Every student at Canisius “should be required to take The Jesuit Mission in Latin America.” That’s the assertion of Allison M. Braun ’13, who was among the first group of students to sign up for the newly-offered course. Open to all majors, the core curriculum class takes undergraduates outside the classroom and into the heart of Argentina to examine one of the most remarkable chapters in Jesuit history.
“It was like reading a book and then watching its movie adaptation,” says Michael Christie ’14, a classics and pre-med major. “I could appreciate the places we visited in Argentina much more after first reading about them in class.”
The students’ pilgrimage began, appropriately, in Cόrdoba, where a small group of Jesuits, commissioned by the King of Spain, arrived in 1599. The Jesuits came to the Americas to propagate the Catholic faith but their evangelization efforts had a second, albeit equal, purpose.
“It was also a way for the Spanish crown to legitimize its occupation of and expansion in the newly-conquered lands of Spanish America,” says M. Fernanda Astiz, PhD, associate professor and director of Latin American studies. The Jesuits achieved their mission through what was a bold experiment in “religious colonization, education and economics,” adds Astiz, an Argentine native.
Their success is most evident along Cόrdoba’s 400-year old Jesuit Block. The religious complex once housed Argentina’s first university, a college, chapels, and student and priest residences for Spain’s elite settlers in the “New World.” The Jesuits financed the business of the Block through enterprising estancias (ranches).
“Estancias were large rural estates that the Jesuits acquired and each one specialized in its own trade,” says Braun. Agricultural, livestock, leather and wool estancias “provided the Jesuits with the economic resources they needed to operate their educational institutions”
The estancias similarly helped support the Jesuits’ important mission work with the Guaraní natives, whom they isolated into settlements called reductions.
“The Jesuits taught the Guaraní Christianity and exposed them to Western practices in farming, animal raising, painting, music, sculpture, and some reading and writing,” says Astiz. She and Margaret K. Stefanski, PhD, chair of modern languages, took students 15 hours north of Cόrdoba to visit San Ignacio Miní. Constructed in the 17th century, it is one of the most well-preserved Jesuit reductions in Argentina, and a testament to the order’s influence on architecture and innovation.
“Even in the ruins, I could see that their structures were a combination of aboriginal art and European baroque, and unlike anything I’ve ever seen,” says Braun, an art history, environmental studies and biology alumna.
“It was interesting to learn the logic behind the way Jesuits designed their establishments,” adds Christie. “They incorporated secret underground tunnels to provide defense and developed sewer systems that had running water powered by rain.”
History chronicles the Jesuit reductions as an experiment in creating a utopian society. But students, such as history major Brooke Angelos ‘15, aren’t convinced.
“Some people believe reductions were best for the Guaraní because the Jesuits educated them, taught them economically sustainable trades and provided them protection from Portuguese slave traders,” says Angelos. “Others believe the Jesuits forced Christian beliefs and European civilization on a native population.”
The thought-provoking nature of the Argentina trip was complemented by many opportunities for students to sightsee and engage in the country’s rich culture.
They traveled to Iguazú Falls, one of the most spectacular waterfalls in the world and one of the filming locations of the 1986 movie “The Mission.” Students also toured the Museum of Latin American Art in Buenos Aires and visited the Catedral Metropolitana, where Cardinal Jorge Bergolio served as archbishop from 1998 until his ascendancy to Pope Francis earlier this year. Students sampled Argentine cuisine and its many variations of asado (barbecued) beef; shopped in Palermo, the equivalent of New York City’s sophisticated SoHo neighborhood; learned to dance the tango and also how to survive in a Spanish-speaking country. But most significant, notes Allison Braun, “We learned about the Jesuit legacy in education, culture, society and the arts, and that’s something that is part of all Canisius students.”
Click here to watch Shamyr Toledo's digital story.
Click here to watch Brooke Angelos' digital story.