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Churches in Olinda

January 29, 2009
Igreja São Bento Altar

Igreja São Bento Altar

Churches in Olinda date from the early 16th Century, and there are an incredible number contained in a very small area. It is largely because of their importance that Olinda gained the status of a UNESCO World Heritage Site. But why are there so many?

The village of Olinda established 1537, and under the captaincy of Durante Coelho, thrived for a century. This was largely due to the use of indigenous and African slaves in the felling of Brazilwood, and later the production of sugar.  African slaves were one group of immigrants, and the second group, religious orders of the Catholic Church, were encouraged to undertake missions to indoctrinate the first immigrant group and the natives.

Missions by several orders arrived in Olinda, starting with the Carmelites (1580). They were soon followed by the Jesuits (1583), Franciscans (1585), and Benedictines (1586). The history of most churches in Olinda can be traced to this era and explains why there are so many here and in Recife.

While most churches date from the 16th century, the buildings, as they stand today, are largely the result of rebuilding or restorations carried out after the Dutch were expelled in 1654. The Dutch had burned Olinda soon after their successful invasion in 1630.

Associated with the churches of Olinda are the first Faculty of Law in Brazil, established in the building to the left of the São Bento church, and the first hospital in Brazil (1540), called the Santa Casa de Misericórdia (Holy House of Mercy). The churches are home to some of the finest works of art, such as the altar at São Bento church. Considered one of the best examples of Baroque craftsmanship. it was exhibited at the Guggenheim Museum, after being dismantled and re-assembled by specialists in a process that took months.

Convent of Saint Francisco (Convento de São Francisco)

Convent of São Francisco

Convent of São Francisco

The Convento de São Francisco (1577) was the first Franciscan monestary in Brazil. It is part of a complex which includes the Igreja de Nossa Senhora das Neves, the Chapel of Saint Roque and the Cloister of Azulejos (Blue Tiles). It also houses one of the finest collections of ancient books and manuscripts in Brazil.

Church of Carmo (Igreja do Carmo)

Igreja do Carmo

Igreja do Carmo

This was the first church of the Order of Carmalites in Brazil. It´s construction began in 1580, and it was consecrated 40 years later in 1620. The central part of the altar has a baroque image of Saint Anthony supported by images of the founders of the Order of Carmelites, Saint Elias and Saint Eliseu.

The church was closed to visitors in 2006 and a restoration project by the Brazilian Institute for the Administration of National Heritage (IPHAN) began. The project has been painfully slow and plagued by controversy over structural changes not thought to be in keeping with the original architecture.

Church of Saint Peter (Igreja de São Pedro)

Igreja de São Pedro

Igreja de São Pedro

The church of the Apostol Saint Peter was built in the second half of the 18th century. It was the second church of the Order of Saint Peter, the first, built in 1711, having been dedicated to Saint Peter the Martyr.

Church of the Good Hour (Igreja da Boa Hora)

The name of the church is a euphemistic reference to the time of a person’s death and was probably a place of mourning. It is one of the smallest churches in Olinda, established as an oratory in 1750, before becoming a church in 1760. An inscription dated 1860 indicates the last restoration.

Church of Mercy (Igreja da Misericórdia)

Igreja da Misericórdia

Igreja da Misericórdia

The Church of Mercy is the official name of the Church of Our Lady of Illumination. Both the church and adjoining hospital were built in 1540. The Hospital, named Santa Casa de Misericódia (Holy House of Mercy), was the first in Brazil.

The location of the church is Alto da Misericórdia (Heights of Mercy, at the top of one of the steepest slopes in Olinda called the Ladeira da Misericórdia (Ladder of Mercy).

It has the second most ornate altar in Olinda (after São Bento). From floor to ceiling it is covered with masterpieces. Near the main entrance, a wall is covered with Portuguese tiles from the 17th century.

Church of Conception (Igreja da Conceição)

Igreja da Conceição

Igreja da Conceição

The Church and Convent of Our Lady of Conception was built in the 16th century, but abandoned during the period of Dutch rule. For centuries the convent served as a shelter for abandoned women. Currently it is home to the Irmãs Dorotéas (Sisters of Dorothy), the most reclusive Order in Olinda, who have no contact with the outside world, not even for medical assistance.

Igreja de Sé

Igreja de Sé

Church of Sé (Igreja da Sé)

The Official name is the Church of Saint Savior of the World. The word , refers to the fact that it has been the Cathedral of Olinda and Recife since 1676 and is therefore the most important church in the area.

Built in 1535 by the Dutch, it was later transformed into a Protestant temple during the period of Dutch rule, then later returned to being a Catholic church. The patio to the right of the church is said to be the point from which the Portuguese Captain Durante Coelho made his exclamation “What a beautiful site to build a village” (“Ô linda situação para construer uma vila”), the origin of the name of the city, Olinda.

The church is one of the least ornate due to several reconstructions, but it is believd that the main columns are of the original church and are constructed of stone from the reefs offshore.

Church of the Protector (Igreja do Amparo)

amparoThe official name is the Church of Our Lady of Shelter (or Protection). It was established between 1550-60 by young scholars and musicians. One altar is dedicated to Christ and the other to Saint Cecilia, protector of musicians. It was destroyed during the burining of Olinda by the Dutch in 1631, and the date 1644 on the façade refes to the date re-construction began.

Church of Saint John (Igreja de São João)

Igreja de São João

Igreja de São João

The Church of Saint John of the Military was built during the second half of the 16th century. It is a simple church with one tower with a similarly humble altar. It is one of the few churches that escaped the burning of Olinda by the Dutch and was used as a headquarters by the Dutch army.

Church of the Rosary of the Black Men of Olinda (Igreja do Rosário)

Igreja do Rosário

Igreja do Rosário

This church was one of the first in Brazil to be built by a brotherhood of black slaves during the first half of the 17th Century. At the time black slaves were not permitted to profess their religions and were not allowed to enter Catholic churches. Instead they met in groups around churches in celebrations called Congos, as a means to maintim their African beliefs. Over time they adopted the canons of the Catholic church, adapting them to their own beliefs in a process known as religious syncretism. The church is relatively simple, yet one of the most interesting. Ancient statues of saints with familiar names can be seen, but as black, not white, figures,.

Church and Monastery of Saint Benedict (Igreja e Mosteiro de São Bento)

Igreja São Bento

Igreja São Bento

Built by the Benedictine order in the 16th century, this church is one of the most impressive in Olinda. It has a magnificently ornate altar in gold, one of the finest Baroque examples in the world. In 2003 it was dismantled over a period of months to be transferred and exhibited in the Guggenheim Mueum. Today it is back in its rightful place.

The church has a mezzanine floor typical of the colonial times when the rich attended mass on the mezzanine, free people on the ground floor, and slaves outside.

The building to the left of the church was the first Faculty of Law in Brazil, established on May 15th 1828. In 1852 it was transferred to the Governor’s Palace.

Church of Miracles (Igreja dos Milagres)

A folk legend says that during a period of drought a natural source of water was found in the middle of the mangrove by a cow. This was considered a miracle. The digging of a well in the same spot supplied the city with water. It is one of the simplest churches in Olinda, located in the Square of Miracles in a neighborhood called Miracles (Milagres).

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