Buenos Aires, Argentina
No city in the world boasts more basilicas, or other sites of Catholic interest, than Rome. While this probably does not come as a surprise, what might is the city that takes the number two spot. It’s not in Italy, or even in Europe. It’s not even located in the two Catholic giants of the Western Hemisphere, Brazil or Mexico. It is, strangely, Buenos Aires. Here, in barely over a century between 1898 and 2002, no less than fifteen churches have been designated as basilicas. Although all are worth visiting in their own right, two outstanding ones are mentioned here: the Basilica of Our Lady of the Rosary; and the Basilica of Our Lady of the Pillar.
Christianity arrived in Argentina with Spanish explorers in the 16th century. However, it took another three hundred years for Buenos Aires to begin to establish itself as one of the Western Hemisphere’s dominant Catholic pilgrimage destinations. This is due in part to Argentina’s relative isolation from the rest of the Spanish colonial empire, and the relatively small European population it had for most of its early history. It is also due in part to the minimal efforts that the Jesuits and other missionary groups put into this distant territory.
Whatever the reason, Argentina simply never enjoyed the great colonial era church building boom that was so prevelant in Mexico, Peru and the other Spanish territories of Latin America. The lack of native empires in Argentina which provided not only cheap labor but readily available building materials might also have had something to do with it. This began to change in the 18th century, when the city’s Metropolitan Cathedral was completely rebuilt to accommodate the fast growing population.
By the end of the 19th century, Argentina had developed into the wealthiest and most vigorous country in Latin America, and the fantastic church building boom began. The first wave took place at the height of the Belle Epoque, which saw the dedications of Our Lady of Succor in 1898; Our Lady of the Rosary in 1909; St. John of the Flowers in 1911; the Holy Sacrament in 1916; Our Lady of Mercy in 1917; and St. Francis, along with the Convent of St. Ursula and the 11,000 Virgins, in 1918.
The second wave occurred in the 1930s, and helped to provide employment to many Argentinians during the Great Depression. Basilicas dedicated during the pre-war years include Our Lady of Buenos Aires in 1935; Our Lady of the Pillar in 1936; St, Nicholas of Bari in 1937; the Sacred Heart of Jesus in 1939; the Holy Spirit in 1939; St. Charles Borromeo and Mary Help of Christians in 1941; and St. Rose of Lima in 1941. Finally, two additional basilicas were dedicated in the post-war era: St. Anthony of Padua in 1963 and Our Lady of Piety in 2002.
Without going into detail of all of Buenos Aires’ basilicas here, two are outstanding in terms of importance and popularity. The first is the Basilica of Our Lady of the Rosary. Originally built in the 1750s as the Church of Santo Domingo, it was renovated and rededicated to Our Lady of the Rosary in the 19th century. Much of the earlier church is still intact, although it bears the marks of war. In 1806, British troops attempted to conquer Buenos Aires. Although the invasion was unsuccessful, there are still small bullet craters marking the bell tower. Captured British banners are on display inside the church.
The city’s other outstanding basilica is Our Lady of the Pillar. Construction on this church complex was begun in the 18th century by Franciscan missionaries, and is one of the finest baroque buildings in the city. It was continually expanded and finally dedicated in 1936. Among the most memorable decorations is the main altar, which was cast from Peruvian silver.
Buenos Aires’ basilicas are scattered throughout the city, although most are clustered close to the city center just west of the Metropolitan Cathedral and the Plaza de Mayo. Our Lady of the Rosary is located in this neighborhood. Our Lady of the Pillar is further from the center on northeast side of the city, close to the Plaza Francia. No visitor information was available at the time of this writing. Web: www.turismo.gov.ar (official tourism website of Argentina)
In addition to the 20th century basilicas mentioned above, Buenos Aires does also boast a number of other historic churches. The city’s main church remains the Metropolitan Cathedral. The Church of St. Ignatius is believed to be the oldest church still in use in Buenos Aires. The Church of Our Lady of Belen was built by the Jesuits and is home to one of the country’s oldest chapels.