San José de Chiquitos mission (1697), Bolivia. Photo Copyright by Geoffrey A. P. Groesbeck
San José de Chiquitos mission (1697), Bolivia. Photo Copyright by Geoffrey A. P. Groesbeck

San Xavier: The First Jesuit Reducción in Chiquitos, The Passing of Arce and the Closing of the Road to Paraguay, Additional Jesuit Missions in Chiquitos. 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 7: Successes Outside the Chiquitania, The Arrival of Arce and the Search for the Road to Paraguay, A Fortuitous Mistake Decides Everything

San Xavier: The First Jesuit Reducción in Chiquitos

Nonetheless, on the feast of St. Sylvester – 31 December 16911 – Arce and Rivas founded the first Chiquitos reducción, San Francisco Xavier de los Piñocas (now San Xavier or San Javier) for the Piñocas, a sub-group of the Chiquitano. A fortnight later the first Mass there was held in a rudimentary church the Jesuits and Piñocas began constructing the day the settlement was founded.2

This was the only Jesuit reducción in Bolivia co-founded by a religious brother. It was rebuilt on three occasions before settling into its present form in 1706. Its first site (and current location) is approximately 215 kilometres northeast of Santa Cruz de la Sierra. Many accounts omit that the two Jesuits were nearly dead of starvation and almost certainly lost when befriended by the Piñocas. They could not have travelled much further in any case and so the settlement arose where it did.

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

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

Ironically, the Piñocas did not hail from the area immediately surrounding the new settlement, but inhabited the grassy country closer to the original settlement of Santa Cruz de la Sierra (near what is present-day San José de Chiquitos). Arce felt the new settlement was a better choice geographically, and decided not to heed their request for establishing a mission in their ancestral grounds. As a result, the Piñocas for the most part complacently trekked westward to San Xavier, eventually abandoning their earlier territory.3

Arce remained in San Xavier for more than a decade, evangelising the Chiquitano and Chiriguano as padre superior de las misiones (provincial for the Chiquitos missions) until 1693F4, after which he was succeeded by Fr. Juan Bautista de Zea, who himself served two terms (1693-5 and 1713-4) in the position. Zea was later to co-found no less than three Chiquitos missions. In 1715, Arce again was charged with the long-postponed task of opening a route between Chiquitos and Paraguay.5

The Passing of Arce and the Closing of the Road to Paraguay

In that year, Arce and another Jesuit, Fr. Bartolóme de Blende, struck out from Asunción, hoping again to follow the course of the Río Paraguay and reach the Jesuit reducción of San Rafael de Velasco, which had been provisionally founded in 1695 and permanently settled the following year by Frs. Juan Bautista Zea and Francisco Herbás. After a journey fraught with mistake and misery, they eventually succeeded, but opted to forge a new trail on the return to Asunción.

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

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 Paraguay6. In December of the same year, still en route to Asunción and almost exactly 25 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 in San Rafael de Velasco to recount what had happened.7

The road between the missions of Chiquitos and Guaraní remained officially closed, both by order of the viceroys in Lima and the Jesuits’ provincial generals in Paraguay. Nonetheless, the indomitable Fr. Ignacio Chomé – who played important roles in the missions of San Ignacio de Zamucos and Concepción and whose letters are crucial testimonies to life in the reducciones – tried his luck and failed twice, in 1735 and 1737.8 It was not until 1767 – the year of the Extrañamiento – that Fr. José Sánchez Labrador successfully crossed the Río Paraguay, setting out from Belén in Paraguay, and arrived in the recently founded settlement of Santo Corazón.9

Yet even this achievement fell short of the original goal of opening a road that stretched from Santa Cruz de la Sierra to Asunción. As Menacho notes, the inability of the government to link the two territories carried over to when Bolivia and Paraguay became independent nation states. Almost two centuries 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.10

Additional Jesuit Missions in Chiquitos

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

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

Over the seven decades following the founding of San Francisco Xavier de los Piñocas, eleven more Jesuit missions followed, in two distinct periods of settlement separated by a quarter-century. These two periods encompassed the foundation of seven reducciones between 1695 and 1722, and another four between 1748 and 1760, with Santo Corazón de Jesús de Chiquitos (now Santo Corazón) as the last, settled in 1760, seven years before the Extrañamiento.

A comprehensive history of each individual mission is beyond the scope of this article. Reliable information (in Spanish and German for the most part) on each reducción exists and may be found elsewhere, including lengthy accounts throughout well-known works such as Querejazu’s Las Misiones Jesuíticas de Chiquitos, Tomichá’s La Primera Evangelización en las Reducciones de Chiquitos: Protagonistas y Metodología Misional, and, most recently, Chiquitos en las Anuas de la Compañía de Jesús (1691-1767), by Combès, Matienzo, Page, and Tomichá. For an online treatment of each mission individually, the reader is referred to the author’s Web site, found online at http://www.chiquitania.com.

– Part 9: The First Period: 1691-1722, San Juan Bautista, From San Juan Bautista to San Juan Nuevo and Taperas de San Juan, Concepción and San Ignacio de Boococas, San Ignacio de Zamucos

NOTES:

1 Carlos Page, Isabelle Combès, W. Javier Matienzo, and Roberto Tomichá, OFMConv., Chiquitos en las Anuas de la Compañía de Jesús (1691-1767), (Cochabamba: Itinerarios Editorial, 2011), p. 26.

2 E, Burges, S.J., Informes sobre las Misiones de Chiquitos, Paraná y Uruguay”, in Diego Davin, Cartas edificantes y curiosas de las misiones extranjeras y de Levante, por algunos misioneros de la Compañía de Jesús (Madrid: Manuel Fernández, 1755), Vol. V, p. 400.

3 Pedro Francisco Xavier de Charlevoix, S.J., Historia del Paraguay (Paris: Desaint, 1756), Vol. IV, p. 176.

4 Tomichá C., OFMConv., op. cit., p. 154.

5 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.

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

7 Gott, op. cit., p. 175.

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

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

10 Ibid.

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