Magazine article Americas (English Edition)

Chiloe's Seaside Sanctuaries: Beautifully Integrated into the Environment, the Stunning Wooden Churches of This Chilean Island Are Monuments to the Rich Heritage and Spirit of This Nation

Magazine article Americas (English Edition)

Chiloe's Seaside Sanctuaries: Beautifully Integrated into the Environment, the Stunning Wooden Churches of This Chilean Island Are Monuments to the Rich Heritage and Spirit of This Nation

Article excerpt

A rugged outpost near the continent's end, the island of Chiloe is just the kind of place to test a person's resolve. And it has, for centuries. Its residents endure a rainy, stormy climate that seems to drench the island and everything on it in a penetrating solitude. To the eyes of the person who traverses the pastures, slopes, and cliffs of this place--the largest island in South America after Tierra del Fuego--it seems that even its many churches and chapels begin to appear like lighthouses in the mist. It should surprise no one that sailors over the years have navigated their way along the wrinkles and folds of Chiloe's coastline guided by the taller spires of some of these churches. Men of faith have always found their way to Chiloe.

More than eighty churches are situated along this island and archipelago of some 125 miles, the majority nestled in bays and inlets at the water's edge, as if to never lose sight of the first fact of life here, the meeting of land and sea. Most of them were first erected under the direction of the Jesuit missionaries who traveled and proselytized through the region in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, then saw additions and embellishments by the Franciscans in the nineteenth century. Recently, sixteen of Chiloe's churches were designated part of the Patrimony of Humanity by UNESCO, cited as unique examples of religious architecture in wood, a vibrant melding with native materials and craftsmanship.

Tucked into the inland sea, the provincial capital of Castro is the first stop for most area visitors. Residents here affectionately refer to their church, which was built the same year as the town's founding in 1567, as the "Cathedral of Castro." However, it was not always so well appreciated. In 1600, the Dutch pirate Baltasar de Cordes anchored his ship in front of the church and, after robbing the populace, launched an attack, setting fire to the church. It was soon rebuilt only to be razed once again in 1642, along with the entire town, by another Dutch pirate, Enrique Brouwer. Erected again in 1657, it was yet again destroyed by fire in 1772, at which point, a venerable Jesuit church became the main church of the community. That too was destroyed by fire in 1902. In 1910, construction on the present-day church was begun.

The next day, I headed out at dawn to a place set amid gentle hills stirred by a constant breeze off the Pacific Ocean. The mainland panorama could barely contain the looming curtain of the Andes Mountains. After a short drive, I arrived at the church of Nercon. In 1627, this place was an indigenous community of ragtag dwellings attached to the lands granted by the Spanish crown to Francisco Garcia de la Torre. Around 1734, a chapel was built. I approached it through a well-kept, traditional garden, through which a cemetery climbed part way up a hill. Its summit boasts a fine vantage point for viewing the steeple, comprising two octagonal drums, apparently rounded so as to better weather blustery winter winds. The spire is covered with shingles hewn from the larch tree, and the arches at the entryway are also sheathed in wood. Over the nave, segmented arches rest on cylindrical columns painstakingly painted to resemble marble. The artisans who created this structure had to toil within the mechanical constraints and natural limitations of local woods in order to create arches, friezes, cornices, and columns that elsewhere are the product of stone or brick masonry. I could have stayed there for hours; the longer I stayed, the larger my sense of awe grew.

The following morning my attention was drawn to the height, virtually unrivaled in Chiloe, of the church steeple of Vilupulli, an intriguing name that in the language of the indigenous Mapuche means "the serpent's hill." Located in a small village facing the coast, the church was constructed in the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century from cypress and coihue (southern beech), over a foundation, like those of many area churches, laid with locally quarried stones. …

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