The Jesuit missions
Between 1534 and 1773, the main Jesuit missions among non-Christian peoples were located in China and the Province of Paraquaria, founded in South America in 1604. At the time of its foundation, the latter extended through what are currently southern Paraguay, a northeastern portion of Argentina, Uruguay, part of Bolivia and Chile, and part of southern Brazil. The Paraquaria Province comprised thirty settlements called “Pueblos”, inhabited by Guarani groups.
There is a widely held notion that Jesuits sent astronomers to China, but mystics and artists to Paraquaria. However, the missions of Paraquaria received notable astronomers, such as Buenaventura Suarez. He went down in history as the first astronomer in the southern hemisphere to observe and take measurements of the celestial vault. His studies transcended the boundaries of the Plata basin and aroused the interest of scientists in Europe. He arrived at the missions in 1706 and settled in San Cosme and San Damián, currently at Paraguayan territory. His first telescope, installed in the bell tower of San Cosme’s church, consisted of a metal tube on a wooden frame, supported and carried around by harnesses and pulleys, and equipped with two convex lenses. With this telescope he completed his first observations, focusing on eclipses of the sun and moon. His best known work is the 1748 Lunario de un Siglo.
The missions among the Guarani people became a model for Catholic missionary activity. Several factors contributed to this. To begin with, the Jesuits tried to keep the Guarani separated from the Creole population, and thus founded their missions as villages independent from the colonial settlements. They also studied the Guarani language and traditions and tried to Christianize them by resignifying many of their practices and beliefs. The social life of the Guarani missions was strongly organized by the Jesuits, who sought to instate an “ideal society”, a utopia of what a Christian community should be like. In addition, Jesuits instructed the Guarani in European artistic disciplines, particularly music, painting and sculpture. Finally, the large-scale cultivation of yerba mate (Ilex paraguariensis), the establishment of a solidarity network among missions and the local production of numerous manufactures, provided significant economic autonomy and, consequently, independence from the civil power.