive and this led to a strongly reconstructive renewal without a preceding investigation. Only in the church of San Javier that, in terms of construction, was much better preserved, could an exact recording of the building and comprehensive examinations be performed."

In fairness to the Franciscan missionaries who oversaw these churches from 1930 onward (they also were responsible between 1840 until their securalisation in 1939 for those in Guarayos, which they, not the Jesuits, founded), the Jesuits and their teams of local volunteers and European specialists did not do all of the work themselves. The Franciscans also played a role - quite a large one, in fact - as did hundreds of supporters around the world, as Fr. Humberto Scholz's booklet "La historia de un desafío misionero" amply demostrates. The Franciscans, in charge of the old Jesuit missions of Chiquitos since 1930, had their hands full from the start, and the prospect of restoring these churches was yet another care added to their already too-long list. However, they accepted the responsibility, and through the genius of bishops like Jorge Kilian Pflaum and Antonio Eduardo Bösl of Concepción and José Calasanz Rosenhammer and Federico Bonifacio Madersbacher of San Ignacio, the dream of restoring the Chiquitos complejos misionales was made a reality.

But it must be emphasised that the genius and execution of the idea, as well as its ongoing maintenance, was first and foremost a Jesuit undertaking. These churches today, largely restored to their original appearance, show little Franciscan influence. Nor should they, given the Franciscans’ relatively short stay in the Chiquitos missions and the fact that they arrived more than 160 years after the departure of the last Jesuit.

Pulpit: church of San José de Chiquitos

Perhaps the most poignant reminder that these are now Franciscan-administered templos is the wrought-iron gate that leads to the interior courtyard of the mission complex in Concepción. There, worked into the railings in simple black cursive script, are two words, paz and bien. Close the gate and look once more: when the two doors touch, the Franciscan motto, Paz y bien, (Peace and goodness) appears.

As a result of the work of Roth, Kühne, and their colleagues like the architect Javier Mendoza Patiño (the director of Concepción's Museo Misional as well as in charge of the Apostolic Vicariate's Unidad de Proyectos y Cultura), these templos now play an additional role as magnets for tourists from the world over, who come to worship (sometimes) and stand in awe (always) of these splendid monuments. They house rare musical instruments, musical scores, and priceless works of art. They train the next generation of local artists and artisans, who remain faithful to the music and carvings their ancestors produced centuries ago. And they play host every other year to the International Festival of American Baroque Music, "Misiones de Chiquitos". In the words of Kühne again: "They are of singular importance in the cultural history of South America since they are not only the last remaining churches from the former Jesuit Missions, but also the best type of building once widespread in South America."

Thomas Drain, like Roth also an architect and theologian, in his introduction to A Sense of Mission, a book on the Spanish mission churches of the southwestern United States, could just as easily have been referring to the Jesuit Missions of the Chiquitos when he wrote: "Although there were other areas in which the two systems of belief never approached one another, the mission churches are the artistic record of the meeting of these two cultures and may be the greatest treasure created by the Spanish presence among the native Americans."

The impression these magnificent structures make upon the visitor is something that will never be forgotten. In "Missions in a Musical Key: The Jesuit Reductions of Chiquitos, Bolivia", Bailey writes: "I have visited Jesuit foundations around the world...few have made such a lasting impression as these quiet but astonishing villages. With their unpaved streets and low adobe architecture, the Chiquitos circuit gives the 21st-century traveller an incomparable sense of what life must have been like in this vast but empty land more than two hundred years ago."

Jesuit Mission Churches in the Chiquitania

Mission Settlement

Church Built By
Current Status
San Xavier*
(San Francisco Xavier de los Piñocas)
Frs. Martin Schmid
and Johann Messner
restored by Roth, et al., 1987-93
San Rafael de Velasco*
Fr. Martin Schmid
restored by Roth, et al., 1972-79
San José de Chiquitos*
Fr. Bartolomé de Mora?
c. 1745-60
restored by Roth, et al., 1988-2010
San Juan Bautista
(San Juan Bautista de los Boros)
Fr. Martin Schmid?

by 1745
1772 - after relocation
(burned 1781)
c. 1798-1800
(burned 1811)

ruins of second Jesuit church at 1717-72 site;
modern church built c. 1960 in San Juan de Taperas;
modern church built 2009-12 in Taperas

(La Inmaculada Concepción [incorporated San Ignacio de Boococas 1708])
Frs. Martin Schmid
and Johann Messner


restored by Roth, et al., 1975-82

San Ignacio de Boococas unknown
(provisional chapel only)
unknown abandoned or destroyed by 1712 (nothing remains)
San Ignacio de Zamucos
(destroyed 1748)
abandoned or destroyed by 1748 (nothing remains)
San Miguel de Velasco*
(San Miguel Arcángel)
Fr. Johann Messner with Antonio Rojas?
c. 1752-59
restored by Roth, et al., 1973-83
San Ignacio de Velasco
(San Ignacio de Loyola de Velasco)
Fr. Johann Messner with Antonio Rojas?
by 1761
(abandoned 1942) destroyed 1948)

first modern church built 1948;
(destroyed 1964);
second modern church built 1964-68
(abandoned 1979);
Jesuit church built by Roth, et al., 1972-94

Santiago de Chiquitos
(Santiago Apóstol)
c. 1762-71 (abandoned by 1793) c. 1793
(destroyed 1880)

modern church built 1916-20

Santa Ana de Velasco*
c. 1773-80
partially restored by Roth, et al., 1997-2001
Santo Corazón
(Santo Corazón de Jesús de Chiquitos)
by 1795
(burned c. 1851)
modern church built 1875

     *  Designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.

San Xavier
San Ignacio de Velasco
Santa Ana de Velasco
San Miguel de Velasco
San Rafael de Velasco
San José de Chiquitos
Santiago de Chiquitos