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

How Did the Jesuits of Chiquitos Communicate with the Jesuits of Paraguay? 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 3: Who Constructed the Mission Churches?

How Did the Jesuits of Chiquitos Communicate with the Jesuits of Paraguay?

A frequent assumption still made by many writers today is that the Jesuits stationed in Chiquitos were in regular communication with their brethren in Paraguay.

On the surface, it certainly seems plausible, given that the distance between the two mission fields was not insurmountable and each group had excellent reasons for wanting to remain in constant communication with each other. The Jesuits in the Chiquitania were able to maintain relations with colleagues in far-away Lima, as well as closer to home with those in Moxos and the cities of Chacras or La Plata (now Sucre) and Tarija, so why not with their fellow-labourers in Paraguay also?

Establishing a viable land or water route between Santa Cruz de la Sierra and Asunción was a longstanding, crucial goal of the Spanish colonial administration, first attempted in the days of the conquistadores. It was also an equally cherished objective shared by the Jesuit leadership. Its importance cannot be understated.1 As such, the route should have been opened long before it was undertaken in earnest at the close of the seventeenth century.

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

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

Yet the reality was very different. The Chiquitos missions were isolated from those of Paraguay from the start and remained so for the entire time that the Jesuits were resident in the Chiquitania. In spite of numerous attempts and much loss of life, no definitive connexion was established until just before the expulsion of the Order, when in 1766 Fr. José Sánchez Labrador travelled from the Paraguayan mission of Nuestra Señora de Belén to Santo Corazón without incident.2 Even then the route was tenuous at best.

To this day, there remains no direct year-round route between eastern Bolivia and Paraguay. Only the occasional bus in the dry season makes the trip across the wastes of the barren High Chaco, crossing the Río Paraguay far to the south of the envisioned route of the Jesuits and completely avoiding their intended river of crossing, the Río Pilcomayo.

The passage was seen as essential in ensuring communication between the mission establishments on either side of the Río Paraguay, as well providing a commercial link between the garrisons and cities of the Audiencia of Lima to the west and those of the Audiencia of Charcas to the east. Establishing this road also would mean that the isolated Jesuit settlements of the Chiquitania could be better protected by Spanish troops in the face of Portuguese militias and slave traders (the latter known as bandeirantes or mamelucos) encroaching from Brazil.

The Way Forward

Campanario, Concepción mission, Bolivia. Photo Copyright by Geoffrey A. P. Groesbeck

Campanario, Concepción mission, Bolivia. Photo Copyright by Geoffrey A. P. Groesbeck

A way forward was possible, and actually had been achieved more than two centuries before Labrador’s crossing. In 1548, Ñuflo de Chávez became the first Spaniard to traverse the Chiquitania, en route to Lima from Asunción.3 He survived to tell the tale, and in one of the world’s truly epic journeys, repeated the trek ten years later. But men of the stature of Chávez were few and far between, and in spite of his feat, the route between the two regions was not successfully established. By the time the Jesuit Fr. Arce arrived upon the scene some 150 years after Chávez, re-opening it had become one of the highest priorities for both secular and spiritual powers in the region.4

In 1690, the year before the first Jesuit mission in the Chiquitania (San Xavier) was established, Fr. José Francisco de Arce, newly arrived from the missions of Paraguay via the outpost of Tarija, soon to be named the first superior of the Chiquitos missions,5 was chosen by his superiors in Europe to act as a catalyst for Jesuit expansion throughout the Archdiocese of La Plata and beyond.

A less spiritual mandate also attached: to find the long-abandoned route and establish reducciones between isolated Santa Cruz de la Sierra and the Guaraní missions of Paraguay, possibly via the Chiriguano-held territories, but almost certainly via the Río Pilcomayo. Authorities in Lima initially claimed the responsibility as theirs, but, busy with efforts in Moxos and elsewhere, could only protest ineffectually against Arce’s commission. The matter dragged on for 16 years until 1706, when the Jesuit Superior General Michelangelo Tamburini ruled in favour of Arce’s mission, definitively ending the debate.6

As the co-founder of the first Chiquitos mission and then superior for the region, Arce’s intended journey had to wait several years. Finally, in 1715 he again was charged with the long-postponed task of opening a route between Chiquitos and Paraguay. 7

Success and Failure

Escalera, Concepción mission, Bolivia. Photo Copyright by Geoffrey A. P. Groesbeck

Escalera, Concepción mission, Bolivia. Photo Copyright by Geoffrey A. P. Groesbeck

In that year, Arce and another Jesuit, Fr. Bartolóme de Blende, struck out from Asunción. They hoped to follow not the course of the Río Pilcomayo, but of the Río Paraguay. Their goal was to reach the Jesuit reducción of San Rafael de Velasco, which had been founded in 1696. After a journey fraught with mistake and misery, they eventually succeeded – the first successful crossing in more than 150 years – but opted to forge a new trail on the return to Asunción.

Along the way their luck ran out. In September of 1716, Blende was killed by the hostile Payaguá, somewhere in the desolate Gran Chaco in northwestern Paraguay8. In December of the same year, still en route to Asunción and almost exactly 24 years to the day he co-founded the first Chiquitos reducción of San Xavier, Arce met his end, also at the hands of the Payaguá. Their bodies were never recovered. It was not until 1718 that four surviving Guaraní guides arrived back in San Rafael de Velasco to recount what had happened.9

As a result, the road between the missions of Chiquitos and the Guaraní was immediately officially closed, both by order of the viceroy in Lima and the Jesuits’ provincial general in Paraguay. Nonetheless, others tried.

The indomitable Fr. Ignacio Chomé – who played important roles in the missions of San Ignacio de Zamucos and Concepción, and whose letters are vivid and crucial testimonies to life in the reducciones – tried his luck and failed twice, in 1735 and 1737.10 In a moment of supreme irony, it was not until December of 1766 that Fr. José Sánchez Labrador successfully crossed the Río Paraguay and opened the route once and for all.

Yet even this achievement fell far short of the original goal of a road that stretched from Santa Cruz de la Sierra to Asunción. As Menacho notes, the inability of the royal and colonial governments (and the Jesuits) to link the two territories carried over to when Bolivia and Paraguay became independent nation states. Some 170 years after Labrador’s feat, Bolivia’s frustration with lack of access to the Atlantic Ocean via the Río Paraguay was a direct cause of the Chaco War.11 To this day, the riparian rights of Bolivia on the Río Paraguay and its tributaries remain closely monitored by its naval and military forces (Bolivia’s largest naval base is located in the region and river patrols are ongoing), and form a series of tense and continuous negotiations between its government and those of Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay.

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


1 See Menacho, S.J., Fundación de las Reducciones Chiquitos, pp. 23-8.

2 Menacho, S.J., op. cit., p. 26.

3 Gott, op. cit., pp. 155-62, passim.

4 Tomichá, OFMConv., op. cit., pp. 101-08.

5 See chart “Jesuit Reducciones in the Chiquitania” above.

6 Juan Patricio Fernández, S.J., Relación historial de las Misiones de Indios Chiquitos que en el Paraguay tienen los padres de la Compañía de Jesús (Madrid: 1727), Vol. I, p. 45.; Antonio Astrain, S.J., Historia de la Compañía de Jesús en la Asistencia de España, Vol. VI (Madrid: Razón y Fe, 1912), p. 717.

7 Guillermo Furlong C., S.J., “De la Asunción a los Chiquitos por el Río Paraguay: Tentativa frustrada en 1703. ‘Breve relación’ inédita del P. José Francisco de Arce” in Archivum Historicum Societatis Jesu, VIII (Rome: Company of Jesus, 1938), pp. 54-79; Querejazu, op. cit., p. 309.

8 Not in the Chiquitania, as some sources erroneously claim.

9 Gott, op. cit., p. 175.

10 Charlevoix, S.J., op. cit., Vol. VI, p. 58.

11 Ibid.

About Marco Ramerini

I have published some writings on the history of geographical exploration and colonialism, particularly on the spice islands, the Moluccas. I have designed and written some internet sites including the site dedicated to the history of geographical exploration and colonialism. Then the site dedicated to my region: Tuscany. As well as many other travel sites in different languages. Traveler, writer of online tourist guides. I research and write about history. Finally I am passionate about astronomy and photography.