San Ignacio de Velasco mission, Bolivia. Photo Copyright by Geoffrey A. P. Groesbeck
San Ignacio de Velasco mission, Bolivia. Photo Copyright by Geoffrey A. P. Groesbeck

The First Jesuits in Bolivia, The Doctrina of Juli, Arrival in Santa Cruz de la Sierra. Jesuit Missions of Chiquitos (Bolivia)

Evanescence and Permanence: Toward an Accurate Understanding of the Legacy of the Jesuit Missions of Chiquitos.

Written by Geoffrey A. P. Groesbeck

– Part 5: What Are These Missions Now? Lacunas and Guesswork

The First Jesuits in Bolivia

The first Jesuit missionaries arrived in what is now Bolivia in 1572, having moved eastward from the Viceroyalty of Peru, which had been established as a Jesuit province in 1568. They were preceded by other orders, including the Augustinians, Dominicans, Franciscans, and Mercedarians. The Jesuits had petitioned the Spanish Crown for permission to enter its holdings in the New World for three decades before King Philip II finally granted approval in 1566. (The Portuguese King John III had given them leave to enter Brazil in 1549.) For almost the first century of their presence in Bolivia, the Jesuits invariably accompanied the Spanish military and were residents of its scattered garrisons; they were not authorised to establish frontier settlements without approval of the civil authorities. There is no evidence that they attempted to do so until 1668, when the temporary establishment of Santísima Trinidad in Moxos (settled permanently in 1686) was achieved.

These early missionaries were mostly from Spain (indeed, as were all but eight of the fifty-eight who arrived in the Chiquitania between 1672 and 1755).1 For the most part, they attended to the spiritual needs of colonists and local indigenous peoples in the arid altiplano, around Lake Titicaca and in the cities of La Paz, Potosí, and La Plata (often referred to as Chacras, and synonymous with the present-day city of Sucre, the constitutional capital of Bolivia). They also established chapter houses, churches, and schools, the earliest being that of La Paz, built in 1572. Their story really begins, however, with one settlement in particular: the remote outpost of Juli.

The Doctrina of Juli

Detail of the Altar Major, San Miguel de Velasco mission, Bolivia. Photo Copyright by Geoffrey A. P. Groesbeck

Detail of the Altar Major, San Miguel de Velasco mission, Bolivia. Photo Copyright by Geoffrey A. P. Groesbeck

Their most important early foundation was the doctrinaF2F of Juli, which had been established by the Dominicans in 15473 on the shores of Lake Titicaca. Its administrative and organisational structure, perfected under the Jesuits, became the model for the Guaraní reducciones in Paraguay, Argentina, and Brazil4, and later, those of the Moxos and Chiquitos in Bolivia.

The Jesuits, through Fr. José de Acosta, the Order’s provincial superior for the newly established Province of Peru, were given spiritual control (and for the most part, temporal as well) over Juli in 1577. This was much against the wishes of the Dominicans (who had been forced to relinquish control five years earlier) but under express order of Viceroy Francisco de Toledo.F5F For their part, the Jesuits were wary of accepting parishes, seeing themselves at that time as an exclusively missionary order.

Juli as a town was not a newly founded settlement. It was an established Aymara village long before the Spanish arrived. As a doctrina, however, it had been only recently evangelised. In assuming control, the Jesuits did not attempt to modify the theological content of their predecessors, only the way it was manifested in a social context on a daily basis. The results were impressive. Within a few years, Juli boasted some 15,000 inhabitants and at least four churches.

The success of the reducciones of the Chiquitania some 150 years later had everything to do with the Jesuits’ insistence – rigourously maintained since the initial establishment at Juli – that these communities be run not only as centres of spiritual welfare, but also of social welfare. Additionally, the doctrina of Juli provided the testing-ground for what later would become the three key elements of their success in the missions: communal self-reliance and self-sufficiency; cooperation with – rather than coercion of – native inhabitants; and as complete autonomy as possible from colonial authorities.

Arrival in Santa Cruz de la Sierra

Altar Mayor, San Xavier mission, Bolivia. Photo Copyright by Geoffrey A. P. Groesbeck

Altar Mayor, San Xavier mission, Bolivia. Photo Copyright by Geoffrey A. P. Groesbeck

On 15 May 1585, the first three Jesuits – Fr. Diego de Samaniego (the provincial superior), Fr. Diego de Martínez, and Br. Juan Sánchez – reached the eastern outpost of Santa Cruz de la Sierra (at that time located near present-day San José de Chiquitos),F6F where they were welcomed by the governor, Lorenzo Suárez de Figueroa. The next year, Martínez began sporadic evangelisation of the nearby Itatine, marking the first true Jesuit incursion into Chiquitos. Over the next several decades, other peoples, most of them linguistically part of the Tupi Guaraní or Chiquitano groups, were converted; only the Chiriguano and Zamuco remained consistently hostile to evangelisation.

The first chapter house in Santa Cruz de la Sierra was set up in 1592. Although the Jesuits always retained at least two or three (and on occasion as many as ten) of their order in that town, most evangelising efforts were carried out from their base in La Plata (present-day Sucre) to the southwest. Santa Cruz de la Sierra at the time was no more than a poor frontier settlement of some two hundred souls, and suffered repeated setbacks from disease, drought, and lack of resources.

The Jesuits staffed two other small towns (not missions) in the region, long since abandoned but at the time strategically important: San Lorenzo de la Barranca and San Francisco de Alfaro. The former became the official seat of Jesuit activity in the Chiquitania in 1699 for a short time before it was translated back to Santa Cruz de la Sierra.F7

– Part 7: Successes Outside the Chiquitania, The Arrival of Arce and the Search for the Road to Paraguay, A Fortuitous Mistake Decides Everything


1 Roberto Tomichá, OFMConv., La Primera Evangelización en las Reducciones de Chiquitos: Protagonistas y Metodología Misional (Cochabamba: Editorial Verbo Divino, 2002), pp. 53, 96.

2 There is considerable debate as to the differences between a doctrina and a reducción (as well as other similar terms such as encomienda, ranchería, and even pueblo). For the purposes of this article, reducción is used (except when referring to Juli), as this was the word most often employed by the Jesuits themselves in describing the Chiquitos missions. See Irene Vasquez, “Sources for the History of the Indigenous Peoples of North Mexico” (

3 Simon Ditchfield, “What Did Natural History Have to Do with Salvation?” in Studies in Church History, Vol. 46 (Suffolk, UK: Ecclesiastical History Society, 2010), p. 154.

4 Ibid.

5 There were three separate doctrinas in the vicinity of the town of Juli, which often were considered as one unit. See Menacho, S.J., Por Tierras de Chiquitos, p. 54-5; Ditchfield, op. cit., p. 156.

6 See Nino Gandarilla, ed., La Creación del Parque Nacional Histórico “Santa Cruz la Vieja” (Santa Cruz: Fundación Natura Viva, 2004).

7 Menacho, S.J., Por Tierras de Chiquitos, pp. 16-8, 24, 26.

Stay informed about Colonial Voyage