When considering the great religious sites of Brazil, the first thing most people think of is the massive statue of Christ the Redeemer with its arms outstretched as if embracing the city skyline from its perch on Mount Corcovado. This magnificent site, one of the best known symbols of Christianity in the world, was in fact included among the list of New Seven Wonders of the World. However, Brazil has a very rich history with sacred sites that go far beyond its famous icon, boasting some of the oldest and most popular religious destinations in the New World. These include churches dating back nearly five centuries, the oldest synagogue in the Americas, and the world’s largest Marian shrine.
Church of Saints Cosmas and Damian
The Church of Saints Cosmas and Damian (Sao Cosme e Damiao) is the oldest church in Brazil as well as the oldest Portuguese colonial church in the New World. It was completed in 1535, just three years after the first permanent Portuguese settlements were established in Brazil. The church went on to serve as the heart of a vibrant Catholic community in Igarassu, which became famous for its monasteries and convents.
Named for twin brothers who were martyred for their faith in Asia in the 3rd century, the Church of Saints Cosmas and Damian is a classic, excellent example of Portuguese colonial religious architecture. Of particular architectural interest is the beautiful and iconic bell tower which stands to the left of the main church building. A stone marker near the church commemorates the founding of the city by Duarte Coelho, who also oversaw construction of the church.
National Sanctuary of St. Jose de Anchieta
Anchieta, Espirito Santo
Jose de Anchieta was the first resident of Brazil who would later go on to become a saint in the Roman Catholic tradition. A Jesuit missionary who arrived in Brazil in 1553, Anchieta spent more than four decades of his life evangelizing in Brazil. He is credited with helping to found both the cities of Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo as well as being instrumental in challenging France for dominion of Brazil. He was canonized by the Roman Catholic Church in 2014, the 6th Brazilian to be so honored (despite being chronologically the first).
The National Sanctuary of St. Jose de Anchieta is located in a 17th century Jesuit monastery which now houses a museum to the saint’s life. It contains much of the art and appointments of the monastery, as well as important documents related to his life and work. The heart of the shrine is the cell where Jose de Anchieta spent much of his time and where he passed away.
Kahal Zur Israel Synagogue Museum
The Kahal Zur Synagogue was home to the first Jewish congregation in the New World. The first Jews to arrive in Brazil were probably Maranos, or Jews who had pretended to convert to Christianity to avoid persecution at the hands of the Inquisition. For about twenty years during the 17th century, much of northeastern Brazil came under the control of the Dutch, during which time the Jews were able to worship openly. The synagogue was constructed during this time. It continued to be active on and off for nearly three centuries.
The original synagogue was demolished in the early 1900s due to structural issues. However, in 2001 a new building was constructed on the site. An architectural homage to the old colonial synagogue, the new building serves as a museum with exhibits on the history of the local Jewish community. The museums greatest treasure is the remains of the original mikveh, or ritual, bath which was uncovered during an archaeological excavation.
Rio de Janeiro
The Candelaria Church is arguably the most historic church in Rio de Janeiro. It was founded as a chapel by sailors on the ship Candelaria which narrowly survived foundering during a storm. When it was reconstructed as a full-fledged church two centuries later, it was opened in 1811 under the auspices of the King of Portugal, who was in Brazil in exile from Napolean. In 1993, it was the site of a massacre that called worldwide attention to corruption in the city.
This magnificent church is one of the most beautiful in Brazil. Because of its size and grandeur it could easily be a cathedral. The final element to be completed, the dome, was not finished until the 1870s. At the time of its completion it was the tallest building in Rio de Janeiro. The interior has been redone several times, with an absolutely spectacular blending of styles as a result. The church’s various bronzework appointments are considered to be among the best in South America.
Basilica of the National Shrine of Our Lady of Aparecida
Aparecida, Sao Paulo
According to tradition, in 1717 three fisherman who were having a difficult day caught a statue of the Virgin Mary in their net. They subsequently had no further difficulties, bringing in record hauls of fish. In 1745 a chapel was constructed to commemorate the event. This was later replaced by a church and finally a full-fledged basilica. It has since become one of the preeminent Marian shrines in the world, and is now the most popular pilgrimage destination in South America.
Since its humble beginnings three centuries ago, the Basilica of Aparecida has become a massive affair. By some measures it is the second largest church in the world after St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. It was personally consecrated by Pope John Paul II and has been visited by two other popes as well. The original statue, which is believed to have been made by a monk from Sao Paulo, is still kept on the site and brought out for feast days and special occasions.